Cancer research and the magic of chemistry  

“Before going into chemistry, the only liquid I really knew was water,” says Ivonne Lopez-Miranda, sitting across from me in the bustling dining hall of the William G. Davis building. Now, Lopez-Miranda is working on getting her master’s in chemistry at the University of Toronto Mississauga (UTM). Having graduated from UTM in 2022 with a biological chemistry specialist and an economics minor, Lopez-Miranda refers to chemistry as her passion. “It’s the closest thing to magic you can get to,” she explains. “You throw things in together and then an hour later you have something completely different. I think that’s pretty cool.”

Lopez-Miranda’s love for chemistry began with her science teachers in elementary and high school. “I had great science teachers,” she shares. “I got to eleventh grade and took organic chemistry, and I really enjoyed that course. My teacher was really enthusiastic and passionate about it, so I feel like that [fuelled] my passion now.” Lopez-Miranda also enjoyed certain biology courses she took in high school, such as anatomy and physiology. 

The Beharry Lab, a lab that specializes in cancer biology, is where Lopez-Miranda conducts most of her cancer-related research. “I really enjoy the lab I’m in, because not only do you have a hand in making the compounds, but you can also test and apply them,” Lopez-Miranda explains. 

Her current project involves exploiting different properties of light to activate certain drugs that assist in surgery and help identify where a tumor is. Lopez-Miranda explains that her research starts with identifying a desired compound to make. She is given a multi-step recipe to make the compound, called a synthetic scheme. 

Although she enjoys her time in the lab, Lopez-Miranda admits that cancer research isn’t always easy. “A lot of times you start off knowing what you want to make, have your proposed way of making it, and set off on making it, but sometimes your conditions aren’t the best, so you have to tweak here and there,” she confesses. “It’s a lot of trial and error.” 

When her experiments don’t go as planned, Lopez-Miranda looks to her lab group for support. They sit down together and brainstorm what went wrong, and what to improve in their next attempt. “My colleagues are a very [supportive],” she explains, “We’re there for each other when the reaction isn’t working.” Lopez-Miranda adds that since chemistry involves a lot of group work, she feels a sense of community within the field. This sense of community, according to Lopez-Miranda, is rare to find in other fields that consist of individual work. “If people are considering chemistry, the community is very friendly and cooperative,” she stresses. “People are here to help each other.” 

Although Lopez-Miranda loves her work, she explains that it is important to find a balance between working and taking breaks. It’s also good to know when you’ve reached your limit. “When I was at home, I did a lot of work, but my parents also wanted to make sure I was social and had those extracurricular activities,” she shares. “So, it was like, ‘Yes, school is good, but also have friends, pursue activities,’ that kind of thing.”

As for future goals, Lopez-Miranda still hasn’t decided on her career path. “I’m still looking,” she says. In the meantime, she remains focused on learning, improving her skills, and facing the challenges that come up along the way. “In chemistry, you are consistently pushed to your limit in terms of problem-solving and asking questions,” she argues.

Lopez-Miranda considers science as the pursuit of truth. “We’re always pursuing something and always trying to find something new, and we have new questions that come up on our journey,” she says. “I love chemistry. I hope that other people can get passionate about chemistry as well. If you’re the kind of person who is innately curious, then chemistry is the way to go,” she finishes.


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