Season 5 - Episode 518
As an organic chemist, Liela Romero creates “recipes” from naturally occurring molecules that could lead to the discovery of future cancer drugs. In this Baylor Connections, Dr. Romero, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry, takes listeners inside her journey from attending Baylor as a student to prestigious graduate education experiences and back to Baylor to serve as a faculty member, researcher and mentor.
Derek Smith:Hello, and welcome to Baylor Connections, a conversation series with the people shaping our future. Each week, we go in depth with Baylor leaders, professors and more, discussing important topics in higher education, research and student life. I'm Derek Smith. And today we are talking with Liela Romero. Dr. Romero returned to her alma mater in 2020 as assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry. She's an organic chemist and Baylor professor whose research focuses on developing selective synthetic strategies with applications in the development of novel anti-cancer therapeutics. A coveted grant supporter to move to the Baylor faculty, the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, better known as CPRIT, provided 2 million in funding to establish her career here in Texas. A 2011 Baylor graduate, she participated in undergraduate research at Baylor with Dr. Kevin Pinney before pursuing postgraduate work. And she came back here two years ago. It's great to have you on the program today. Thanks so much for joining us.
Liela Romero:Thank you so much for the invitation.
Derek Smith:Well, it's exciting to hear about your research and a neat story too in having been a student here at Baylor, and then you had plenty of opportunities to start your independent academic career many places, and you came back here. So, we got to talk about that and learn more about what you do. But to start off, so you've been back here almost two years now, what's it like? Broad question, what's it like being back at your alma mater?
Liela Romero:Almost two years. This July will be two years officially. So, it's been really great to be back. And even just recently seeing some of the events that I cherished so much as an undergraduate student, like Diadeloso coming back since everything kind of was put on pause for the pandemic. It's been really great to start to participate in these activities that I fondly remember as when I was a undergraduate student here.
Derek Smith:When you're working with your students, how much of yourself do you see in them?
Liela Romero:Probably more so than I ever thought that I would. Only because, and this is specifically toward graduate students in the group, so these are students who have already obtained their bachelor of science degrees, and they've committed to, on average, a five-year study in order to obtain a PhD in chemistry. So, just considering where they started in the lab, and where they are now and that journey that they've taken just in under two years. I see a lot of when I was a young graduate student working for a new PI, a lot of the similar struggles and triumphs that they're also starting to experience in their careers.
Derek Smith:That's exciting. And we all are doing important work. So, let's talk about that. As I described at the beginning of the show, kind of the website version of developing selective synthetic strategies with applications for novel anti-cancer therapeutics. So, let's pretend that you are talking to a room full of students who are interested in science, but they have little idea how many jobs there are available out there, how many different paths they can take. So, to that group, how would you describe what it is that you do?
Liela Romero:So, specifically, we're organic chemists. And when we think of organic molecules, these are molecules that have carbon-hydrogen bonds within them. As organic chemist, we're really focused on the ways in which we manipulate or build or utilize these types of molecules. So, organic chemistry really truly is in the world all around us. The scent of a rose is an organic molecule. The rubber on the tires that got you to work today, that's a polymer of material that is organic-based, it's everywhere around us. So, whether you realize it or not, when you're cooking, that's organic chemistry, you're building new things. A lot of what we do, I often equate to baking. We have ingredients, we have recipes that we follow to yield the desired product that we'd like to have. So, as [inaudible] chemists, what we're looking at is essentially developing new recipes that others can use to build the products that they need in the lab.
Derek Smith:What kinds of things can happen when you combined two different organic molecules? I know there can be really good, there can be neutral, there could be not good, I suppose.
Liela Romero:Yeah. Sometimes, completely unexpected things happen, and it can be really exciting to see an instantaneous color change or a phase change in material. And then, other times it's really underwhelming. It's kind of a mixed bag. But that's part of the joy of doing chemistry. You really just don't know what you're going to get at the end of the day. You have a hypothesis of what you're aiming for and you understand the chemical reactivity and principles behind it. But sometimes, even now, I find that chemistry sometimes still surprises me with the types of phenomena that we sometimes see.
