Assumption Biology Major First International Undergrad to Conduct Microbiology Research at Brazil’s Top University
While millions of people across the world flocked to Rio di Janeiro for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games, Marielena Layuno Matos ’17 spent her summer conducting research focused on oral microbiology at the neighboring University of São Paulo. Layuno Matos, a biology major from Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, is the first international undergraduate student to ever work in São Paulo’s Oral Microbiology Research Department.
During her internship, Layuno Matos tested whether probiotic bacteria—the “good” bacteria that help in digestion— have any ability to inhibit bacteria that causes oral infections. “The experiment was to test if taking bacteria that are good for you could alleviate oral infections caused by bacteria,” explained Layuno Matos.
In addition to her own research, Layuno Matos spent some time collaborating on Zika experiments relative to potential means of transmission. “They were trying to rule out the possibility that the Zika virus could be expressed in the cells present in the saliva,” she said. Through her research, Layuno Matos shared that she was able to obtain “some data on the expression of the virus in cells that are on the oral cavity and an expression was seen compared to the control.”
When not in the lab researching, Layuno Matos attended class, met with staff and advisors, prepared media and experiments, and replicated bacteria in petri dishes.
Layuno Matos credits her Assumption education for preparing her to be successful during this unique summer opportunity. “[What I have learned at Assumption] was crucial to my performance in the research lab,” said Layuno Matos. “Everything I had learned in my microbiology class, in my job as a lab assistant in the science department, and in past laboratories at Assumption gave me the confidence I needed to thrive and stand out in my new environment.”
According to Assumption College Assistant Professor of Biology, Aisling Dugan, Ph.D., Layuno Matos is a driven student who takes her studies seriously. “Although she may credit me for encouraging her to pursue and independent research project while studying in Brazil, she took all the initiative and found this position by investigating the research being done at the University and directly contacting professors,” said Prof. Dugan. “She is quite a go-getter, and we are very proud to have her in our department and represent our College abroad.”
The opportunity to conduct research in Brazil was one that had Layuno Matos very excited. She reached out to the University of Sao Paulo, the top-ranked school in South America, and explained her love of microbiology. It didn’t take long for the head of the department to offer her a research position in their laboratory. “I wanted to combine the two things I love - dentistry and microbiology,” said Layuno Matos of picking microbiology research. “To be able to do this was a dream come true. It was really an honor to be able to work there and share the lab with such amazing people.”
According to Prof. Dugan, Layuno Matos welcomed the challenges involved in studying abroad in a completely new city and culture and was eager to remain involved in the sciences outside of class. “Her creative and inquisitive mind push her to understand the whys and hows of science,” she added.
Layuno Matos said that overall her research project was both manageable and challenging, but the language barrier took some time to overcome. “In the laboratory, everything was spoken, read, and written in Portuguese. So, the vocabulary was difficult to understand in the beginning,” she explained.
She also said that unpredictability of bacteria taught her the importance of flexibility and keeping an open mind. “I learned to be patient with myself, and that it takes time to get the hang of things when you begin,” she said.
While she was able to learn a great deal from her own research in Brazil, Layuno Matos also received help and guidance from her on-site advisor, Dione Kawamoto, Ph.D., who has been working in the microbiology department at the University of São Paolo for 15 years. “I learned everything from her,” said Layuno Matos. “In her free time, she would teach me all of the procedures before I performed them and help me analyze all the data I obtained. She was running four projects at the same time, and accepted the challenge of advising me and helping me understand the Portuguese language, and I could not be more grateful for her help.”
In December, Layuno Matos will complete the requirements for a biology degree then return to Brazil for another three months for more research and to “get more data to reach a solid conclusion” to her summer project. Looking towards the future, Layuno Matos plans to start dental school in Puerto Rico next August, but hopes to remain involved with the Brazilian research during summers and perhaps even through a partnership between her future graduate program and the University of São Paulo.
“This research opened many possibilities for my career,” she said. “I realized that even as a dentist, I can keep working with microbiology. Thanks to this research, I solidified my interest in dentistry and confirmed that this is the path and professional field that I will continue on for the rest of my life.”
Assumption students interested in pursuing internship opportunities should contact the College's Career Development & Internship Center.
Kimberly Dunbar, Director of Public Affairs, Assumption College