When Ariana Umaña visited Blacksburg from Costa Rica five years ago, it planted a seed in her mind: she wanted to come back and earn her Ph.D. at Virginia Tech.

Not only is she achieving that this fall, but she is also going to work at the National Human Research Genome Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health, after graduation this winter.

“I'm excited about taking the next step to see where this is going to lead me and to work at such a high-impact research institute immediately after graduation,” Umaña said.

In 2015, as part of Umaña’s undergraduate program at Tecnologico de Costa Rica, she was required to conduct thesis-level research. She got in touch with Pablo Sobrado, a professor of biochemistry in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, also from Costa Rica, who arranged for Umaña to conduct her research at Virginia Tech. After her work was completed in three months, she headed back to Costa Rica.

That time in Blacksburg had a major impact on Umaña's desire to pursue her childhood dream of becoming a scientist. While here, she met Daniel Slade, an assistant professor of biochemistry, whose research piqued her interests.

His work on Fusobacterium nucleatum — a common bacterium that can leave the mouth and potentially accelerate colorectal cancer and promote existing cancer cells to spread — intrigued Umaña.

The three months Umaña spent at Virginia Tech in 2015 led her down her path to earning her Ph.D. and working at the National Human Research Genome Institute.

The three months Umaña spent at Virginia Tech in 2015 led her down her path to earning her Ph.D. and working at the National Human Research Genome Institute.
The three months Umaña spent at Virginia Tech in 2015 led her down her path to earning her Ph.D. and working at the National Human Research Genome Institute.

“Ariana is truly an exceptional student and scientist both in the classroom and in the laboratory,” said Slade, an affiliated researcher in the Fralin Life Sciences Institute. “However, her true strength lies in how she makes everyone around her better by showing how to be a great team member in a lab, while also being strong and independent. The research that Ariana is close to completing will result in a paradigm shift in how we view the role of bacteria in cancer. I couldn’t be prouder of all that she has achieved, and I have no doubt that Ariana will continue her rise as a stellar scientist as she shifts her career to work on endometrial cancer at the NIH.”

As a postdoctoral fellow working with Daphne Bell at the NIH, she will continue that research but will focus solely on cancer biology.

“Dr. Bell looks at somatic mutations that drive, or cause, clinically aggressive forms of endometrial cancer,” Umaña said.

While research with Fusobacterium guided her time at Virginia Tech, Umaña also navigated the challenges of being an international student far from home.

At the National Human Research Genome Institute, Umaña will solely be researching cancer biology.

At the National Human Research Genome Institute, Umaña will solely be researching cancer biology.
At the National Human Research Genome Institute, Umaña will solely be researching cancer biology.

There were things she missed as a member of a large family. There were the little things, like birthdays, and bigger things, like the birth of a cousin and her uncle getting married.

Through it all, though, Umaña’s family was an inspiration to her, pushing her toward success.

“My grandfather said that when I receive my diploma, I have to send it back to Costa Rica so that they can all have it. He told me he wants to make a copy of it and put it in his car,” Umaña said with a laugh. “I always had people telling me that I could do this. My family has inspired me to be where I am today. It’s like they are here beside me, even though they are far away. I’m just trying to be better and to be the best scientist that I can be.”

While her family won’t be attending commencement because of COVID-19 concerns, Umaña knows they will be with her as one chapter of her journey ends and a new one begins. Just as they always have.