Graduate student Natasha Méndez Albelo is awarded fellowship from the UW-Madison Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Center

By Charlene N. Rivera-Bonet | Waisman Science Writer

Natasha Méndez Albelo
Natasha Méndez Albelo

Natasha Méndez Albelo, graduate student in the lab of Waisman investigator Xinyu Zhao, PhD, was awarded the competitive SCRMC Graduate Training Award from the UW-Madison Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Center. This award recognizes and provides support and unique training opportunities to promising graduate students doing research in stem cell and regenerative medicine.

Méndez Albelo, who is a graduate student in molecular and cellular pharmacology, joined Zhao’s lab in 2021 with little to no experience in stem cell research, but worked her way into becoming an expert. “When she joined the lab, she had very little experience but she really wanted to work on stem cells. So, she learned from scratch,” says Zhao, Jenni & Kyle Professor in Novel Neurodevelopmental Diseases and professor of neuroscience. “She’s eager to learn. And if she doesn’t know, she asks. She doesn’t hesitate to ask questions and if you teach her something, she’s a quick learner,” Zhao adds.

Originally from Puerto Rico, Méndez Albelo obtained a bachelor’s degree in cellular and molecular biology from the Ana G. Méndez University – Cupey campus. As an undergrad she did research on drug screenings for leukemia, but her dream was to study neuroscience. However, opportunities to do so were scarce at her institution.

For two summers, Méndez Albelo did research at Michigan State University, studying behavior and psychology, which allowed her to dip her toes in the field of neuroscience. “But I always knew that I wanted to do something more molecular,” says Méndez Albelo. It was in graduate school when she really dove in. “She systematically became a really good experimenter and master of stem cell biology,” Zhao says.

Her current research project looks at an RNA binding protein called FXR1, which is similar to the FMRP protein, the main cause of fragile X syndrome. Using human induced pluripotent stem cells (IPSC) converted into neurons, Méndez Albelo looks at the basic biology of the protein such as its function and how it regulates neural development. “We have already found that it is indeed an important regulator of development. Specifically, knocking down FXR1 significantly impairs neural progenitor cell proliferation and maturation of neurons,” Méndez Albelo says. But there is still a lot more left to do in order to understand how FXR1 regulates neurodevelopment.

“There’s not enough information about this protein,” Zhao says. “Getting this funding from a stem cell center to actually fund her work, really gives us an opportunity to show this gene is important.”

In addition to a year of funding and training, the SCRMC Research Training Award provides networking and professional development opportunities. Mendez Albelo believes that obtaining this fellowship will pave the road for her career development as well as open the door for more funding in this research area in the future.

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