Published 11 July 2023 by Ulrike Böhm

Women in Research #LINO23: Yanira Méndez Gómez

Yanira in the lab. All photos/credit: in courtesy of Yanira Méndez Gómez

Yanira from Cuba is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Cambridge, United Kingdom. Yanira’s research, which she conducts at Prof. Dr. Gonςalo Bernardes’ group, focuses on the discovery of new multicomponent reactions and their application on protein modification. One of the main goals of her project is to investigate how the lipidation of antibody fragments influences properties such as cell internalisation and trafficking.

Yanira participated in the 72nd Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting.

Enjoy the interview with Yanira and get inspired:

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

I grew up in the countryside of Cuba, and as a kid, I remember inventing my own games while I was surrounded by nature. I used to collect leaves and flowers and try to extract their scent by macerating and mixing them with water. This passion for knowledge and curiosity continued growing with the years and even made me pursue bigger learning challenges. In High School, I was part of the Cuban team for the International Chemistry Olympiads and represented my country in the 40th edition that was held in Hungary in 2008. The teachers that trained us during this journey were amazingly experienced and devoted to science education, and I think this was my main source of inspiration to pursue a career in science, particularly in Chemistry. I have great friends from this amazing period of my life, which also accompanied me during the Chemistry degree and until now. One of them is my husband, Aldrin, that besides being my partner, has been one of my main science collaborators and a staunch supporter.

Who are your role models?

My main role model, from a very personal perspective, is my grandmother. She was the kindest, most humble, and most hardworking person I have ever met. Although she was only able to study until the sixth grade, she encouraged me to pursue my dreams, to always try harder, and foremost, to become an independent woman.

In science, my main role model is Prof. Vicente Verez Bencomo. In the early 2000’s he led the Cuban team of scientists that developed a first-in-class synthetic antigen-based vaccine against Haemophilus influenzae type b. Beyond constituting a change in paradigms in the field of conjugate vaccines, his research helped save the lives of thousands of children, as Haemophilus influenzae type b is one of the main causative agents of meningitis and pneumonia in infants. After meeting him in person and having his mentorship in the early stages of my scientific career, one of my main motivations in life and in science is that my research could also help improve the lives of other people.

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

As I mentioned before, I was born and grew up in the countryside of Cuba. Although free education was available to everyone, when I look back, most of my friends did not make it into the University. In most Cuban rural areas, young people choose to stay and work with their families for life, and although I consider this a peaceful and happy way of life, I wasn’t born to stay. I wanted to learn more from the world around me and to expand my horizons as much as possible. So, I put all my efforts into studying, and I gained a grant to study at one of the best High Schools in my state. Once there, I learned about the selection for the Chemistry Olympiads, and that motivated me to try even harder until I joined the pre-selected national team and moved to the capital during different training periods. Being selected to participate in the 40th International Chemistry Olympiad was beyond an honour and a measure of what I could achieve, and that gave me the strength to move forward.

I was awarded a grant to study Chemistry at the University of Havana, where I was also lucky to have amazing professors and mentors. In the first year, I met Prof. Dr. Daniel García Rivera, who had recently graduated with his Ph.D. and started his independent research career. He gave me the opportunity to join his group, and I consider this to be one of the most important learning periods of my career. Because the group was so young, we were encouraged to learn and bring our own ideas, and we were also trained to start teaching and training younger group members. After I completed my Bachelor, I was given the opportunity to stay at the Organic Chemistry Department as an Assistant Lecturer, which I combined with my master’s studies and became the executive secretary of the Cuban Society of Chemistry. This late role also allowed me to learn science communication and management. During this period, I also joined the Finlay Institute of Vaccines as an external collaborator and started my Ph.D. in the fascinating world of Chemical Immunology.

In 2016 I was granted a DAAD binational fellowship to continue my Ph.D. and I joined the Bioorganic Chemistry Department of the Leibniz Institute of Plant Biochemistry, Halle-Saale, Germany, under the supervision of Prof. Dr. Bernhard Westermann. During this second half of my Ph.D., I continue investigating the fields of Medicinal Chemistry and Chemical Immunology. After completing my Ph.D. in 2018, I joined the Leibniz Institute of Plant Biochemistry as a Postdoctoral Researcher under the supervision of Prof. Dr. Ludger Wessjohann and was later awarded a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Postdoctoral Fellowship for a second postdoctoral period at the University of Cambridge.

Yanira can already look back on a remarkable career path, having dedicated everything to her studies from an early stage.

