Homecoming: $2 Million CPRIT Grant Brings Young Researcher Back to Alma Mater

July 9, 2020
As an undergraduate student at Baylor, Liela Romero was introduced to the world of cancer research. Immersed throughout her Baylor career in a prominent cancer research laboratory, Romero recognized the power of research to seek solutions to significant societal challenges. That experience propelled her to nationally recognized chemistry labs as a Ph.D. student and postdoctoral researcher and now, with the help of a substantial cancer research grant, her career has come full circle.

Liela Romero, Ph.D. (BS ’11), was named this spring to the faculty of Baylor’s Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry. An organic chemist whose research whose research focuses on developing selective synthetic strategies with applications in the development of novel anti-cancer therapeutics, Romero’s appointment was boosted by a $2 million grant from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT). The highly coveted grant, aimed at recruiting top cancer researchers to establish their careers in Texas, enables her position as assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry and provides funds for the establishment of The Romero Lab.

“As I searched for where I wanted to begin my research career, Baylor has always stood out to me as a great research environment to return to,” Romero said. “My time on campus was very formative. As a student, I was inspired by professors and chemists throughout the department. I’ve learned the importance of having a group of colleagues who inspire and support you in pursuit of high-level work, and Baylor University has the right combination of wonderful faculty and outstanding facilities that are truly enabling for great research.”

Research Foundation

As an undergraduate, Romero worked in the laboratory of Kevin Pinney, Ph.D., professor of chemistry and biochemistry and a noted cancer researcher. There, she was introduced to the discipline of chemical synthesis — the assembly of new or valuable molecules — and its application to limiting metastasis, the development of secondary malignant growths after the initial growth of a malignant tumor. She built on that experience in subsequent academic roles.

“I really didn’t know what organic chemistry research entailed until I met Dr. Pinney and started working in his lab,” Romero said. “It was a privilege to serve there, and a pivotal point for me. I knew from the time I was in seventh or eighth grade that I wanted to have some component of cancer research in my career, and I came away from my undergraduate research experience with a love of synthetic chemistry and an interest in using it to help tackle that problem.”

Pinney remembers Romero as a conscientious student who got hooked on research and an excellent worker who readily grasped the holistic opportunities inside a laboratory.

“Liela excelled in the laboratory, and I remember her as very professional, independent and organized,” Pinney said. “She clearly had the talent, and it was obvious that she developed a strong sense of what is really involved in hands-on research in a lab. She also took away the excitement of designing new molecules that might be advantageous against some form of cancer. Liela left here with a great deal of admiration and respect.”

After graduating from Baylor in 2011, Romero received her Ph.D. at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. There, she worked with Uttam Tambar, Ph.D. in the Tambar Lab, earning grants and fellowships including the UT Southwestern Dean’s Discretionary Award. Her postdoctoral research work took place at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where she served as a Arnold O. Beckman Postdoctoral Fellow in the renowned lab of Stephen Buchwald.

“Liela has strong support from her mentors and her body of work speaks for itself. She brings back to our department great research expertise and a passion for teaching,” Pinney said. “The fact that she received a CPRIT grant speaks to the quality of work she has done at every level of her academic career. She is someone who was clearly going to have many opportunities, and it’s a blessing to now call her a colleague at Baylor.”

CPRIT and Synthesis

Research within Romero’s Baylor lab will focus on the development of “highly selective chemical reactions with the goal of advancing chemical synthesis and drug discovery,” with a specific focus on liver cancer.

“A large portion of new therapeutic drug leads have historically come from natural products —compounds made by nature that we isolate — or are derived from some form of natural products,” Romero said. “In my work, I’m interested in exploring a series of small natural products that have demonstrated very distinctive and selective anticancer activity. Our goal is to develop new chemical strategies that enable us to make these compounds, which have traditionally been difficult for synthetic chemists to access. Moreover, we want to understand where this anticancer activity is derived from in order to further improve the efficacy and therapeutic potential of these small molecules.”

CPRIT’s substantial investment in that work, colleagues say, demonstrates the value they place on her work and belief in her ideas. Formed in 2007 after Texans voted to authorize $3 billion earmarked for cancer research, CPRIT funding provides the state with greater capacity and a competitive edge in recruiting top cancer researchers and faculty to Texas. Romero’s grant is awarded through CPRIT’s First-Time, Tenure-Track Faculty Members Program, and is given to “emerging investigators pursuing their first faculty appointment who are expected to make outstanding contributions in cancer research.”

“CPRIT’s decision to fund Dr. Romero’s proposal confirms that her background, experience and ideas for future work are top tier relative to the larger community of young scientists,” Kevin Chambliss, Ph.D., Vice Provost for Research, said. “It also signals that Baylor is being successful in the recruitment of top talent into tenure-track faculty positions. The significant level of external funding will contribute directly to Baylor’s R1 aspirations, and Dr. Romero’s expertise will add to a growing cadre of Baylor faculty anchoring the Health initiative in Illuminate.

R1 Momentum

External funding grants accelerate Baylor University’s pursuit of R1 research status. In 2018, Baylor announced the adoption of Illuminate, a strategic plan that serves as a roadmap towards research preeminence through the purposeful pursuit of research “marked by quality, visibility and impact.”

While at MIT, she noted the announcements of Baylor’s R1 ambitions, and said she was encouraged.

“It was a strong commitment on Baylor’s part for something I believe in—to see universities invest in and promote meaningful research.”

External funding enhances the research output and reputation of a university, and is one of many key metrics for institutions designated as R1 research universities.

“As a fellow Baylor alum, I understand Romero's desire to come to Baylor and build a career at the same place where her passion for science began,” Nancy Brickhouse, Ph.D. (BA ’83), Baylor University Provost, said. “She pursued a world-class education and will return to Baylor with what we need to advance Baylor as a Tier 1/R1 university. Baylor is now in a great position to enable Romero to pursue her research at the highest level, and she will have great colleagues who align well with her interest in biologically inspired synthesis of anti-cancer agents.”

Beyond the laboratory, Romero enjoys numerous meaningful connections throughout the University. She met her husband, Derich, at Baylor’s St. Peter Catholic Student Center, and enjoyed a variety of Baylor traditions from the nation’s oldest Homecoming to Christmas on 5th Street.

As she returns, she says her alma mater is both new and familiar at the same time.

“Although many new faculty have joined Baylor since I completed my undergraduate studies, it retains that cohesive and collegial feel,” Romero said. “The University is bigger and continually growing as it promotes greater research initiatives. But from the moment I stepped foot back on campus, it still feels like Baylor, and I’m excited to experience that as a professor.”
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