Doctoral student receives international NSF award to study blood vessels’ role in oxygen delivery
Cora Esparza, a third-year doctoral student in biomedical engineering, is driven by work that fills a need. The need she aims to address is understanding blood vessels and their role in delivering oxygen – or failing to do so – and the subsequent illnesses resulting thereafter, such as cancer.
Esparza has received a National Science Foundation (NSF) IIE-Graduate International Research Experience award to pursue this research abroad. She will travel to Spain to work in the lab of Isaac Almendros, assistant professor in medicine and health sciences at the University of Barcelona. Esparza’s work will include her current research on fluid flow and cancer and extend it to the study of oxygen delivery through fluid flow (in blood) and hypoxia.
“It is unbelievably lucky that I get to go to Spain and combine two unique methods to pursue my dream,” Esparza said. “I pursued this because of Jenny Munson, who told me to be open to learning new things, not to have a concrete idea of the research, and to be open to what other labs and methods can teach me. The opportunities seem limitless, and I’m excited for this opportunity.”
Esparza conducts research in the Onco-Engineering Lab alongside Jennifer Munson, associate professor with the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC and in biomedical engineering and mechanics. As a first-year doctoral student, Esparza began her research on the role of fluid flow in glioblastoma, the deadliest form of brain cancer, for which she received the NSF’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program award in 2019.
In Munson’s lab at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute, Esparza studies fluid flow in the brain through in vitro models and MRI images. Munson’s lab utilizes in vitro models to recreate a tumor microenvironment in an out-of-body model, to observe fluid flow in a cellular microenvironment.
"Cora is an outstanding scientist," said Munson. "I'm delighted that she will be able to experience a new area of science and a new culture through this program. I am excited to see her grow as a global researcher through this fellowship."
Through Esparza’s use of high-field MRI at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute, she has been able to map velocities of fluid flow through the tumor, to identify both direction and high and low flow. With these images, she has quantified blood vessel density and length and has mapped out regions of flow. Knowing the properties of various regions has enabled her to to study how fluid flow may be altering the cells within the microenvironment, to ultimately apply this knowledge for different treatment options.
At the University of Barcelona, Almendros studies the potential relation between the appearance of tumors with obstructive sleep apnea syndrome and its immediate consequence, intermittent hypoxia. Hypoxia is the lack of oxygen being delivered to the body and its cells. Esparza is interested in oxygen delivery and blood vessels as the result of a unique research journey, she explained.
After earning her bachelor’s in chemical engineering from the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, Esparza worked in an internship at Los Alamos National Laboratory. During her internship, she studied the diffusion of isotypes through metal, which piqued her interest in the flow of and diffusion of materials. The internship led to a National Science Foundation research experience at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to study the diffusion of oxygen in microbubbles. This sparked her interest in oxygen delivery, the whole purpose of blood vessels.
Knowing biomedical engineering was for her, as it allows her to merge her interests in biology, cancer treatment, and chemical engineering, Esparza excitedly began to pursue her Ph.D. in the joint Virginia Tech-Wake Forest University graduate program as a New Horizon Graduate Scholar.
Esparza sees her opportunity abroad as a research exchange wherein she gets to share the techniques learned in Munson’s lab – techniques that are unique to the lab – and learn from University of Barcelona researchers with their unique approaches and models. “My role is to combine these two, and share the expertise of the two labs,” she said.
“In everything I do, I want to show others that your life experiences don’t define who you are or limit what you can become,” said Esparza, who is Hispanic and a first-generation college student. “Life is full of obstacles that are meant to challenge and refine us. I hope my story can inspire others to pursue engaging careers in STEM fields or academia.”
Her long-term aim is to find a way to 3D print organs for use in human bodies, as a way to save lives. The technology is not there yet; however, with a better understanding of blood vessels, she believes organs could one day be 3D printed.