As Cecilia Silva-Valenzuela settled into her new work home after a recent move from Boston to Valdivia, Chile, she unpacked several new prized possessions: centrifuges, shakers, pipettors, a spectrophotometer, and other essential scientific tools. These instruments helped Silva-Valenzuela, a 2016 Pew Latin American fellow, outfit her lab at the Centro de Estudios Científicos, the nonprofit research institution in her native country that she joined in January to help establish a microbiology program.
The center “was very open to the idea of having me jump-start the program,” she said. “I was able to purchase almost everything I needed to get my lab running with the support from Pew.”
Silva-Valenzuela’s new job marks the beginning of her independent research career—a major milestone for any young scientist—and returning to Chile only adds to her excitement. She is one of the first 2016 Pew fellows to head back to Latin America, but journeys like hers are common among fellowship alumni—and represent one of the program’s core measures of success.
Started in 1991, the Pew Latin American Fellows Program in the Biomedical Sciences provides funds to help promising biomedical researchers from the region secure postdoctoral positions with leading scientists in the United States, who mentor and train the fellows for two or more years.
Those who return to Latin America to set up their own labs receive an additional $70,000 from the Pew program to buy equipment and supplies; about 7 in 10 have taken advantage of this incentive. Their collective impact on Latin America’s scientific community includes publishing more than 2,000 studies, taking leadership roles in academia and government, and training an average of nearly 10 scientists each.
Silva-Valenzuela applied for the program at the recommendation of a friend in the 2013 class of Latin American fellows. She looked for established researchers with similar interests and sent inquiries to more than a half-dozen in her search for a U.S. sponsor (a fellowship application requirement). Her outreach extended to labs that were not advertising postdoctoral positions, a tactic that ultimately landed her a job in the lab of Andrew Camilli, a 1997 Pew biomedical scholar at Tufts University.
“My postdoctoral experience in the U.S. was more than what I expected,” Silva-Valenzuela said. She published articles in two prestigious journals about Vibrio cholerae, the bacterium responsible for more than 1 million cholera cases a year.
Her experiences outside the lab also proved important. She helped teach a microbiology course with Camilli at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, traveled to Bangladesh to learn firsthand how he and local research partners conducted fieldwork, and participated in scientific conferences that helped shape the course of her research—and set her career path.
“All these experiences allowed me to learn from others and to create a network of possible collaborators in the future,” Silva-Valenzuela explained.
She said her fellowship years prepared her for the opportunities and potential challenges ahead as she builds the microbiology program at the Centro de Estudios Científicos. An early priority will be following up on intriguing data, produced near the end of her postdoctoral studies, on V. cholerae’s survival strategies in aquatic environments. Chile’s coastal waters afford places to investigate the bacterium in its natural setting.
Silva-Valenzuela will also expand her research to other Vibrio species and explore how they develop resistance to harsh environmental conditions and to therapeutic chemical and biological agents, vital work in developing measures to prevent cholera’s spread in places most susceptible to outbreaks. Finally, when the school year starts in March, she looks forward to recruiting students to work and train with her.
“I believe I would not be where I am today if not for my training experience in the fellows program,” she said. From her new lab in Chile, Silva-Valenzuela is well-positioned to contribute scientific discoveries and leadership that can improve human health in her home country and around the world.
Kara Coleman directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ biomedical programs, including the biomedical scholars, Pew-Stewart Scholars for Cancer Research, and Latin American fellows programs.