By Sara Bondell - March 18, 2022
SPECIAL SERIES: WOMEN IN ONCOLOGY
Women faculty at Moffitt Cancer Center come from different backgrounds and cultures around the globe. Their areas of research and clinical care span the entire cancer continuum, including clinical science and trials, basic science, epidemiology, health outcomes, integrated mathematical oncology, biostatistics and more. Community involvement, mentorship and inclusion among faculty are foundational, and we celebrate the essential roles women play in making a difference at the cancer center and in society.
Meet Dr. Elsa Flores.
Elsa R. Flores, Ph.D., is associate center director of Basic Science at Moffitt. She holds a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a doctorate in cancer biology from University of Wisconsin-Madison. Flores has been widely published in top-tier journals and awarded several distinguished research project grants from the National Cancer Institute and the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, including NCI’s Outstanding Investigator Award. Flores’ research focuses on the fields of cancer cell biology, metabolism and genetics. Her lab is investigating the overlapping and unique activities of the p53 family of tumor suppressor genes using mouse models and patient-derived tumors to develop novel therapeutics for p53 deficient and mutant tumors.
What made you want to go into cancer research as a career?
I was influenced by several family members who died of cancer and pursued a career in cancer research to make a difference.
What are your research interests?
The focus of my laboratory is understanding the p53 family of tumor suppressor genes to create therapeutics for cancers lacking p53 function. Loss or mutation of p53 has long been thought to be “undruggable,” so I am hoping to change that through my research.
Did you almost go into another field?
Yes. My undergraduate degree is in chemical engineering. I did consider moving back to Texas to pursue a career at an oil company.
What is one of the biggest challenges in your field of research?
There are two big things that I think are intertwined: funding and the public’s perception of scientists.
Were you required to do any of your work remotely during the pandemic?
Yes, I wrote grants remotely, and my team and I were awarded a P01 grant from the National Cancer Institute based on work we did during the pandemic. It was challenging homeschooling my first-grader and taking care of my 2-year-old at the same time. Looking back, I don’t know how I found the energy to take care of my children’s needs while leading a large grant effort.
How did working remotely affect your research?
It was incredibly difficult to balance work and homeschooling. I was constantly exhausted and it was impossible to maintain that level of energy. As soon as summer camps opened in 2020, my daughters went back and things got easier.
Have you ever experienced culture shock?
Yes. Moving to Boston when I was 17 was very different from growing up in South Texas. I adapted, but it was not always easy.
What about reverse culture shock?
Yes. When I go back home, I didn’t feel like I quite fit in. This is the difficulty when you are raised in a different culture; you aren’t quite accepted in a different culture and then it is difficult to fit in when you return home. You are no longer the same.
Have you ever felt misunderstood because of a difference in cultural communication styles? Yes. I was recently told to show less passion. I am still processing exactly what that means. I think it means that I am too emotional when I communicate, but it is hard to pretend to be someone you are not.
What comes to mind when you hear the term “imposter syndrome”?
Someone who thinks they are less qualified than they are. I never really thought that I had it until more recently when I applied for a promotion. The whole process has made me less confident in my abilities.
How do you overcome it to move your career and life forward?
I have to say that I am in a period of struggling with this. We are fortunate that Moffitt has resources to work through these issues, and I am taking full advantage of them now.
What does self-care mean to you?
I do things for myself to improve my well-being. It is difficult with a full-time career and two small children, but recently, I have been taking time to exercise.
What do you do to unwind or to recharge?
I spend time with my family and exercise. Riding my bike with my family is one of my favorite things to do.
What advice would you give a colleague about the importance of self-care?
It is important to take time for yourself every day, even if it is just a few minutes, to destress.
What advice would you give your younger self?
To relax and enjoy life at that moment. Be more present instead of constantly worrying or planning for the future.
Who is the person who encouraged you the most and why?
My parents encouraged me to follow my dreams. They always made me believe that I could do anything that I set my mind to.
What do you like about living in the Tampa Bay area?
It is a beautiful place that has a lot of cultural things to do. It is a great place to raise a family.