Elba Serrano aspires to make a difference in the lives of those with inner ear disorders of hearing and balance. Her laboratory investigates the development of the nervous system with an emphasis on the sensory organ systems responsible for hearing and balance and on mechanotransduction—the process by which cells convert mechanical stimulus into chemical activity. An ARRA (Recovery Act) grant provides funds for Serrano’s work within the MIT Cell Decision Processes Center that will examine the protective (life) or toxic (death) effects of therapeutic drugs, such as antibiotics, on cells of the inner ear. In a second line of research, she collaborates with scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Center for Integrated Nanotechnologies to develop applications for quantum dot nanoparticles as probes of molecular processes in cells of the nervous system.
“A scientist’s goal should be to deliver the fruits of science to the people,” Serrano asserts. Since 1992, she has mentored over 100 graduate and undergraduate students in a variety of multidisciplinary projects whose long-term goal has been to improve human health through basic and applied scientific research.
In addition to her work as a neuroscientist, Serrano directs NMSU’s National Institutes of Health (NIH) Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement program, designed to diversify the ranks of research leaders by increasing the number of underrepresented minority students who achieve a doctoral degree in a biomedical and/or biobehavioral discipline. This NIH mission is one that is close to Serrano’s heart.
“As a first-generation college graduate and the daughter of a veteran U.S. Army sergeant, I am grateful to the Department of Defense and to the American K-20 educational systems that enabled me to compete for scholarships and earn bachelor’s and doctoral degrees in the sciences,” Serrano, who is of Hispanic heritage, notes.
Another initiative directed by Serrano to provide students with pathways to success in the sciences is the Building Research Achievement in Neuroscience (BRAiN) program, part of the NIH Blueprint Program for Enhancing Neuroscience Diversity through Undergraduate Research Education Experiences. Serrano co-wrote the grant to establish BRAiN in partnership with the University of Colorado-Denver. NIH awarded $2.4 million to the two universities so that they might better prepare students in the Southwest and Rocky Mountain region for careers in neuroscience research.
“BRAiN is about forging institutional partnerships for innovative science,” Serrano explains. “It’s about providing our students with cutting-edge research opportunities and professional skills they can use to build their future as the next generation of scientific leaders.”
Serrano received her B.A. in Physics from the University of Rochester. She completed her Ph.D. in biological sciences at Stanford University and trained as a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford Medical School and at UCLA School of Medicine.
The 8th nerve carries electrical information between the hair cells in the inner ear and the brain.
NMSU RISE student Ana Cadena presents her research at the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS).
The spaghetti-like sensory bundles of inner ear “hair” cells viewed with a scanning electron microscope. Loud noise and chemicals such as antibiotics can destroy the bundles, thereby causing irreversible damage to the senses of hearing and balance