By Randy Fiedler
A young Baylor chemistry professor has received a large grant from the State of Texas intended to help scientists in the early stages of their career begin cancer research.
Dr. Liela Romero, assistant professor of chemistry, received a five-year, $2 million grant as part of the First-Time, Tenure-Track Faculty Members Program awarded by the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT). In 2007, Texas voters approved a constitutional amendment establishing CPRIT and authorizing the state to issue $3 billion in bonds to fund groundbreaking cancer research and prevention programs and services, and to attract scientists who will expand the state’s research capabilities.
“These grants are highly competitive, and the fact that Dr. Romero has won a CPRIT award is a testament the research talents she brings to Baylor University,” said Dr. Lee C. Nordt, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences. “We are pleased to have her as a member of the Arts & Sciences faculty.”
The CPRIT program for first-time tenured faculty is designed to attract emerging investigators “who have the ability to make outstanding contributions to the field of cancer research.”
“The grant helps recruit talent in cancer research to Texas, allowing the state to be more competitive with other parts of the country,” Romero said. “With an early career professor who hasn’t established their lab yet, it can be difficult to get funding at the beginning stages of their research. That’s why this CPRIT grant is so unique –– they’re taking a chance on you very early in your career as a researcher.”
Romero is a Baylor University alumna who earned a BS in biochemistry in 2011. As an undergraduate, she worked in the lab of Baylor cancer researcher Dr. Kevin Pinney, professor of chemistry and biochemistry. She went on to earn a PhD in organic chemistry at The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, and then did postdoctoral study at MIT before starting at Baylor in July 2020.
“Dr. Romero brings a high level of research expertise and creativity coupled with a passion for teaching, both in the laboratory and the classroom,” Pinney said. “She is kind and caring, and will be an outstanding teacher and research mentor for our students here. It is a special personal joy for me that Dr. Romero started out her research career as an undergraduate in my laboratory at Baylor and now, coming full circle, she is back with us as a new faculty colleague.”
In simplest terms, much of Romero’s research involves developing new chemical reactions to gain access to substances that may prove effective against cancer.
“I’ve always wanted to have an aspect of cancer research in my research program. Since I was very young, I knew that’s what I wanted to do,” Romero said. “But with chemical synthesis, I also love how in some ways it’s like cooking or baking –– you’re either creating a new recipe, or using an existing recipe to make something. I really love the challenge of developing new chemical reactions, and this research applies nicely to a project that targets natural products –– those found in nature –– that have anti-cancer activity.”
Romero said the generous CPRIT grant provides a base for her and other young scientists to expand their research as their careers progress.
“This support from CPRIT will allow me to quickly establish a collaborative and interdisciplinary research program that seeks to develop novel cancer therapeutics, and its success can then bring in new funding from other sources to help sustain this goal,” Romero said. “That’s why it’s a critical time right now for a researcher, and it’s amazing that CPRIT is funding researchers this early in their careers.”
In the classroom, Romero will begin this coming fall teaching an organic chemistry course for graduate students, but she said she will eventually teach organic chemistry to undergraduates as well. And she’s looking forward to having undergraduates help her in the lab with her research.
“I wouldn’t be where I am today if I didn’t have the opportunity to do research as an undergraduate at Baylor,” she said. “So I completely support and welcome undergraduate researchers into my lab, especially those who are trying to figure out if this is the career path they want to go down. I think a lot of students traditionally don’t consider pursuing organic chemistry as a career, but after taking the course and engaging in undergraduate research they might find out that they really love this research area.”
As Romero and her husband transition from New England to a home back in Texas, she is enjoying returning to familiar ground.
“I’m just excited to be back here,” she said. “It’s a unique experience to be able to go back to your alma mater and support the research environment there. I’m grateful and excited to be coming back to Baylor.”