Published 10 August 2023 by Ulrike Böhm

Women in Research #LINO23: Mónica Rivera-Franco

Mónica Rivera-Franco – also on the Women in Research blog. All photos/credit: in courtesy of Mónica Rivera-Franco

Mónica from Mexico is a Medical Researcher at Eurocord Paris, France. Her research focuses on epidemiological and translational research in the fields of human leukocyte antigens, cord blood transplantation, and cellular therapies for benign and malignant hematological diseases.

Mónica participated in the 72nd Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting and took the time for this interview.

What inspired you to pursue a career in science / in your discipline?

Since I was an undergraduate medical student, I was curious about how research could be a part of the role a physician has as a patient’s healthcare provider. This curiosity led to my participation in short science trainings that used to take place every summer and sometimes throughout the school year at my Medical School. These trainings involved basic research activities such as molecular biology techniques and epidemiological research in chronic diseases, which gave me a broad idea about how research is an important piece behind the care of patients and that by becoming an investigator, I could be able to both directly and indirectly help more than one patient at the same time.

Who are your role models?

My current boss, Prof. Eliane Gluckman, who performed the first successful human umbilical cord blood transplant, and my global mentor, Dr. Mary Horowitz, who has made substantial research contributions within the field of hematopoietic cell transplantation.

How did you get to where you are in your career path?

Monica has always been convinced that she wanted to pursue a career in Medical Research.

After undergoing a one-year medical internship and before graduating as a Medical Doctor, I had to perform a year of social service as it is mandatory in Mexico to get a license to practice. Due to my outstanding grades, I was able to do my social service in research, so I chose to go to an academic hospital in Mexico City. During that year, I was doing basic research involving leukemic cell cultures and epidemiological research in the field of hematopoietic cell transplantation (HCT). At the time, my mentor, Dr. Eucario Leon, encouraged me to learn more about the scientific method, clinical trials, and statistical analyses, despite our limited resources, to perform meaningful research with the databases and the patients we had. That motivated me to become a self-taught researcher and to get more and more involved and interested in science and ways to improve the outcomes of patients despite being in a developing country. I was convinced that I wanted to pursue a career in Medical Research. However, as the “status quo” for Medical Doctors, especially in Mexico, is usually to follow a specialisation, it was not easy. Nonetheless, due to my persistence, I decided to undergo a Master’s Degree and a Ph.D. in clinical and epidemiological research instead of a medical residency as that allowed me to become more knowledgeable and continue to work at the Department Hematology and Oncology and eventually, I became the research lead of the HCT Programme. In 2020 I decided I needed to expand my research experience in an international scenario, so I underwent a second Master’s Degree in Public Health with a concentration in Epidemiology and Advanced Statistics in Spain and France. As part of that postgraduate programme, I needed to perform an internship and write my dissertation, so I contacted Prof. Eliane Gluckman. Since then, under her supervision, I have been doing epidemiological and translational research in umbilical cord blood transplantation and cellular therapies for hematological diseases.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?

A couple of years ago, I realised there was a need to create a hematopoietic cell transplantation outcomes registry in Mexico. Thus, I applied for an international grant, the Global Oncology Young Investigator Award from the American Society of Clinical Oncology, which I got. I managed to establish a pilot study to explore the feasibility of collecting data from different hospitals in the country. I successfully coordinated that study, hired and trained data managers for the data collection, and provided complete results about the HCT scenario in Mexico, which were published in a high-impact scientific journal.

What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself / your work?

For Monica, being a mentor is one of the best ways to give back to the scientific community.

Since 2020, I have been Faculty of the Clinical Research Training Institute in Latin America, organised by the American Society of Hematology. It has been very fulfilling to help hematologists with their research protocols to improve science in that region. I have discovered that aside from being the primary investigator or collaborator in several research projects, being a mentor is a very satisfying experience and one of the best ways to ultimately give back to the scientific community and encourage students to pursue a research career.

What is a “day in the life” of you like?

As a medical researcher, I manage to perform different tasks daily. Most of my activities involve epidemiological approaches. I usually start the day with morning meetings with the research groups to see where we are in terms of current protocols at a local and international level. I spend some time of the day catching up with novel articles or new statistical techniques to brainstorm future research ideas. The rest of the day, I dedicate either to collecting patient data, manuscript writing, or data analysis.

What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?

I want to help undergraduate and graduate students and medical doctors, especially in developing countries, increase their skills to perform good and impactful research. I also want to improve the outcomes of patients with oncological or hematological diseases through affordable and feasible therapies or approaches, especially for those in limited-resource centers.

What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?

I enjoy reading literature and watching series and movies, sometimes with a great glass of wine, because wine tasting is one of my favorite hobbies. I also love to cook at home and go out to try new restaurants.

What advice do you have for other women interested in science / in your discipline?

I want to encourage all women interested in research to find a mentor or more than one from the moment they realise they want to start a career path in research. It is very important to have contact with experienced researchers in the discipline they wish to pursue because they can oversee their research work, find connections for research activities in different labs, hospitals, or countries, and, more importantly, they will provide precious advice as research counselors.

In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in science / in your discipline?

I think it is already happening with all the therapies in the oncological and hematological fields, such as the CAR-T cells and monoclonal antibodies. However, I think the next steps should involve reducing their toxicity, targeting more specific pathways, and reducing costs for these therapeutic approaches to be available worldwide for everyone who needs them.

What should be done to increase the number of female scientists and professors?

There is a need to reduce gender biases at home, in schools, and in the community. A girl should know she has the same opportunities in research as everyone else. Unfortunately, gender disparities continue to exist, so it is important to create a personal network, either locally or internationally, with other women to support each other in all research activities, as networking is key to developing professionally.

Further Information

Ulrike Böhm

Ulrike Boehm is a physicist and science enthusiast. She works as an optical scientist at ZEISS in Oberkochen, Germany. Previously, she did her Ph.D. studies at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen in the Department of NanoBiophotonics of Nobel Laureate Stefan Hell, followed by research stays in the US at the National Institutes of Health and HHMI’s Janelia Research Campus, developing tools for biomedical research. She is generally passionate about designing and building (optical) instruments to image, probe, and manipulate (biological) structures. Furthermore, she is passionate about science communication and open science and is a huge advocate for women in science.