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Bridging Passions and Stages, Purposes and Phases:
Behind the Scenes with Dr. Leela Noronha
Dr. Leela Noronha grew up in rural West Virginia and spent a lot of time on her grandparents’ farm, and her parents were in the human medical field. Veterinary medicine, it seems, was a natural bridge between the worlds she knew and loved.
But exactly what path in the wide-open field of veterinary medicine was not readily clear. As an undergraduate biochemistry major, Dr. Noronha had the opportunity to do research, and she worked for a period with Pfizer, as a technician conducting cancer research.
“Research has always been appealing,” said Dr. Noronha. “I enjoy basic research because it answers questions on so many levels—from the genetic level to the systemic level. I struggled, though, with whether I should continue my research career or pursue my veterinary degree.”
Ultimately, Dr. Noronha decided that to be the most effective veterinary researcher, she needed to first solidify her skills and gain a perspective for various animal health and welfare issues and challenges that face pet owners. She graduated from the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine in 2001 and spent four years in mixed animal private practice outside of Washington, DC.
“Being responsible for clinical cases complemented my formal veterinary education and expanded my understanding of medicine in ways that laboratory experience could not,” said Dr. Noronha. “I am a better scientist today because of my enhanced appreciation of health and disease. Patient care also furthered my education in the ‘bench-to-bedside’ process of medical science. Clinical experience provided me with a critical knowledge base from which to pursue my ultimate career goal of being a biomedical scientist participating in translational research programs.”
Ready to immerse herself in the challenge and discovery of research, Dr. Noronha came to Cornell in 2005 and enrolled in the graduate program in Immunology. Funded by a training grant for comparative medicine, the program is designed to bridge the valley that often forms between practical medicine and research. Through this program, she completed three rotations, all with equine experts at the College:
- With Dr. Doug Antczak, Dorothy Havemeyer McConville professor of equine medicine, she studied mechanisms of maternal-fetal tolerance, performing ectcopic trophoblast transplant surgeries in horses;
- With Dr. Klaus Osterrieder, former Cornell professor of virology, she studied immune evasion by Equine Herpes Virus-1, evaluating expression of major histocompatibility complex (MHC) molecules in virus-infected cells;
- With Dr. Bettina Wagner, assistant professor of immunology, she generated a panel of monoclonal antibodies, performing mouse immunization, hybridoma fusion, and clone evaluation, as well as flow cytometry and cell sorting.
Today, Dr. Noronha works with Dr. Antczak, combining her passion for horses with her desire to conduct research, and explains that she has a particular interest in equine immunology.
“Dr. Antczak’s lab offers tremendous resources,” said Dr. Noronha, explaining the Dr. Antczak has been an inspiring mentor. “The horse whose DNA was used to sequence the equine genome is here; Dr. Antczak maintains a unique herd of horses that have been specially bred to be homozygous at the major histocompatibility complex (MHC) region of their genome, which enables interesting immunology studies; Don Miller has developed an equine microarray, a very powerful tool to study gene expression; and I have access to reagents that help probe cell activity.”
Dr. Noronha is using these tools to study the immunological tolerance of a mother to her fetus. During pregnancy, the mother tolerates – and even nurtures – an organism comprised of her own and foreign genetic material. Dr. Antczak’s lab has raised this question: why does the mother not reject this foreign tissue as bodies frequently do with organ transplants?
“With transplants, doctors wait for the perfect genetic match,” said Dr. Noronha, adding, “and, still rejection is an issue and the recipient must take immunosuppressant drugs forever. The goal of our research is to gain a detailed understanding of the immunological mechanisms of maternal-fetal tolerance. Such information can lead to applications in fields as diverse as infertility, contraception, transplantation, cancer, and auto-immune diseases.”
More specifically, Dr. Noronha’s research with Dr. Antczak will help researchers understand how to nurture some foreign materials (like organ transplants) and how to eliminate other foreign bodies (like cancer tumors).
Dr. Noronha’s work is funded with a National Research Service Award, granted by the National Institutes for Health. She is one of three women equine researchers at the College of Veterinary Medicine to hold such a prestigious award that is designed to bridge a researcher from mentorship to independence.
“Ultimately, I want to be an academic researcher at a vet school where I can do basic research in partnership with clinicians and the veterinary community,” said Dr. Noronha. “Basic research—my research—has the power to help humans and animals. While the application might not be readily apparent at the molecular or experimental level, it is at the root of delivering the life-saving drugs that clinicians need to serve their patients.”