A Venezuelan venture into science; Introducing Dr Ana Victoria Gutiérrez

1st December 2023

The career journey of Dr Ana Victoria Gutiérrez, a Venezuelan Research Scientist, has taken her from the Amazonian jungle to the cutting-edge laboratories of the Quadram Institute

Dr Ana Victoria Gutierrez at the Quadram Institute

We hear from Ana Victoria about her inspiring path into science, exploring diverse areas in research from studying zebrafish to unravelling the mysteries of Listeria.

“I grew up in Venezuela, where inequality and pockets of extreme poverty coexist with the beauty of the land. In my country education is free.”

Ana Victoria initially aspired to be a psychologist, “I was fascinated by the mind and how the brain works”, she explains.

Psychology courses weren’t available in the public university in her local city of Valencia, so Ana Victoria decided to explore a short course in Pharmacy instead.

“It wasn’t the right fit. A family friend suggested looking into biomedical science instead and this chance suggestion led me to a field I had never considered.”

A passion for helping people

Ana Victoria enrolled in Bioanalysis at the Universidad de Carabobo. She highlights the importance of this decision, “This marked the beginning of my scientific journey.”

“Despite early challenges in the chemistry lab, including broken glassware and burnt lab coats, I persevered. I found science not just an academic pursuit but an area I could explore my passion for making a positive impact on people’s lives”.

Ana Victoria’s passion for science crystalised during her time working as a Surgical Supplies Assistant in an Ophthalmology clinic, alongside her studies. She worked with nurses, surgeons, and patients and gained insight into the world of healthcare.

“The ophthalmology clinic was more than just a job for me—it was a revelation. I realised that my true calling extended beyond the confines of laboratory experiments; I wanted to channel science into tangible actions to improve people’s wellbeing. It was a defining moment in my career trajectory,” Ana Victoria reflects.

Diagnosing tuberculosis in the Amazonian jungle

Dr Ana Victoria Gutiérrez working in the Amazon jungle, pipetting at a table

After completing her undergraduate studies, Ana Victora found a job opportunity working on tuberculosis diagnostics  in one of the world’s most remote, biodiverse and challenging environments – the Venezuelan Amazonian jungle.

“My first scientific role model and mentor, Dagmarys Ortega, guided and encouraged me to embark on this transformative adventure with a sense of purpose. As well as navigating the physical challenges of the jungle, I was confronted by the complex dynamics of healthcare delivery in remote regions,” says Ana Victoria.

She continues, “The experience working in the Amazon jungle gave me firsthand understanding of the unique healthcare needs and constraints faced by indigenous communities. I saw the stark realities of providing medical care in such environments.”

“The experience ignited a passion in me for not only understanding diseases at a molecular level but also for ensuring that the benefits of scientific advancements reach those who needed them the most.”

Reflecting on how her seven months working in the jungle impacts her research now, Ana Victoria says, “The echoes of my time diagnosing tuberculosis in the Amazonian jungle continue to resonate with me. I’m committed to using science as a tool for positive societal impact. “

Mastering Microbiology

Following her time in the Amazon, Ana Victoria decided to study a master’s degree in Microbiology at the Instituto Venezolano de Investigaciones Científicas.

Her project focused on the notorious bacterium Pseudomonas aeruginosa. This bacterium is found in lots of environments and poses a threat because it can cause infections around the body.

Ana Victoria’s project explored how P. aeruginosa attaches to joint prostheses, a research area critical to understanding infections in surgical settings. The goal was to measure the growth of bacteria on these materials and provide insights into the formation of biofilms, complex communities of bacteria living on surfaces. She learned advanced imaging techniques, including scanning electron microscopy, to visualise these biofilms.

Ana Victoria says, “These microscopic explorations deepened my understanding of microbial communities and laid the foundation for a broader appreciation of the visual aspects of scientific investigation. In parallel, I found myself once again engaged in the diagnosis of tuberculosis, reigniting the passion I had discovered in the heart of the Amazonian jungle.”

