Elba Serrano, Regents Professor in New Mexico State University’s Department of Biology, has received a 2021-2022 Fulbright U.S. Scholar Award to Portugal.
With funding from the U.S. State Department, Serrano will travel to the University of Aveiro in northern Portugal to work with chemistry professor Maria Rosário Domingues. The pair will study marine algae as a source of food to support brain health. The project titled, “Seaweed and the Brain: Using Lipidomics to Determine how Algal Lipids affect the Nervous System,” will get underway in March 2022 and continue for four months.
“A little-appreciated fact is the brain relies on healthy fat to maintain brain health – omega and other polyunsaturated fats and the right amount of cholesterol are critical for brain function,” Serrano said. “Over half our brain weight is fat. Our research can help identify which marine algae are promising to develop as a food source that provides fats that will support brain health.”
The project aims to advance sustainable food efforts and build collaborative ties between the U.S. and Portugal in research and education.
“We are fortunate to have had the benefit of Dr. Serrano’s talents as a Regents Professor and researcher in our biology department at NMSU for decades,” said Enrico Pontelli, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “We are proud of her leadership in efforts to promote STEM programs for our students. This Fulbright Award is merely the latest of many awards recognizing her research excellence and collaborative efforts nationally and internationally.”
“Fulbright helps faculty do cutting-edge research while building international scholarly relationships and reputations,” said Andrea Orzoff, director of the Office of National Scholarships and International Education in NMSU’s William Conroy Honors College. “When those faculty return to campus, their teaching and mentoring takes on an international tone. They are better able to help their students see NMSU in global context, and are able to support their students' efforts to do international work.”
Serrano, whose research focuses on the sensory systems for hearing and balance, neurogenetics, and glial neurobiology, has received grants and awards from the National Institutes of Health R01 and R25 Programs, NASA, the National Science Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the Whitehall Foundation.
“Our project will build on my lab’s expertise growing brain cells in incubators under controlled conditions and the Domingues lab’s ability to use chemistry to isolate important nutrients such as Omega and polyunsaturated fats from marine algae,” Serrano said. “Our goal is to test their effects on isolated brain cells maintained in cell culture dishes that we can observe using microscopes and then analyze chemically for their ability to use the fats.”
During her more than 25 years at NMSU, Serrano has served as the principal investigator and program director of NMSU's Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement student training program from 2008 to 2018 and was the co-founder/principal investigator of the NIH-funded BP-ENDURE Building Research Achievement in Neuroscience (BRAIN) undergraduate program.
“Our primary mission as university professors is to support the success of our students and prepare them to be the next generation of leaders,” Serrano said. “We know that students who undertake research are very likely to complete their degree. Research internships grow student confidence and expertise and build professional skills for the postgraduation workplace. In turn, students contribute original ideas and provide fresh perspectives that lead to scientific breakthroughs. Working with students in research is exciting, fun, and challenging and is one of the best parts of my job.”
Serrano is the lead NMSU investigator for the NSF’s first Hispanic-Serving Institution National STEM Resource Hub. With decades of experience at NMSU, Serrano has used her role as a researcher, mentor and leader for student training programs to broaden students’ participation in science and to build NMSU’s research capacity.
“I am honored to be selected as a U.S. Fulbright Faculty Scholar duirng the program’s 75th anniversary,” said Serrano. “ It is my hope that my Fulbright will build ties between Portugal and the U.S. and New Mexico and open doors for student exchange – in my opinion, an international study abroad experience should be part of every student’s education.”
“I speak as a first-generation college student and the daughter of a U.S. Army sergeant and veteran. I lived on three continents and attended eight schools during my K-12 education. This shaped my world view and gave me a global perspective about science, education and what our country’s international leadership role can be. The Fulbright is awarded by the U.S. Department of State, and I am grateful to be able to give back for the great education I and other students received in Department of Defense Dependents Schools around the world.”
Serrano is an elected fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and and recipient of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) Distinguished Research mentor Award and the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring conferred by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Serrano has served on the Advisory Committee to the director of the National Institutes of Health and was named one of the “100 inspiring Hispanic/Latinx scientists in America” by Cell Press in 2020.