NIH Fellow Traces Long Path to New Imaging Agents

Doctoral student Mónica Rivas transfers solvent to a flask for use in an inert-atmosphere reaction in the lab of Dr. Vladimir Gevorgyan. Rivas received a two-year, $91,000 fellowship from the National Institutes of Health.

Mónica Rivas found her passion for science through the lens of a beginner’s microscope in her childhood home in Bogotá, Colombia.

That gift from her parents allowed her to “examine everything I could get my hands on,” Rivas said — an impulse that set the stage for her research at The University of Texas at Dallas.

The chemistry PhD student in the School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics recently received the Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award Individual Predoctoral Fellowship from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The two-year, $91,000 grant will support her work developing novel molecules for use in high-precision positron emission tomography (PET).

Mónica Rivas

Rivas said her pursuit of a scientific career brought her to the U.S. — first as a high schooler, then as a college student at the University of Central Florida (UCF), the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) and UT Dallas.

As an undergraduate at UCF, she was sponsored by a program to include underrepresented minorities in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. That program gave her the opportunity to present her research at the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students.

“I befriended like-minded individuals during that transformational experience, which sealed my decision to pursue a career in science focusing on research and mentoring,” Rivas said. “This decision was grounded in my passion for scientific research, fascination with chemistry and joy in conversation with the eventual mentors and mentees who have been instrumental in guiding my career path.”

With her bachelor’s degree in hand, Rivas moved to Chicago, where she met her current mentor, Dr. Vladimir Gevorgyan, who joined the UT Dallas faculty in 2019 as the Robert A. Welch Distinguished Chair in Chemistry.

“When I met Professor Gevorgyan at UIC, I was looking for a daytime visiting researcher position while employed as a server during nights and weekends,” she said. “This turned out to be one of the greatest opportunities of my life.”

UIC awarded Rivas a Pipeline to an Inclusive Faculty (PIF) Fellowship, through which she received mentorship and professional development while focusing full time on research.

“She fearlessly dives into new fields not only for her but also for the group. She has studied molecular docking to develop small-molecule libraries for focused biological applications, and her efforts in radiopharmaceutical tracers resulted in this successful grant application.”

Dr. Vladimir Gevorgyan,
the Robert A. Welch Distinguished Chair in Chemistry at UT Dallas

“Being a PIF Fellow further opened my eyes to the benefits of being part of a community that is deliberate about inclusivity,” she said. “And I met wonderfully patient, helpful and diverse colleagues and mentors in the Gevorgyan lab, my scientific home both at UIC and UT Dallas. The source of my ongoing interests and motivation lies in the work that we do in the group. And I have been fortunate to have an advisor who, aside from being an incredibly supportive mentor, is a world-class scientist who encourages me to become a better chemist every day.”

Gevorgyan praised Rivas as an excellent team player and outstanding graduate student.

“She fearlessly dives into new fields not only for her but also for the group,” he said. “She has studied molecular docking to develop small-molecule libraries for focused biological applications, and her efforts in radiopharmaceutical tracers resulted in this successful grant application.”

McDermott Graduate Fellows

In addition to receiving this fellowship from the National Institutes of Health, Mónica Rivas has also been named a Eugene McDermott Graduate Fellow at UT Dallas.

The Eugene McDermott Graduate Fellows Program is designed to prepare outstanding doctoral students for careers in leading research enterprises. Highly qualified students admitted to the University’s research-intensive doctoral programs may be nominated by their academic unit.

The Gevorgyan lab is focused on organic methodology research, seeking new ways to put molecules together for novel purposes — from synthesizing medicines to designing new materials.

“The challenge is to break chemical bonds that do not want to be broken and make new ones, using conditions that are less harmful to the environment and mild enough to be applicable to many classes of molecules,” Rivas explained.

The project for which she received her NIH grant involves biomedical imaging, specifically PET scans, a technique in which small amounts of a molecule containing a radioactive atom are used to locate a target protein with precision.

“These radioactive atoms are in high demand, so we’re always trying to expand radiochemistry, to find new and more efficient ways to synthesize and diversify them, and to give them interchangeable parts,” Rivas said. “Then we can apply them in the early diagnosis of diseases like cancer or neurodegenerative diseases, as well as tracking how treatment is progressing.”

To focus on these particular diseases, Rivas plans to devise agents to target the proteins hypoxia-inducible factor-2 alpha (HIF-2α) and tau prions.

“HIF-2α is a transcription factor selectively found in certain malignancies that tend to be aggressive cancers, while tau proteins are a hallmark of neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s,” she said.

Her project will be carried out in collaboration with UT Southwestern Medical Center and the Advanced Imaging Research Center, a facility shared by scientists at UT Dallas, UT Southwestern and other North Texas institutions. Gevorgyan described the division of labor as being between “cold” and “hot” chemistry, differentiated by which parts of the research utilize radioactive materials.

“The initial formulation of new approaches for rapid, selective carbon-carbon bond-forming reactions will be performed here in the UT Dallas Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry,” he said. “Once developed, this ‘cold chemistry’ will be used in the synthesis of new ‘hot’ PET imaging agents, possessing short-lived fluorine-18 and carbon-11 isotopes, at the cyclotron facility of the Advanced Imaging Research Center.”

After completing her doctorate, Rivas hopes to find a postdoctoral researcher position to gain more experience as an independent scientist before seeking a faculty appointment.

“My dream is to be a professor and to continue to pursue the things I’m passionate about — mentorship and teaching alongside research,” she said.

Media Contact: The Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected].

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