This time Ana Victoria was studying tuberculosis in an urban setting, rather than a rural one “I broadened my understanding of the diverse manifestations of the disease. I’m grateful to my mentor at the time Dr. Jacobus de Waard. Beyond being my boss at the Instituto de Biomedicina Dr. Jacinto Convit, also influenced me far beyond the laboratory. He encouraged me in clinical research and towards pursuing a PhD, even providing vital economic support to study abroad”.

“Jacobus received an email about a PhD Opportunity in France. At the time, I didn’t know how to speak French or much English, but I decided to apply. To this day, I don’t know how I did the interview, but I did. I got the job, and I went to France,” describes Ana Victoria.

A PhD in pulmonary disease

“The transition from Venezuela to France marked a pivotal chapter in my scientific journey”, says Ana Victoria.

The focus of her doctoral research was Mycobacterium abscessus, a bacterium notorious for causing pulmonary disease, especially among cystic fibrosis patients.

“Despite initially grappling with unfamiliar molecular biology concepts and the linguistic demands of adapting to French, I found an anchor in another mentor, Dr Albertus Viljoen, a very patient and dedicated colleague specialising in molecular biology,” says Ana Victoria.

“Throughout my PhD I conquered the intricacies of molecular biology but also became fluent in English and got more comfortable around the French language”, she adds.

Her research explored the molecular biology of M. abscessus, a bacterium known for its high resistance to drugs. The primary objective was to understand antimicrobial resistance, specifically identifying the proteins within the bacterium contributing to this resilience. Ana Victoria’s work revealed that the overexpression of two genes involved in the production of efflux pumps led to resistance against two antibiotics—clofazimine and bedaquiline—commonly used in the treatment of multidrug-resistant tuberculosis.

Ana Victoria highlights one of her favourite parts of her PhD, “One of the most captivating aspects of my PhD journey was working with zebrafish as a model organism. The transparent nature of these delicate creatures provides a unique opportunity to observe and understand infections, offering a clear view of how bacteria and the host organism responded differently to various antibiotics.”

Along with the highs she acknowledges the challenges in science, emphasising the importance of resilience, “Setbacks and failures are inherent to scientific exploration across all fields. This highlights the need for open dialogue within the scientific community.”

Learning about Listeria

After her PhD, Ana Victoria joined the Quadram Institute in 2020 to study Listeria monocytogenes in Dr Matthew Gilmour’s research group.

Listeria is a versatile microbe found in lots of types of food. It causes Listeriosis when ingested. While in healthy individuals this might result in symptoms such as diarrhoea, in more vulnerable populations, such as the immunosuppressed and pregnant women, it can lead to severe complications, including meningitis and miscarriage.

Shortly after Ana Victoria joined the Quadram Institute the COVID-19 pandemic began. Along with challenges, the pandemic gave her an opportunity to expand skills further, learning bioinformatic skills that she could use while working remotely.

“Through the creation of phylogenetic trees, essentially genealogical maps of the microorganism, I worked on understanding the evolution of Listeria. Through this research, we discovered the role played by types of viruses, known as prophages, in driving the evolution of Listeria.

“These viral agents are intricately intertwined with the genetic makeup of Listeria. Prophages are now a focal point in our ongoing research into understanding how Listeria causes disease and the prevalence of different strains.”

“I find the Quadram Institute a good place to work. I have nice colleagues, a great boss and a project that I love”, reflects Ana Victoria.

Ana Victoria concludes, “My science journey is not just about scientific achievements but also about embracing challenges, overcoming obstacles, and finding one’s true calling in the world of science.”

This blog is adapted from a career talk Ana Victoria gave at the Norwich Bioscience Institutes (NBI) Accessible Science Event 2023.

Related Targets

Targeting antimicrobial resistance

Antimicrobial Resistance

Biofilms

Targeting food safety

Food Safety

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Matthew Gilmour

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Microbes and Food Safety