Unfortunately, many aspects of women’s health are underfunded and understudied. Better understanding women’s health conditions and microbiomes can help lead to better health outcomes and improve the quality of life. Amy Randall-Barber from the BIO5 Institute was joined on Science Talks by Dr. Nicole Jimenez, currently in the Melissa Herbst-Kralovetz lab, at the University of Arizona College of Medicine — Phoenix with a focus on women’s health research. She received her doctorate from Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine and was awarded two postdoctoral fellowships in 2023, one from the Community Foundation for Southern Arizona and the other from the BIO5 Institute.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
ARB: Before we get started, I’d like to ask a few icebreaker questions. What’s one of your nicknames?
I don’t have a unique nickname, just Nikki.
But I was thinking more about this. I play Dungeons and Dragons, and one of my character’s names is Sin Nombre, which means ‘without name’. And the funny thing is that my PI, Melissa, worked early in her career on a virus called the Sin Nombre virus. I recently found this out and thought it was so interesting and serendipitous!
ARB: That’s too cool!
What’s your hidden talent?
I would say my hidden talent would be cooking, and more recently mixology. During the pandemic, I was working on my dissertation, but I also picked up mixology. More recently, I've been focusing on non-alcoholic cocktails. I have many different wood burning tips for smoking as well as different bitters. It's a really fun experience. With the no-alcohol craze coming around, you still want to socialize and create a beautiful experience to share with others.
ARB: What’s your favorite drink to make?
As far as an alcoholic drink is concerned, I would say a Negroni. That has Campari, gin and some other bitters in it. Then for non-alcoholic, I usually make a rose mule with rose syrup and ginger.
ARB: The rose mule sounds delicious. If I come to Phoenix, you’ll have to make me one!
Let’s get into your research. What is your current research and what got you interested in it?
I was recruited to the University of Arizona to work on the microbiome. In my graduate career, I was working on the microbiome and its relationship to pregnancy and preterm birth. Here, I get to work on the microbiome, including rectal, vaginal, endometrial, and how it relates to gynecologic cancers as well as benign gynecologic conditions such as endometriosis and chronic pelvic pain.
I got into this research because when I was picking my major at Arizona State University, I became a nutrition major since I wanted to see how environmental factors impact health. I learned about the gut microbiome, and it got me fascinated with how that impacted human health. And so, I switched my major to microbiology and stayed in this vein of research.
ARB: I love to hear those kind of journey stories and what the pivotal moments are.
Can you tell us about the overall research goals of your lab?
The Herbst-Kralovetz lab focuses on women's health research. We incorporate metabolomics, microbiome, and immunoproteomics to better understand how certain conditions occur. We also think about better ways that we can modulate the microbiome to have better health outcomes.
Right now, our focus is on gynecologic cancers. Mostly cervical cancer and endometrial cancer, as well as these benign gynecologic conditions. Some of them have similar characteristics to cancers such as adenomyosis — an overgrowth of cells in the muscles of the uterus — as well as endometriosis and chronic pelvic pain.
ARB: Can you tell us about the most exciting part of your research and how it fits in to those overall goals?
As a woman working in the women's health space every day, I discover something different. It took me researching in this area to learn about the different symptoms. The most exciting part is not just learning all that information, but also trying to create change in the management of those symptoms.
We're creating early diagnostics. For example, it currently takes six to seven years for a patient to get diagnosed with endometriosis. And that's not acceptable. My social science background has helped me understand some of these discrepancies and why they're happening.
ARB: How do they diagnose endometriosis?
Usually it's through symptoms, MRIs or other diagnostics. To fully understand endometriosis, you have to have surgery or biopsy, which is really invasive. Our lab is focusing on other ways that we can diagnose sooner and less invasively.
ARB: That would be great for all women.
Can you talk more about the difference between your two fellowships? Are the projects for your postdoctoral fellowships the same or different?
Both fellowships that I was awarded are on a particular bacterium called Atopobium vaginae, now called Fannyhessea vaginae. During my graduate school career, we identified that this one bacterium is three.
However, not a lot of research has been done on those three. Are they different from one another? Are they similar? This particular bacterium has been associated with bacterial vaginosis (BV), increased inflammation, and more recently, endometrial and cervical cancer. So, you can see how that ties into our lab’s overall goals.
My project is focusing on those three newly identified species in our clinical cohorts for cervical and endometrial cancer. I’m also looking at associations for different clinical factors, metabolic profiles or immunoproteomic profiles.
Then we also have this sub-study of my postdoctoral work in the Herbst-Kralovetz lab focused on a 3D cell culture model. It looks similar to human tissue, and we can infect these cells with bacteria. Then, we look at how they change the immune and metabolomic environment. That gives us better understanding of host pathogen interactions, such as how those bacteria are potentially progressing cancer.
ARB: Have you had any influential mentors in your personal life or educational career?
Many of my mentors are so important. I think I had my first mentor when I was in high school. And then when I went to undergrad, I had a whole bunch of different mentors because I was part of this scholar program called Los Diablos where you're assigned a mentor for each year that you're in the undergrad program.
Then during graduate school, I obtained even more mentors, because I was part of the Initiative for Maximizing Student Development (IMSD) program and prep programs funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Currently, through the BIO5 Postdoctoral Fellowship, I created a mentorship committee where I have mentors in Tucson and Phoenix who are guiding me not only on my project, but also on career advice. Right now, as a postdoc, I’m wondering, “Where am I going next? How do I get there? What advice do they have that made them successful?”
Because giving back to the community is important to me, I’m currently mentoring students in our lab, which is predominantly 90% women.
I want to get more women interested in science and women's health, which tends to be underfunded and under researched. So, I’m involved with the WISE program, the Women in Science and Engineering at the University of Arizona as well as the Los Diablos program. Now instead of just being a mentee, I'm a mentor.
ARB: That’s full circle! Thank you for all your mentorship.
What’s next for you? Do you tend to live in the moment or have a big plan?
I think it takes a bit of both to be successful in academia and in science. For me, I like to plan out major goals and how I can get there. But you also have to be flexible. Your experiment might not go right, or a grant opportunity might just pop up and you have to quickly apply for it.
My next step is to work towards a K-99 grant, so that it can transition me from my postdoc position to an academic professorship position. I'm working on a few other grants now, too, and our lab is working on publishing many, many manuscripts.
ARB: We will definitely be on the lookout for those papers. Thank you again for joining us and sharing your story.