The biotechnologist seeking to save lives through food

Rocío Alejandra Chávez Santoscoy is researching Mexican foods that contain healing ‘superpowers.’
We must always rise above challenging times, says Alejandra Chávez. (Photo: Udell Jiménez)

When Rocío Alejandra Chávez Santoscoy, a research professor from the School of Engineering and Sciences at Tec de Monterrey, turned 15, she didn’t want a party or a crinoline dress.

Instead, she asked her mom, a cardiovascular anesthesiologist, to let her observe a heart surgery. So, she had a front-row seat to watch the patient’s blood flow through the extracorporeal circulation machine, the organ stop beating, be operated upon, and activated again.

“I watched my mom, and all her colleagues, as if they were heroes doing amazing things. It was astonishing to realize what medical science can do for the health of human beings,” she says.

The doctors managed to anesthetize, intubate, operate, and resuscitate the patient without complication. Miracles that save lives, but which are everyday skills for them.

It appeared as though medicine would be Alejandra’s chosen profession, given that her father was also a doctor, but she says that, “There was a lot of blood” in that profession and she didn’t like that. Besides, she was passionate about math and chemistry.

Her path wasn’t too far off, because she’s aiming to improve Mexicans’ quality of life through biotechnology by finding active compounds in foods that help to prevent diseases such as cancer.

Discovering the world through the eyes of a child

The famous American astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson says that “all kids are born scientists,” because they’re always looking under rocks, exploring the world, and wondering why things happen.

However, children’s curiosity is stopped by the minds of many adults who limit their explorations and discoveries.

He says that scientists are children who have managed to retain a sense of wonder at basic aspects of nature. This is the case with Alejandra Chávez. Perhaps much of that is because her family always encouraged her curiosity.

On birthdays and Christmases, she would receive chemistry kits and microscopes, and her parents let their children assemble and disassemble things around the house to see what they were like inside and find out answers on their own.

“I always had a very analytical mindset and always wondered about the reason for things. I really liked to investigate and get to the answer,” says the leading biotechnologist at the TecBASE National Genome Sequencing Laboratory.

Ever since she was a little girl, she was familiar with human health. There was always talk of research at home.

Shining with her own light

Rocío Alejandra Chávez Santoscoy was born in Guadalajara in 1987, but when she was four years old, her family moved to Ciudad Obregón, in Sonora. She’s older than her twin sister by one minute, and has another brother who is four years younger.

The researcher says that she and her siblings studied elementary education in public schools, but they were told in a talk about the Tec’s high school and she and her sister fell in love with the idea of studying there.

But it wasn’t all that easy. “I fell in love with the Tec. I wanted to study there, but it was very difficult for my family. One day, my mom told me: ‘Find a way to get there, because I can’t afford that.’”

Chávez Santoscoy began knocking on doors and looking for support. She found a family of business owners who supported her through the Estoy Contigo (I’m With You) civil association, which actually supports people with cancer.

This organization left a mark on her in many ways, because witnessing the cancer patients’ suffering was a turning point in her life. She decided that, in some way, she would help prevent and reduce the symptoms and improve the quality of life of people suffering from the disease.

With great dedication to their studies, both Alejandra and her sister managed to get the Tec to continue giving them a scholarship to carry on studying, semester after semester.

When deciding on a degree, she chose biotechnology as it’s a profession that combines the logical thinking of engineering with biology and health.

During that study period, Chávez Santoscoy was the lead author of a study analyzing the active compounds of the juice from nine varieties of prickly pear to evaluate their antioxidant and anticancer properties.

That first scientific article published in Plant Foods for Human Nutrition in 2009 is the most cited of her scientific career. More than that, it opened the doors for her to study for a PhD with a CONACyT scholarship.

Rocío Alejandra Chávez grew up hearing about science. Her parents, who were doctors, would give her chemistry sets every Christmas for her to conduct experiments. (Photo: Courtesy of the interviewee)

Transforming lives through science

One of her greatest achievements is having won the Innovators under 35 LATAM award by MIT Technology Review in 2017.

This award was given to her for having incorporated active molecules into tortillas and tortilla chips to provide beneficial effects against obesity and diabetes, which goes against logic for many people (these are the first things they stop eating when they start dieting).

Another of her achievements is having contributed to creating the TecBASE National Genome Sequencing Laboratory with state-of-the-art genomic technology that is revolutionizing how science is done in Mexico.

We are what we eat

“We are what we eat. We often believe medicine is going to change our quality of life, but this is built on a day-to-day basis. It’s a variable that affects our health and should be further studied.”

Chávez Santoscoy and other researchers are studying how certain foods positively influence our gene expression and help us prevent disease.

One of her research projects is to do with the Totoaba macdonaldi fish, which is in danger of extinction due to illegal fishing in the Gulf of California.

Feeding the species is expensive, because their diet is carnivorous; but in the laboratory, they’ve experimented with a plant-based protein diet, such as corn and beans, with the aim of making them reach a good size to be able to be sold at a good price in the country’s aquaculture industry.

Another project is the nanoencapsulation of phenolic flavonoids, which can be found in many plant foods and have beneficial effects on our health, such as anti-inflammatory, anticancer, and antioxidant properties.

“What we’re doing is enriching these foods and stabilizing molecules so that we can actually see effects in the short term.”

She would like to positively influence nutrigenomics, a field that proposes dietary interventions, both in humans and in other organisms, based on their genetic information and gene expression.

Nowadays, Alejandra Chávez is the mother of two young daughters to whom she’s trying pass on the desire to achieve their dreams without feeling limited by anyone or anything.

“Despite the obstacles and challenging times, it’s important to know how to pick ourselves up and persevere. We need to find a way to achieve our goals.” (With information from Ricardo Treviño, CONECTA)

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Rocío Alejandra Chávez Santoscoy is researching Mexican foods that contain healing ‘superpowers.’

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Mariana León

Journalist. I worked at El Universal, El Financiero and Grupo Expansión. I was a political reporter and also a staff writer on science, education, and environmental issues. I believe in the importance of telling stories and making a better world. Feminist.