When I mention that I come from Cuba and that I am a researcher at the University of Cambridge, most people say: wow, how did you make it? This is a topic that I recurrently discuss with my husband, who also happens to be a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Postdoctoral (UKRI) fellow at the University of Cambridge. As scientists from a developing country, and because we did not study at any renowned University, we have constantly faced being judged with the misconception that we might not be good enough. It is not only our individual experiences but also of most of our Cuban colleagues, which I consider brilliant scientists and educators. One of the things I appreciate the most about being educated in Cuba is that as science is harder to conduct because of the lack of resources and top-notch technology, one needs to think and try harder to solve and overcome each problem, and these challenges constitute an amazing source of inspiration and creativity. I would not be the person and scientist I am if I wouldn’t have studied in Cuba.

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

The coolest project I have worked on so far was my first Ph.D. project when I joined the R&D department of the Finlay Institute of Vaccines as an external collaborator. The project consisted of translating multicomponent chemistry to the world of vaccine development, specifically for the assembly of large protein-capsular polysaccharide conjugates. At that early period of my career, I had only my Organic Chemistry tools and knew nothing about Chemical Biology or Immunology. I did not only need to learn about other disciplines but also about how is work in the industry conducted and how to present and integrate a research project in an industry context.

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

One of my main goals in life and in my career is to make my family and friends proud, which is the way to give back all the love and support that I have received along this journey. The moment I felt the most motivation and satisfaction in my work was when I was called to be part of the Cuban team of scientists that developed the anti-SARS-CoV-2 vaccines of the Soberana series. Being part of a huge effort to time up and develop several formulations in a few months was incredibly compelling.

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

I usually wake up quite early, I think one of the habits I keep from my life in the countryside. The first thing I do is to prepare a strong coffee, and then I enjoy the breakfast. I cycle or walk to work, which takes me from 15 to 40 min. My working day starts at around 9:00 am by checking e-mails and scheduling my day. Once I have organised all the experiments, I go directly to the laboratory and start a reaction or a purification step. As I also perform some bio-assays such as cytotoxicity and cell internalisation assays, there are two or three days in the week in which I passage or treat the cells, which happens in the late morning or in the afternoon. My working day ends at around 6:00 pm, but it depends on the experiments that I am conducting, sometimes, Chemistry is also quite stubborn.

Currently, I am pregnant, which means that my day is no longer what it used to be. I plan my days so that I can leave earlier and spend more days doing home office, writing either manuscripts or projects. I think the most important is loving the work either way, and every day poses a new challenge but also a new adventure in science.

What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?

Yanira’s mission is to transfer her research to real-world applications in the future.

After completing this second postdoctoral period, I would like to start my independent research career. I would like to continue researching in the fields of Chemical Biology, Chemical Immunology, and Cancer Research, but foremost, I would like to collaborate with different medical institutions and companies to bring my research from the bench to real applications. Besides academia, I am not rejecting the idea of enrolling in other jobs with a more industrial or social profile. I think the most important will be giving back what I was given by creating an inclusive and healthy work environment and fully supporting the new generations of scientists.

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

When I take time off, I like to spend it with my family and friends. I enjoy listening to music and cooking, and doing cycling excursions into nature. One of my biggest passions is literature, and I spend most of my free time reading. Sometimes I cannot help buying books when I do not have the time to read, but I find it satisfying.

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

My advice for other women interested in a career in science is to never give up pursuing your dreams. It might take longer or be harder to get the proper credit for your achievements, but it is worth trying and persevering. I have been lucky enough to have the full support of all my supervisors and mentors, but sometimes I have struggled to get integrated into the science community. The fear of not being accepted or taken seriously enough is one of the main hurdles that I have encountered. Although self-criticism is one of our main characteristics as scientists, cultivating self-confidence is also important when pursuing a career in science. I consider that being surrounded by a healthy and supportive work environment is essential for a successful career. In this context, having supervisors that, besides impactful results, also care about your scientific and personal growing, that advocate for an inclusive and healthy work environment might be of great help.

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

I think one of the main breakthroughs in science, specifically in the field of Immunology, has been the development and successful application of mRNA-based vaccines, fueled by the development of modified mRNA by Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman. Nevertheless, other formulations, such as antibacterial vaccines, still face many challenges, such as the efficient development of highly homogeneous multivalent vaccines.

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

I think increasing the visibility of women in science is a crucial step toward giving credit to our work. In Europe, there are different programmes and fellowships that support female scientists and help pave their way into academic careers as scientific leaders. In other areas of the planet, such as South America, women are even less represented in STEM. Besides creating more opportunities for women in science and in leading roles, institutions and employers shouldn’t see gender balance as a simple number or evaluation criterion, and they shouldn’t consider women as representatives of a minority but as equally capable persons. Perhaps time flexibility and rights such as parental leave represent obstacles for most employers. However, measuring work quality in working hours and not in effective results is also an unhealthy practice in any work environment.

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.