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Spotlight on Monica Laronda: Northwestern PhD and Postdoc

Created: January 5, 2016
Monica Laronda Spotlight

Monica Laronda is a graduate of Northwestern’s Driskill Graduate Program in Life Sciences (DGP) and is currently a postdoc in Prof. Teresa Woodruff’s lab. She is also the recipient of one of the Burroughs Wellcome Fund’s prestigious Career Award at the Scientific Interface (CASI) in recognition of her innovative work on engineering a replacement ovary that could restore endocrine functions in cancer survivors, allowing them to go through puberty and have children.

“I’m trying to fill a need for cancer patients, especially young girls, who are going through radiation and chemotherapy treatments that will affect their endocrine function and fertility later in life,” Monica said. This group has a particular need for a solution like an engineered ovary, as they have not yet gone through puberty prior to cancer treatments and thus are ineligible for current treatments such as egg and embryo freezing.

The inspiration for Monica’s bioengineering project came from other countries, where transplantation of cryopreserved ovarian tissue from before treatment has resulted in 60 live births. Engineering an ovary, rather than transplanting preserved tissue, has the potential to solve the major problem that has prevented this procedure from being performed in the United States: the potential for the transplanted tissue to contain cancer cells.

“The tissue is removed prior to treatment in order to save the cells, but it could also contain cancer cells,” Monica said. “In fact, our research has shown that some of the cortical tissue – the egg reserve piece of the ovary that is being transplanted – does sometimes have cancer cells in it. So the technique exists, where endocrine function is restored for a limited time window and supports live births, but we want to make it safe and we want to increase the life of the transplant.”

Monica has been interested in science since she was a child, performing experiments on a beach in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, home to the historical Marine Biological Lab and near where she grew up. “I always knew that I wanted to have a career in science, that I wanted to be a leader of a team that performed experiments and made new discoveries in biology,” she said. “It took going through high school and college to figure out what that would look like in real life.”

While earning her bachelor’s degree at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts, Monica worked on projects in research labs and worked doing outreach and education programs for middle- and high-school students, two experiences that solidified her desire to enter a career with opportunities for both research and teaching. As she thought about next steps, one of her mentors encouraged her to think about Northwestern.

“When I was talking about the kind of career I wanted – I had realized that, for that picture I’d had in my head since I was a little girl, I needed a PhD – my mentor did her postdoc at Northwestern, and she told me about the DGP program,” said Monica. Northwestern’s DGP program was among the first programs to have a rotation option, where PhD students can try out different labs to find the one that best fits their interests, which appealed to Monica. “I knew that I wanted to do biological research, but I wasn’t sure exactly what type, so the ability to rotate through labs doing impactful research in different disciplines was important to me. That’s why I chose to come here.”

Monica’s PhD research focused on spermatogenesis, and her postdoctoral research continues her interest in what she calls the “dynamic germ cell,” which is both mitotically and meiotically active, as well as the environment that guides the gamete through the process of cell division. Her focus on gametes within an environment has allowed her to tackle the problem of engineering an ovary using three main components.

“I think of engineering an ovary in three main components,” Monica said. “First, you need a transplantable bioactive scaffold; you need support cells that produce the endocrine function and respond to the hormone levels in the body; and then you need the eggs or oocytes.” Monica’s work in particular focuses on actively thinking about the bioactive scaffold, which forms a supportive niche for the eggs.

After finishing her PhD, Monica went on to not one but two postdocs at Northwestern. She attributes her decision to stay at the University to the collaborative atmosphere and her personal relationships with faculty, in particular Teresa Woodruff, who heads the lab where she is working for her second postdoc.

“Teresa is extremely supportive of my career and is an amazing mentor,” Monica said. “I wanted some time to explore some research that I would be able to take with me, something to apply for these type of transition grants with, and establish myself as an independent investigator. She also has provided me with opportunities to develop my mentoring, collaborative and leadership skills, which are all important to becoming a successful professor. Teresa and I were brainstorming about how to create the biological scaffold for an ovary transplant and sought out the help of our neighbor, Ramille Shah.”  She is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, “who has expertise in developing biomaterials. From this collaboration, we developed the 3D printed ovary transplant project.” 

The research Monica has been doing on bioengineering an ovary led her to apply for the Burroughs Wellcome Fund Career Award at the Scientific Interface. “I saw that posting in the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs’ newsletter,” she said. “They seek applicants who are taking biological problems and looking at them through an engineering lens, or untraditional way, and I thought this project perfectly aligned with what they were looking for.”

Monica went through a yearlong application process with multiple rounds in order to receive the CASI fellowship. “You start with a short application, basically an overview of your research, then you may be invited to submit a full application, and then hopefully you are invited to interview.” The lengthy application was worth it when Monica was awarded the Career Award at the Scientific Interface, which not only funds two years of mentored (postdoctoral) research, but will help her transition into a permanent research position.

“The grant will give me approximately three years to begin my own lab, and will support me through that as well. It’s very much a transition grant,” said Monica, who is currently in the process of applying for faculty jobs. The Burroughs Wellcome Fund has contributed to her job search not only by providing three years of funding for new professors, but by hosting networking events for awardees. “My award period just started in September, and I’ve already been to two great networking events,” she said.