Tuesday, April 18, 2023

Valeria Cota is a first-generation college student from a large family, most of whom live in either Iowa or Mexico.

She’s also completing her fourth year as a graduate student in Associate Professor Nicole Brogden’s lab, which focuses on the use of microneedles to improve drug delivery through the skin. Notably, Cota is a recipient of a three-year National Institutes of Health (NIH) Kirschstein National Research Service Award Pre-Doctoral F31 Fellowship — an “extremely prestigious award and notoriously challenging to get,” according to Brogden, Cota's major professor.

“Receiving the NIH fellowship is super special to me,” Cota said. “I love my research topic and feel that it is an important and interesting area to pursue. To hear that other people find it valuable and worth funding really makes the work worth it.”

Cota Lab

Being bestowed this fellowship is a worthy accomplishment, as the award is highly competitive. NIH F31 predoctoral training grants go through rigorous NIH peer review. Less than 50% of applicants — of which there are few — receive funding after the second submission.

In other words, Cota’s fellowship is a big deal!

The award will support her clinical and preclinical studies of the impact of microneedle application in diverse skin types.

"I think my principal investigator and the College of Pharmacy have really set me up to succeed. I was very fortunate to have received a spot on the T32 Predoctoral Training in the Pharmacological Sciences training grant."  -Valeria Cota

Cota explains that microneedles consist of small projections that form tiny pores which bypass the skin and allow a topical product to enter the bloodstream.

“When I had rotated in my current lab, I was able to observe a clinical study where the group was assessing micropore closure times across skin types,” she added. “Specifically, darker skin took longer to heal. After that, I became super interested in finding out why this occurs. After a seminar looking at dopamine in the brain, I was able to make some connections with wound healing in the skin.”

Cota then spent a weekend writing down her ideas, and her principal investigator, Brogden, was extremely supportive. With her help, Cota was able to develop the thesis topic she has now.

“I think my principal investigator and the College of Pharmacy have really set me up to succeed,” she said. “I was very fortunate to have received a spot on the T32 Predoctoral Training in the Pharmacological Sciences training grant. I also received the Graduate College Post-Comprehensive Research Fellowship this previous year. Additionally, my work was showcased in the Dare to Discover campaign, and it was super neat to see a banner downtown with my name on it.”

Cota, who attended Buena Vista University for her undergraduate studies, initially chose to attend the UI College of Pharmacy for her graduate work because she wanted to stay close to her family and support system.

“Since I am from Sioux City, Iowa, I have grown up surrounded by black and gold and thought attending the University of Iowa would be ideal,” she shared. “My program is interdisciplinary (human toxicology), and I had the opportunity to meet with professors across various departments and colleges. The professors in the College of Pharmacy were welcoming and supportive, and I knew right away that I wanted to stay here for my dissertation work.”

Today, within the College, Cota remains as involved as time allows.

Cota Microneedles Lab

She’s a member of the Human Toxicology Student Advisory Committee, is membership officer for the Graduate Student Senate, and serves as the Biomedical and Medical Sciences Graduate Student Council representative. In addition, Cota is the graduate student representative for the Society of Toxicology’s Dermal Toxicology Specialty Section.

This past year, Cota had a special opportunity to help with the Twice Exceptional (2e) Neuroscience Day Camp, and in October 2021, she participated in an outreach activity for the Human Toxicology Program at a rural-Iowa high school to discuss “everyday toxicology and why it is important.” Lastly, she’s a volunteer head soccer coach for the Iowa City Kickers and enjoys coaching an “amazing group of girls.”

Department Chair Jonathan Doorn wrote in a recent recommendation letter, “Ms. Cota is ambitious in her pursuit of service to make a positive impact on the community (academic and beyond) and inspire other students to success.”

In the future, Cota plans to complete her postdoctoral training and become a principal investigator.

“I would like to continue to do clinical research that helps the community and mentor first-generation students like me,” she said. “I want to be able to come up with cool research topics and help younger researchers come up with some of their own.”

“I can say without reservation that Valeria is one of the most talented and passionate graduate students I have ever worked with,” Brogden said. “Valeria is an exceptional student and young scientist, and she already has a rich history of serving as a leader. One of the most impressive things about her is not only that she sets highly ambitious educational goals for herself, but that she accomplishes far more than what she originally sought out to do.”