Worldwide, rotavirus is the leading cause of diarrhea in children under the age of 5 and was responsible for an estimated 215,000 deaths in this age group in 2013. According to the CDC, nearly all children in the U.S. had contracted rotavirus before the vaccination was introduced in 2006. Originally discovered in 1973, rotavirus is still studied today by Virologists like Dr. Susana López Charretón.
López was born in Mexico City in June 1957. She knew from a young age that she wanted to pursue biology. As a child, she would catch lizards and dissect them. She followed her passion to the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), where she completed her bachelor’s in basic biomedical research in 1980, followed by a masters in 1983 and a PhD in 1986.
While finishing her graduate degrees, she spent a few years at the California Institute of Technology (CalTech) and a semester at the National Institute of Health (NIH) in Tokyo.
After finishing her doctorate, López became a principal investigator at the Institute of Biotechnology at UNAM, where she continues to work today.
She won the Gabino Barreda Medal from UNAM in 1988 for her postdoctoral work. In 1991, she was awarded a Fogarty Fellowship, which she took to CalTech. She spent 1998 on sabbatical at the Instituto Nacional de la Investigación in France.
In 2000, López became an International Research Scholar with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI). HHMI is a philanthropic group that provides funding for biomedical researchers “with the potential for transformative impact.” López’s research was funded through HHMI through 2010, with two five-year funding awards.
Throughout her career, López has made amazing advancements in our understanding of rotavirus.
One of the most important findings by her team was the way in which rotavirus enters the body. Rotavirus is spread through the mouth and skin, but the virus leaves those cells alone and only infects cells in the small intestine.
She’s also studied how the disease reproduces in the small intestine. She’s published more than 80 papers in international journals and has given more than 200 presentations for government bodies, both in Mexico and internationally. She also spent nearly nine years serving on the Editorial Board for the Journal of Virology.
López has earned international recognition for her work with rotavirus. She won the Funsalud Biennial Award in Gastrointestinal Diseases from the Mexican Foundation for Health in 2000 and 2002. In 2001, she was awarded the Carlos J. Finlay Prize for Microbiology from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). In 2012, she won the LÓréal-UNESCO Prize for Women in Science, a prestigious prize given to one only woman scientist per continent each year. López won the award for Latin America for “identifying how rotaviruses cause the death of 600,000 children each year.” That same year, she was also awarded the Omecihuatl Medal from the Women’s Institute of Mexico City.
In 2010, HHMI asked López what she would do to change the world in one year.
She responded, “I would invest that year in convincing people who make enormous amounts of money (TV and movie stars, singers, athletes, etc.) to donate just a small part of their earnings to make a well-administered foundation, with the sole purpose of ensuring that every child in underdeveloped countries has access to all available vaccines, independent of their cost, and to guarantee that these children are nourished properly during the first five years of their lives. This would help give a fair start in life to the people born in underdeveloped nations.”
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