Who is Susana Lopez?
Since 1986, Susana López, a professor at the National University of Mexico, has been spearheading the scientific assault on a universal problem, a rotavirus that attacks nearly every child on earth under the age of five causing severe intestinal diseases. It is responsible for the death of some 600,000 children a year in developing countries and makes 2 million more seriously ill every year. With her colleagues, she has examined the workings of the rotavirus from a wide variety of angles, including the way it spreads in human populations, the immune response to it and its replication cycle. Along the way they have developed new diagnostic tests, isolated several new rotavirus strains and contributed to efforts to find a vaccine.
THE WORLD IS HER LAB
Even as a 7-year-old girl, Susana López could not contain her curiosity about the natural world. As a child she was fascinated by flies, ants and even lizards.This scientific bent stood her in good stead when it was time to choose a path in life. Becoming a scientist was an obvious choice.Today, the little girl who enjoyed experimenting is still doing research, but in a far more disciplined and meaningful way. The ultimate goal of her work is to help children all over the world by cracking the code of the highly infectious and often deadly rotavirus, which affects millions of children. While a vaccine now exists, the war has not yet been won in developing countries, where it kills about 600,000 children every year.
‘This is a very democratic virus,’ she says, ‘in the sense that children get sick from it the same in Finland as in Africa.’ The problem in developing countries, she explains, is that it is difficult to get sick children, who quickly become severely dehydrated, to a doctor or hospital on time for rehydration, without which they may die.
TRACKING A VIRUS
Susana López’s research goal is to understand how the rotavirus infects human cells. ‘We are trying to learn the tricks the virus uses to conquer the cell,’ she says, explaining that viruses are like parasites, which cannot replicate outside of the host cell, which they usually kill or weaken. The immune system cannot attack the invader, as it would with bacteria, without harming the cell, and anything a drug does to prevent the replication of the virus may also hurt the host cells.
This knowledge could lead to the eventual development of an antiviral drug that would control the infection, a notoriously difficult task. So far, antivirals are available only to prevent the replication of very specific viruses, such as HIV, herpes, and influenza A and B.
Professor López can’t predict how long it might take to develop such a drug, but in any case, that is not her job as a basic researcher, a profession she loves. ‘I like working in science because you are always learning new things. Even after 30 years of working with this virus, we’re still learning new things every day. There are new technological and methodological approaches we can use, so it’s always fun.’
RIGOR AND CREATIVITY
Part of the fun for her is the creativity required for her research. ‘You need to be rigorous because you need to be constant, to pursue one idea, but you also need to be creative,’ she says. ‘That’s the only way you can make science. If you don’t want to repeat yourself, you needto imagine new things all the time.’ She especially enjoys bouncing ideas off others to come up with new ideas, a process she calls ‘borrowing brains’. When she was young, there was little encouragement for students to follow careers in the sciences in her all-girl high school, but she did have some talented biology and chemistry teachers who inspired her to continue as well as her parents, who ran a pharmacy. Originally she planned to become a physician, but soon realized she would rather work on discovering the origins of illnesses in the lab.
Professor López has had no problems combining a career and family life, since she and her husband, biochemist Carlos Arias Ortiz, shared equally the responsibility of raising their son and daughter, who are now in their twenties. When she is not working, she loves to relax with Latin American novels or thrillers, cook Indian and Mexican food, especially historical recipes, and practice photography.
As a woman living in Mexico, Susana López sees herself as a double minority in the world of science. Her dearest wish is to serve as an example for others, to show ‘that you can be whoever you want to be wherever you are, as long as you work hard. I am very proud, because we were able to show that we can do excellent basic science in Mexico.’