Newswise — LOS ANGELES (Sept. 14, 2023) -- A few weeks from now, Lizbeth Sanchez will say goodbye to her job in a Smidt Heart Institute laboratory and walk about 200 steps to a Cedars-Sinai classroom, where she will begin working on her doctorate in biomedical and translational research.

It’s a short walk—yet it has been quite a journey for Sanchez, a so-called “Dreamer” whose immigration status is in limbo but whose aspirations are not.

Dreamers are young adults whose parents brought them to the U.S. as children. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program gives Sanchez and others authorization, as undocumented immigrants, to legally work in the U.S.

But immigration status wasn’t Sanchez’s only hurdle.

“I had always wanted to work in science but had never met anyone in research who looked like me or gave me an opportunity,” said Sanchez, who was a toddler when her parents immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico.

That is, until 2015, when Eugenio Cingolani, MD, attended a California State University of Los Angeles networking event for students.

Cingolani, director of Preclinical Research and associate professor of Cardiology at the Smidt Heart Institute, met Sanchez there. Impressed with her enthusiasm and determination when she stepped up to express interest in a potential internship, Cingolani invited her to visit his newly established lab. A few weeks later, Sanchez was interning from 7 p.m. to midnight, after her classes ended and between the three jobs she was working to pay tuition. She loved the internship, as it afforded her the opportunity to learn about biological pacemakers—a research area in which the Smidt Heart Institute excels.

Soon, Sanchez had a full-time job in Cingolani’s lab.

“Liz has courage, conviction and perseverance, all of which will continue to pay off throughout her life,” said Eduardo Marbán, MD, PhD, executive director of the Smidt Heart Institute. “She is well on her way to the career she always wanted and has already made valuable contributions to the Smidt Heart Institute’s work.”

In fact, Sanchez is the first author of a recent study published in the peer-reviewed medical journal Cell Reports Medicine about how RNA technology can create spontaneous pacemaker activity in the body, a project Marbán and Cingolani have dubbed “biological pacemaker.”  

Thinking back over her eight years at Cedars-Sinai, Sanchez remains grateful.

“Dr. Cingolani saw beyond my immigration status,” Sanchez said. “He saw my potential and my love for medical research. He gave me a chance.”

Perseverance Pays

Sanchez was 3 years old when her family fled Mexico City and landed in the Koreatown area of L.A. At the time, crime was rampant and gang violence was common. They slept on the floor of a one-bedroom apartment they shared with four other people. Sanchez remembers her father leaving at 3 a.m. for work every day.

When she was 8, Sanchez’s interest in science began to blossom, thanks to her mother’s rheumatologist.

“Her name was Dr. Christine Evelyn, and she was much more than a physician who treated my mom’s rheumatoid arthritis,” Sanchez said. “She brought the field of medicine to me. She’d tell me, ‘You should do something in science—you’re very smart and curious.’ She gave me books, she gave us clothes, she recorded the ABCs to help us learn English. She treated our whole family when we were sick, for very little payment. She took many, many extra steps for us.”

The rheumatologist retired when Sanchez was 12, but she urged the young girl to “continue to work hard, get good grades and don’t leave school. You can do anything you want to do.”

Sanchez made good on the physician’s wishes for her and hopes to reconnect and say thank you.

“I not only graduated with a degree in microbiology from Cal State Los Angeles, this summer I’ll be pursuing a PhD in biomedical and translational medicine here at Cedars-Sinai.”

Moving Roadblocks

Sanchez always excelled in school. She took high school advanced placement classes, did extracurricular activities and graduated with honors. But when it came to college, not being an American citizen was a roadblock. She could not get financial aid, and her parents could not afford the tuition at a four-year university.

“I did whatever I needed to do to finance my education,” said Sanchez, now 34. “I borrowed books from classmates, I used old editions of refurbished books, and I paid tuition as I could. It took almost 10 years to graduate.”

When DACA was signed in 2012, more opportunities were instantly available.

“DACA represented to people like me that the sky was the limit on what we could achieve,” Sanchez said. “It allowed me to work at Cedars-Sinai, which has been life changing. I may have given up on school if not for DACA—and if I hadn’t found Dr. Cingolani’s lab.”

Sanchez was the first in her family to go to college. Her proud parents, who did not attend school past third grade, often remind her that throughout her life when doors have closed, she’s always managed to open a window.

Proud to Publish

Soon after Sanchez joined Cingolani’s lab, he tasked her with researching how to use messenger RNA technology (which, years later, was used to create the COVID-19 vaccines) to create cells that would naturally set the heart’s beating rate. The goal is for these biological pacemakers to one day replace traditional electronic pacemakers.

Her findings eventually led to the published study, on which Cingolani and Marbán are corresponding authors.

“Liz is an exemplary researcher—incredibly smart, dedicated, talented,” Cingolani said. “She is also an extraordinary mentor who helps those around her who may need an assist or words of encouragement. She believes in helping others because she was helped along the way by people who provided stepping stones for her. Liz epitomizes the future of science and medicine, and I’m eager to see where her already successful career leads her.”

Said Marbán, “Liz’s story teaches us many things, not least of which is the power of small good deeds to have an outsize impact. Here, the good deed was the willingness of Dr. Cingolani to pitch medicine as a career to a group of Cal State LA students. Liz was inspired and courageously approached him for an internship, and the rest is history. A life was changed. The world is a better place.”

Sanchez continues to look for new windows she can open and is eager to see where they lead.

“I’d love to have my own lab and become a principal investigator,” she said. “I want to give others the same opportunities that Dr. Cingolani and Dr. Marbán gave me, and to foster talent among people—especially women—who are devoted to developing new therapies or who want to be on the front lines of patient care.

“I want them to know that if they genuinely give their heart to their passion, and say yes to the opportunities, life will compensate them.”

Read more on the Cedars-Sinai Blog | Pacemakers: An Evolution

Journal Link: Cell Reports Medicine