Porras Receives Prestigious Career Award from the National Science Foundation

Dr. Ana Maria Porras, assistant professor in the J. Crayton Pruitt Family Department of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Florida, has received the Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award from the National Science Foundation (NSF). This esteemed recognition highlights her contributions to research and education, particularly in advancing the understanding of host-parasite interactions and extracellular matrix (ECM) biology, which have garnered this prestigious recognition.

The NSF CAREER Award is a highly respected accolade that underscores academic excellence and leadership among early-career faculty members in their research and educational fields. It is the most esteemed recognition presented by the NSF and showcases Dr. Porras’s dedication to driving significant advancements in her area of expertise.

In her CAREER proposal, Porras outlines her vision for developing advanced in vitro systems capable of accurately quantifying the impact of host-parasite interactions on ECM biology. She articulates, “My long-term research vision is to identify the mechanisms through which microorganisms regulate host tissue remodeling and to develop innovative solutions for chronic protozoal infections.”

Protozoal infections are illnesses caused by tiny single-celled organisms called protozoa. These organisms can live inside our bodies and cause diseases like malaria, which is spread by mosquitoes, or amoebiasis, which affects the intestines and can lead to stomach problems. Due to climate change, the reach and prevalence of these parasitic infections are projected to increase in the coming decades, including in the United States.

Porras’s research, as outlined in her CAREER award proposal, focuses on understanding the mechanisms underlying host-parasite interactions and ECM remodeling induced by Leishmania protozoa, particularly in the liver. This includes investigating the activation of hepatic stellate cells (HSCs) and the role of infected macrophages in ECM production and tissue remodeling. Her research addresses the limitations of existing infection models by creating more physiologically relevant biomaterials-based in vitro platforms.

The proposed research objectives are intellectually significant and have tremendous potential for broader impacts. Porras emphasizes, “My CAREER program integrates research and education initiatives aimed at empowering underrepresented communities in STEM, fostering global collaborations, and increasing public awareness about tropical parasitic infections.”

Porras’s NSF CAREER Award represents a significant milestone in her quest to unravel the complexities of host-microbe interactions and drive impactful advancements in biomedical engineering and global health. Moreover, her educational initiatives aim to engage and inspire young engineers while using art to raise awareness about tropical parasitic infections.