Gonzalez, now a senior, worked in the lab of Dr. Thomas Südhof, who was one of three scientists awarded with the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in October for his work in the discovery of machinery regulating vesicle traffic, a major transport system in our cells.
The research that Gonzalez was involved with could have major implications in tackling questions that involve a number of diseases that involve the brain, including autism, Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s.
When she got a text message breaking the news the morning Südhof was announced as a recipient of the award, it came as little shock to her.
“I was not surprised at all,” Gonzalez said. “I knew that would mean a lot for anyone who has ever worked for him and everyone coming out of that lab. Everyone knew that his research was a big deal.”
Gonzalez – and approximately 50 others who worked in Südhof’s lab – was assigned to work with a particular component of the machinery that Südhof discovered. She worked on the RIM binding protein, a type of protein that binds to other proteins, but is not fully functioning in autistic patients.
Südhof specifically revealed how signals instruct vesicles to release their cargo with precision when neurons – or nerve cells that specialize in transmitting information throughout the body – send a chemical messenger, called a neurotransmitter, to relay messages to other neurons.
“Understanding how neurotransmitters are released is crucial to understanding the brain,” Gonzalez said. “In order to understand the diseases of the brain, we have to understand how it functions.”
The opportunity to travel across the country to conduct research came through the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), which funded her summer work in 2012 and 2013.
Gonzalez’s first summer involved a number of different seminars and activities that helped sharpen her presentation skills, lab techniques and helped her get acquainted with her new surroundings. This past summer, however, she spent long hours in the lab, often coming in at 8 a.m. and staying there late into the night, sometimes until 2 a.m.
“It was kind of stressful and it took its toll on me,” Gonzalez said. “But it gave me maturity as a scientist and gave me a better idea of what to expect.”
When she came back to FIU for the current fall semester, she was awarded first place for her oral presentation at the 2013 MARC U*STAR & MBRS RISE Mini-Symposium. She talked about her research at Stanford under Südhof and she credits what they taught her outside the lab for her ability to communicate her ideas and research.
“I think that everything I gained in terms of professional development is the best thing that has ever happened to me because it is so translatable,” Gonzalez said. “A person can be extremely smart but if they don’t deliver a presentation in the right techniques it’s not going to go anywhere.”
The experience also provided Gonzalez with clarity as she prepares to take the next step in her education and her eventual career in the medical field. She intends on getting her M.D.-Ph.D. in neurophysiology – a branch of physiology dealing with the functions of the nervous system – and would like to go to Stanford to do so.
“Dr. Südhof said, ‘If you ever need a place to go, you’re welcome here,’” Gonzalez said. “It showed me he was interested in my work and my development as a young scientist. If I can get in, that’s where I would like to be.”