First-generation American has bright future in ophthalmology

Dr. Elizabeth Zuniga-Sanchez, assistant professor of ophthalmology at Baylor, has a passion for mentoring students, specifically underrepresented minorities. She is the inaugural recipient of the Genentech Career Development Award for Underrepresented Minority Emerging Vision Scientists from the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology. The two-year, $100,000 grant will give Zuniga-Sanchez the opportunity to study novel and innovative research projects, and support her to find a new treatment for retinal diseases for people who are blind.

Dr. Elizabeth Zuniga-Sanchez

Dr. Elizabeth Zuniga-Sanchez

“Not only are we studying how to cure blindness, but the main overarching theme of my research is to understand how neural circuits form,” Zuniga-Sanchez said. “We often use the retina as a model to understand psychiatric and neurodevelopmental disorders, so a bigger picture is in terms of how circuits form in general and to get insights to the brain as well.”

Her interest in medicine developed at an early age when her younger brother was born with Down syndrome. His developmental delays sparked her curiosity to study mechanisms in the brain and the reason behind neurodevelopmental disorders in children.

A child of Mexican immigrants, Zuniga-Sanchez knew she had more opportunities than her parents. Her father immigrated to the United States at age 15 to support his family as the eldest of nine siblings.

“My parents only had a grade school education, but I always admired my dad. He is a very smart man who learned how to do so much on his own. He always told me ‘If I had the opportunity to go to school, I could’ve done so much more.’ I had the opportunity, and I knew I had to take advantage of that. Seeing how hard my dad worked, he lacked this opportunity, but motivated me to do this,” she said.

Lacking proper guidance for college preparation and applications, Zuniga-Sanchez faced obstacles while applying to college. She uncovered the process on her own and thanks her mentors for helping her along the way. She began her undergraduate education at Berkeley in the school of engineering – one of the most competitive majors offered by the university. She quickly realized she was significantly underprepared compared to her classmates, as her high school’s college preparation efforts were slim. Out of a class of 500, only five students from her high school class attended a four-year university. She knew she had to study five times harder than her peers to successfully graduate from Berkeley. Her positive mindset shaped her career, and after graduating with an engineering degree, she knew she was capable of even more.

“Having that experience where I wasn’t prepared and didn’t have all the resources, but I was able to figure it out as I went and found the help I needed, really shaped me throughout my career,” she said.

Zuniga-Sanchez explains her long-term goal has always been to change the field of science and to have more diversity among scientists. She was born and raised in California among a very diverse population made up of Mexican immigrants. As a minority, Baylor’s graduate population inspired her to work here to train various groups of students.

“The thing I enjoy most is mentoring students. Being able to connect with them and understand their struggles really allows me to make the most change, because I can relate. I’ve been through the same struggles and was able to make it. The best reward for me is inspiring them to keep going and reach high in their careers,” she said.

By Homa Shalchi