“A Wonderful Opportunity” – An Interview with Ragon Postdoc and Ramón Areces Foundation Research Fellow Gema González Rubio

Date: July 9, 2024 By: Nick Kolev

González Rubio discusses the circumstances that brought her to the Ragon and how she hopes to grow from it

The years immediately after completing a doctorate are one of the most pivotal times in any researcher’s career — a period where they set the course of their research and grow beyond their time as a graduate student.

For Gema González Rubio, the Ragon Institute was the perfect place to take that initial step as an early-career researcher. Originally from Madrid, Spain, González Rubio was selected as the first Ramón Areces Foundation Research Fellow at the Ragon and joined the Institute in March.

Over the next two years, she’ll be working in the lab of Ragon Early Independence Fellow Charles Evavold, PhD. There, she hopes to kickstart her career and learn as much as she can with her research into yeasts and eukaryotic cells.

We spoke to González Rubio to learn more as she described her prior research in Spain, her expectations before coming here, and what it’s been like settling in and adjusting over the past few months.

Could you describe your background before you came to the Ragon?

I studied and developed most of my career in Madrid. I did my degree in biology at the Complutense University of Madrid. During this period, I took part in an Erasmus program (the EU’s program to support education, training, youth and sport in Europe) [GS1] at Masaryk University (Czech Republic). Back at the Complutense, I joined a master’s program in microbiology and parasitology. There I joined the Molina Lab, where I finally got my doctorate in this same area of study. As a graduate student, I enjoyed an internship at the University of California, Berkeley, under the mentorship of Prof. Jeremy Thorner. After all of that, I wanted to expand and grow my career around biology and microbiology, so that’s why I came here.

Why did you come to the Ragon specifically for your postdoc?

I had previously met Charlie Evavold in Madrid, where he held an inspiring seminar. Later, he made me aware of the Ramón Areces Foundation Research Fellowship at the Ragon Institute, and he encouraged me to apply and join his lab. The idea was to bring together my background in fungal research with his expertise in regulated cell death. So I thought that joining the Evavold Lab at the Ragon Institute was a great opportunity.

Could you describe your fellowship?

The Ramón Areces Foundation fellowship is supported by a partnership between the Spanish Ramón Areces Foundation and the Ragon Institute. It covers a two-year postdoctoral contract.

The application process was quite simple, involving the submission of my CV and a statement of purpose. What makes it unique is that I am working for the Ragon Institute directly, which implies that I enjoy the benefits of a Mass General Brigham employee.

What are your research interests?

During my PhD, I worked on cell signaling using the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae as a model. It’s the same yeast that we employ to make bread and beer. But it is also very useful in research because it is a eukaryotic cell, like humans and animals have, but much more simple. So it is a helpful model to discover how eukaryotic cells work, and then to pass all this knowledge to our understanding of animal and human cells.

My research in particular was about pathways involved in the cellular response to stress. By using genetic and biochemical approaches, I studied proteins that contribute to cell survival under stressful conditions. What´s interesting is that some of these proteins and pathways are related to human diseases like cancer.

Now, during my postdoc, I am going to study how yeasts that cause diseases in humans, like Candida albicans, interact with the cells of our immune system. This could help HIV and cancer patients, who are frequently infected by this pathogen.

What has it been like working in the Evavold Lab?

I am very happy. I was worried because I was delighted with the lab and the mentors I had in Madrid. Moving to a new country and facing a new research field was a great challenge. I had worked with yeast but not with mammalian cells, so all of this is new for me.

Charlie Evavold has been great, though. He appreciates my expertise with fungi but at the same time he is aware that I have to learn tissue culture techniques and innate immunity from scratch. Everyone in the lab has been very welcoming and nice, really willing to teach me when I don’t know something.

I’ve been trained to use state-of-the-art flow cytometers and confocal microscopes by myself Such resources are not that accessible in Spain. I feel empowered having all this technology available.

I think that if you don’t know something, the only thing you can do is to improve, so it’s nice. Even with issues like my English that is not very fluent yet, I know I will get better. Joining the Evavold Lab has been a wonderful opportunity for my personal growth in many ways.

Why come to the US specifically for your postdoc instead of any other country?

There are a lot of opportunities here. I discovered this fellowship and I thought, “Why not?” It’s a great chance. I think it’s the best thing I can do now at my age. I feel that this is the time in my life to do big things and travel and learn. In the future I may want to be closer to home, but now is the moment to travel far, to learn as much as I can.

What do you expect your future to look like over the next two years or after the fellowship is done?

I still have to learn a lot of things before I make such a decision. I have two years ahead to find out what I would like to specialize in. I would like to combine the things that I have already learned and the things that I’m going to learn to be able to become independent. Maybe one day I could start a research group or at least be part of a leading group in which I can share my aims. In Spain, it’s very difficult to start your own group, but I hope that my experience here at the Ragon will help me to reach this objective. My ideal future would be to continue working on what I love and to be able to develop my own ideas as an academic researcher in my home country.

Would you recommend this fellowship or this program to other postdocs?

Totally. I would recommend it because I think the Ragon Institute, partnering with Mass General Brigham, Harvard, and MIT, is one of the best places in the world for Immunology. You have all the equipment and the people right here to grow as a researcher. I have not lived Cambridge during the winter yet, so hopefully it isn’t as bad as they say, but otherwise I think it’s great.

I think that if you don’t mind traveling far, it’s a very good place for young researchers and you’re empowered to learn and grow. The only limits are your mind and your time. So yes, I would absolutely recommend it.

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