Doctoral student takes leap into molecular mystery
Outside the Box > > Harriett Platero
By Carolyn Gonzales
|Platero works in the biology lab helping her mentor UNM Professor Mary Anne Nelson reveal secrets locked within cells.
Harriett Platero likes a good mystery novel. She’s equally intrigued by the mysteries taking place in the UNM biology lab where she helps her mentor, Professor Mary Anne Nelson, reveal secrets locked within cells.
Platero was a divorced mother of two working as an accountant when she decided to take the leap and return to UNM to complete her bachelor’s degree in biology.
UNM ranks #2 in producing American Indian baccalaureates in the biological sciences, according to a recent issue of Black Issues in Higher Education. Dr. Victor Gordon of Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis, compiled the data. The magazine conducted the only national analysis using the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Education (2002-03 academic year).
A November 1996 meeting with John Trujillo, now professor emeritus, helped her set a course for the future. “When we met, I told him I thought I could start the next fall. He told me not to wait until then. He said to start right away in January or I’d come up with too many excuses about why I couldn’t,” she recalled.
Trujillo introduced Platero to Biology Professors Maggie Werner-Washburne and Nelson. They helped her find funding sources for her education and she was on her way.
Earning enough credits to finish an undergraduate biology degree her first semester, she stayed on as an undergradute for another year completing all the paperwork to gain admittance into the graduate biology program.
Early years spent exploring genome sequencing for the Neurospora crassa fungus in the Neurospora Genome Project helped Platero realize her own interest in the realm of research, especially in molecular biology. Now researching Neurospora’s sexual cycle, Platero possesses the careful attentiveness and motivation of a professional researcher.
Much as a forensic scientist strips skin and sinew from bone to reveal clues about a person’s life or death, Platero is attempting to characterize one specific gene, a transcription factor, found in the Neurospora crassa genome.
Whether in fungus or Fred, in lichen or Louise, some basic molecular functions are the same across the spectrum. She describes the significance of this fungus in life’s larger framework.
Through research, scientists have identified transcription factors, proteins that regulate other genes. “Transcription factors turn on and off other genes in response to various biological cues,” Platero explained.
Because transcription factors regulate other genes, scientists are working to understand how transcription factors work with other proteins and genes to get an idea about how proteins function. Understanding how transcription factors are regulated is also a large part of her research because they are different from other genes.
“We will see how a gene is regulated while looking at what regulates the regulators, or the transcription factors. This in turn will help us understand how cancer occurs. Often cancer develops when something goes wrong with the regulators,” she said.
Platero’s eye isn’t focused exclusively into the microscopic, however. With two children, now 18 and 11, she takes a slower track through research and education with support from Nelson. Platero is moving past the master’s into the doctorate she expects to finish either next spring or fall.
With relatives in Zuni, Cochiti and Albuquerque, Platero hopes to remain in New Mexico while pursuing a lab career.
“I can see Harriett as a post-doctoral fellow where she could combine research and mentoring. She has taken many undergraduates under her wing,” Nelson said. She added that Platero could readily work in research and development in a private company.
Besides advocates in the Biology Department, Platero’s family has been supportive. Her parents, Joseph and Lolita Bowannie, have been intent on education.
“They said no one was just going to sit around at home or bum around. They strongly encouraged my sister and me to continue our education,” recalled Platero.
Her sister, Mary Bowannie, is a lecturer at UNM in the Native American studies department. Family were the ones who picked up the slack when she needed someone to watch the kids while she was in class, the library or lab.
Platero’s drive to finish school was fueled by her desire to see her daughter gain a college education. “How could I encourage her to do it if I hadn’t finished?” she said.
On the home stretch to a Ph.D., Platero is a role model for her children and the many she has met along the way.