Andrea Flores has an autoimmune disease that has often left her bedridden.
At times, she dipped into despair at the prospect of a life interrupted unexpectedly by illness. Such was the case when Flores was in high school, enduring one of the worst flare-ups of her young life. That hopelessness endured until a few weeks into her freshman year at the Universidad de Puerto Rico when she met a team of doctors with an experimental treatment. Miraculously, it worked.
“Not only did they save my life,” says Flores, “but it sparked my interest in research.”
In the summer of 2020 Flores took part in SURF — the Stanford Undergraduate Research Fellowship. Flores got to work with chemical engineering professor Danielle Mai developing designs for an implantable hydrogel that is expected to contract and relax in response to electrical stimulation, just like human muscle tissue. The ultimate goal is to create a scaffold upon which new muscle tissue might regrow to repair traumatic muscle injuries.
“Helping others through my research has always been my main goal, so helping to design something incredible like this was an amazing opportunity,” Flores says.
Due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, Flores had to do her fellowship virtually. That made Flores, who likes hands-on research, a little nervous, but her fear dissipated as soon as she joined Mai’s team.
“The SURF experience has taught me how to be resilient, determined and creative with my research,” says Flores, who feels like she grown professionally and personally, and made lifelong connections with “amazing” people at Stanford.
Eventually Flores would like to pursue a doctorate in bioengineering. Her research interests include tissue engineering, regenerative medicine and biomaterials. So far, she’s conducted research on cancers, and recently published some of her breast cancer research. Next, she’s leading a study of drug sensitivity in Puerto Rican pancreatic cancer patients. It is the first clinical study of its kind ever in the Latino/Hispanic population. Ending that sort of bias in health care is important to Flores, who notes the gaping lack of representation of Latinos/Hispanics not only in research but also as the subjects of clinical studies.
“I hope to use my experiences as a leader in sciences in order to create the change I want to see in Puerto Rico,” Flores says of a career dream SURF has helped further.