Derek Smith:Talking with Dr. Liela Romero and how much of a long game is it what it is that you're doing? Some projects have a specific, a very specific end goal, but it seems like yours has a lot of different potential end goals.
Liela Romero:Yeah. So, the research within our lab is multifaceted. We have a lot of different goals, a lot of different outcomes that we're looking to show the world with the research that we're doing. Some of it is very... Immediately we could see that this reaction works, for example, and we want to go ahead and publish that, disclose that information in case it's of use to another individual in the field. Other times, the chemistry, it takes years of really building upon this hypothesis that we have, and really chasing that down. So, it really just varies with each project that we're looking at.
Derek Smith:If we were to visit your lab. I don't know if there's such thing as a "normal" day, but if we were to visit on a typical day, what are some of the things we might observe?
Liela Romero:Yeah. So, in my research group right now, we have three graduate students and three postdoctoral scholars. So, postdoctoral scholars are individuals who already have obtained their PhD in chemistry, and they're doing an additional study within our group. Then, we also have undergraduate student researchers as well. So, at any given time, there could be a number of individuals working very intently at their chemistry bench and their fume hood, or in the office typing up their results and putting together these reports, or at one of the many different instruments and pieces of equipment that we have in the lab, maybe analyzing their reaction or manipulating some material.
Derek Smith:Visiting with Dr. Liela Romero and you, in joining the Baylor faculty, become one of a number of faculty members who are working on research with applications to fight cancer. I want to dive into that here, but just to start, what are some of those applications as it relates to your work that can have an impact on the fight against cancer?
Liela Romero:Yeah. So, there's a family of natural products, so these are compounds have been isolated from different sources in nature, that have been shown to have a pretty prolific anti-cancer activity and very interesting anti-cancer activity that's worth following up on. The studies of these molecules have been somewhat limited in the past, just due to the inability to acquire a meaningful amount of the material and individuals willing too to go through some of these tedious synthetic sequences to make that happen. So, we're interested in acquiring or making some of these molecules and following up on them as potential anti-cancer therapeutics. The questions that we have are, what is the exact enzymatic target? Because that's still not delineated, at least not in our literature searches. How is this targeting that enzyme? Does it bond covalently? Is it a competitive inhibitor of sorts? And then, if we modify these natural products, can we make them more robust or more stable? Or can we somehow improve upon that therapeutic application that we envision with these?
Derek Smith:I remember we had one of your colleagues, Dr. Romo, Daniel Romo, on the show last year, he mentioned sea sponges as one example. Where are some places we might find some of these molecules?
Liela Romero:Wow. You can find biologically active natural products really anywhere in the world, it seems. Taxol, for example, is a really well-known and studied anti-cancer therapeutic that's isolated from, I believe, the Pacific yew tree. So, it's from a tree. You can, again, yeah, in this marine natural products, isolated from sea sponges or algae, or there are even natural products isolated from bacteria. I mean, there are so many different sources that I probably can't list them all. Yeah.
Derek Smith:Sure. Truly endless types of possibilities. We are visiting with Dr. Liela Romero, an organic chemist at Baylor, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry on the program. For you, what came first for you, was it wanting to fight against cancer? Was it an interest in science? Was it chemistry? What was that like for you?
Liela Romero:It's the weirdest thing when I think back on my journey from where I started and how I got to where I am now. When I was maybe in seventh or eighth grade, I was sitting on the porch at my grandparents' house on the Gulf Coast. And I heard my grandmother on the phone talking with a second cousin of mine and I heard her say, "Oh, you want to be a cancer researcher when you grow up?" And I thought, "Wow, I had never thought about that. That's really meaningful. That's so impactful." It just rang so true to me, even at that age in middle school, just sitting on the swing thinking about it. So, I always had my sight set on a career where I could somehow participate in cancer research, whether that was the sole focus or not. I always knew I wanted some aspect of that.
Derek Smith:Was science something you were always interested in as a kid?
Liela Romero:It was, it was. Even in elementary school, I was picked to be a part of this special, once a month you get to visit with a scientist program. Only a handful of us were selected for this. I think back to how meaningful that was, I didn't realize it at the time, but it really shaped my perception of science and how I viewed my ability to become a scientist.
