Astrid and Sandra Cardona: Sisters in STEM leverage individual research talents to fight autoimmune disease
Whether squabbling over the TV remote or vying for their parents’ attention, sibling rivalries are often a natural part of growing up with brothers and sisters. But when asked if there was ever any sibling competition between the two of them, Astrid Cardona and her younger sister Sandra Cardona looked at each other and smiled—their relationship lacks such competitiveness.
“We get that a lot—people asking if we get along well or if it’s hard to work together. And we’re like, ‘Uh, no,’” Sandra joked. “We’ve never had issues working together, and I don’t see competition. We have always been very supportive of each other.”
“And she’s my little sister,” Astrid added. “So, I don’t think I would even entertain the idea of fighting with her. In our culture, we take care of the little ones.”
Astrid and Sandra both work in the UTSA College of Sciences’ Department of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology (MMI). Astrid is department chair and the Jane & Roland Blumberg Professor in Biology, and Sandra is an assistant professor of research and director of the UTSA Cell Analysis Core.
While they would both ultimately end up in San Antonio conducting research together in the same lab, Astrid and Sandra each carved unique paths in their education and careers before arriving at UTSA. As the oldest of the two, Astrid was the first to leave their native Colombia and travel to the U.S. to pursue her doctoral education. She joined the UTSA faculty in 2009 after earning a Ph.D. in Microbiology from the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.
A few years later, Sandra would also make her way to the U.S. with plans to differentiate herself from her sister by pursuing a different STEM discipline—oncology—which she was inspired to study after their father passed away from cancer. But when she was accepted into a neuroscience-focused program similar to Astrid’s, she grew to love the subject. Sandra would go on to earn her Ph.D. in Cellular and Molecular Biology from Kent State University, where she got to study viruses in the brain.
Sandra’s extensive experience working with viruses during her doctoral program complemented what Astrid had already begun investigating in her own research lab at UTSA. This presented them with a unique opportunity to combine their talents, and Sandra would join her sister in San Antonio in 2012 as a postdoctoral research fellow in Astrid’s lab. For the next three years, they would closely study the mechanisms of neuroinflammation and the causes and processes of tissue damage in people with diabetes, multiple sclerosis and other chronic diseases.
“During my Ph.D., I acquired a new set of expertise and techniques, which then became very useful to Astrid because she was already starting to work on some research models that utilized viruses as well. That’s how we ended up working in the same lab,” Sandra said. “I was also able to teach her students. And that’s been something I’ve enjoyed a lot: being able to train many of her graduate students and undergrads on these new things I learned myself.”
Rather than letting competition arise from their work, the sisters viewed conducting research together as the perfect chance to explore a common interest while working to fight disease and make a difference.
“I think it’s very rewarding to be able to solve problems together,” Astrid said, “and there's a lot of opportunity for growth and collaboration.”
At UTSA, both sisters have been committed to promoting research excellence and student success. For example, Astrid—along with fellow MMI faculty—played an integral role in launching the university’s new molecular microbiology and immunology Ph.D. program last fall, which is helping to address the shortage of infectious disease and immunology specialists in Texas and around the country. And as Cell Analysis Core Director, Sandra ensures that critical services, training and equipment are available for scientists at UTSA. Her work supports cutting-edge research across the university and helps improve the education and training of student researchers and fellows.
Although they now work in separate labs on campus, Astrid and Sandra were grateful to have each other for support as first-generation students navigating their education and professional careers in a new country. They are now committed to paying it forward by empowering the next generation of STEM scholars, supporting their students both in and out of the classroom.
“I was always very fortunate to have the support of senior faculty around me, checking on me, and making sure everything was okay. We’re trying to do that with all the trainees that work in the lab,” Astrid said. “With the students that we have under our mentorship, we try the best we can to not only grow their scientific minds, but also help them in a professional manner, the same way that many others have done for us."
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