Derek Smith:What led you to Baylor to pursue your undergraduate work?
Liela Romero:Yeah. So, I think, in that case, and in some of these other instances I'm discussing here. I think there have been a series of misguided misconceptions that have gotten me here along the way. In hindsight, it almost looks like a perfect trajectory. In reality, I think a lot of the decisions I made were not perhaps on the most solid foundation. So, I decided I wanted to go to Baylor because my best friend wanted to go to Baylor to be a pre-law student. And I thought, "Well, if my friend's going here, I'm going to Baylor." She eventually ended up actually deciding not to attend Baylor. But I had, in the meantime, looked at the university, learned so much more about it and I was just like, "All right, see ya, I'm going to Baylor. I'm convinced this is where I want to be."
Derek Smith:Did you have any idea at the time that you might want to go into research or look at research opportunities on campus?
Liela Romero:Because I knew I wanted to go into some field where I could participate in cancer research. I always thought that had to be through biology. I thought I had to be a biologist. Again, misguided, misconceptions, I'm thinking, "Well, I probably should at least be a biology major, or I could meet a biochemistry major, because somehow that just seems more versatile, biology and chemistry." Of course, very different. And the way I was thinking coming into college is perhaps not on the best rationale looking back. So, long story short, I wanted to be a biologist, but I thought I could be more versatile as a biochemist. Had I not made that misguided decision, I would've never had the opportunity to take organic chemistry, which is part of the biochemistry curriculum. It was when I took organic chemistry that I realized, "No, actually, I want to be an organic chemist." So, these really bad or poorly thought-out decisions that I've made have really just been very monumental in finding where I need to be.
Derek Smith:It's probably like a lot of 18 to 22 year olds though and younger making decisions that eventually work out.
Derek Smith:But you look back. Yeah. What was it about organic chemistry as a student that really captured you after all that?
Liela Romero:It's a lot like a puzzle. I mean, there are a lot of analogies also to cooking as I alluded to earlier and I love to bake and I love to cook. But it's also like this giant puzzle. You understand the reactivity of all these different molecules, all these different pieces, and there's a certain way in which everything comes together and you need to know the rules of everything. But then, being able to figure out how all of these pieces fit together to attain the right outcome for that chemical reaction, for me, it was just always very exciting.
Derek Smith:So, you realized you wanted to pursue that. How did you get involved with Dr. Kevin Pinney? Someone else we've had on this show, it's been a few years now, but we've had him on the show. How did you get involved with him?
Liela Romero:Yeah. So, I asked my organic chemistry professor if he knew of anyone here that was working in the area of cancer research. Again, that was something that I had in mind that I wanted to participate in. Naturally, he recommended the Pinney Group. So, I set up a meeting with Kevin and I was fully convinced that he was going to say, "Sorry, we don't have space in the lab for you." And I was fully prepared to just offer to wash glassware, do the dishes, I just needed to see what was going on in that lab. What is it like to be a researcher. And thankfully he was, instead, gracious enough to welcome me to the group with open arms. For that, I'll always feel like I'll be indebted to him for giving me that opportunity.
Derek Smith:Visiting with Liela Romero. And in Dr. Pinney's lab, what kinds of things did you do?
Liela Romero:Mostly it was learning how to carry out bench chemistry and to think about the way in which we design the molecules that we target in order to address that scientific question that we have. So, as an undergraduate student, you're really just trying to figure out, "Okay, what do I mix when at what temperature? All right, how do I separate this and purify this?" There is definitely a learning curve to it. But once you've had the opportunity and the experience of it, it becomes like, it's like riding a bike, everything has a very similar way of... The reactions are set up in very similar ways and it becomes really just second nature.
Derek Smith:So, you were a student at Baylor. Now, you're faculty at Baylor. What did your path look like in between that?
Liela Romero:Yeah. So, after I finished my undergraduate studies, I pursued a PhD at UT Southwestern Medical Center. Again, these misguided misconceptions, I thought, "Well, if I want to be an organic chemist and I want to positively impact medicine, what better place than to go to a medical center to get a PhD?" And of course, there was so much more than that. But it was a really great decision that ultimately really shaped the way I looked at my role as a chemist who wants to positively impact drug discovery and development. That it's not simply the medicinal chemistry aspect, trying to make these molecules that do have that therapeutic effect that we're going for. But also we could positively impact that part of science, therapeutic discoveries, by developing new chemical reactions that help others make these molecules as well. So, that PhD at Southwestern really showed me that we could have meaningful impacts in multiple facets. From there, the average PhD is about five years, it's a commitment. After those five years at UT Southwestern, I went on to MIT, where I did a postdoctoral study as a Beckman fellow for three and a half years. During that time, I got to work with a chemist who essentially collaborates for all of the major pharmaceutical companies. I mean, he is so well-established in the pharmaceutical industry as an individual who has streamlined, been able to develop chemistry that has streamlined the synthesis of valuable therapeutics. So, just learning from him, what do these companies look for? What makes a process more ideal from a pharmaceutical standpoint? And really honing in my craft on reaction development there. Everything kind of came together to help me or help enable me to lead the science that we're doing now in the lab.
Derek Smith:So, eight years invested at UT Southwestern and then at MIT. So, you're looking where to go for your independent career. Was Baylor on your radar? Was Baylor someplace you were looking at initially?
Liela Romero:Baylor has always been on my radar. I mean, I'm a proud alum. I love Baylor. And from a distance, I was keeping at an eye on all of the positive, upward trajectories that I've been seeing going on at Baylor. The investment not only in student learning, but the investment in the infrastructure here. The facilities are phenomenal at Baylor. They rival some of the really premier institutes that I've seen.
Derek Smith:That's great.
Liela Romero:The investment in recruiting new faculty and new research programs. The support that I saw for junior faculty. Baylor was definitely on my radar. The announcement for this R1 initiative that we get to celebrate this year, because we've now attained that R1 status. When they announced that, and Baylor announced this postdoc hiring program. I mean, it was pretty evident to me that they really meaningfully care about supporting research at the university. That's something that's very important, especially for an early career chemist.
Derek Smith:Well, that's exciting to see how that definitely attracted you and other colleagues in your shoes coming into Baylor. What did it mean to you to get CPRIT grant as well, to help really tie that all together?
Liela Romero:Oh, phenomenal. More than I could ever ask for. I mean, I really think Texans who supported that, who continue to support and supported that initiative. And for those on the CPRIT board that really supported the idea that I put forth. To have just support for the types of science that I'm just really invested in pursuing this early on in my career. It's not common to have that kind of funding available and that kind of, "Yes, we believe in you, please, go do it." So, it really helped us hit the ground running and establish the infrastructure in our research lab and continued really quickly to make progress on these goals that we have.
Derek Smith:Well, that's very exciting. I know there's a lot of people who go after these grants and you got that. So, congratulations on that. And I know-
Liela Romero:Thank you.
Derek Smith:... Baylor and the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry Department were all very excited about that. Well, we wind down here, just have another minute or two to go here, but I want to ask you, I think you've already described this, but now that you're on the faculty side about, what now, 11 years after graduation, what stands out to you about, what stayed the same at Baylor, and what's different in meaningful ways for you?
Liela Romero:Yeah. A lot of things have changed. The campus has changed a lot. Waco, in general, the community has also changed. There are so many different food options even, and the shopping here has changed. But on campus, a lot of places still feel the same, which is comforting. The BSB, the science building still feels very much the way it did when I was an undergraduate student. And the lab spaces, even though I'm working in a different lab space, a lot of that still feels very familiar to me. I would say just the general Baylor nice around campus, just the hospitality and the welcoming, graciousness of everyone around here, that's comforting and that's familiar. That's something that I'm glad to see that it hasn't changed in the time that I was gone.
Derek Smith:Well, that's great. Well, we're glad to have you back and appreciate you taking the time to share with us what you do today. Appreciate you coming on the program.
Liela Romero:Thank you so much.
Derek Smith:Dr. Liela Romero, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry, our guest today on Baylor Connections. I'm Derek Smith. A reminder, you can hear this and other programs online at baylor.edu/connections. You can subscribe for the program on iTunes. Thanks for joining us here on Baylor Connections.