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Graduate Student Finds Her Calling in Medical Research

November 4, 2013

Graduate student Portia Mira has always liked helping people and learning ever since she found refuge in school from her dysfunctional home life.

UC Merced Graduate student Portia MiraShe focuses on taking care of others, including her younger, disabled sister, and her work here at UC Merced is no different.

By researching antibiotics with Professor Miriam Barlow and School of Natural Sciences Dean Juan Meza and participating in Barlow’s Project Protect program, she gets to help people with their real-life health problems.

Mira, Barlow and Meza research resistance genes in mutated and antibiotic-resistant E. coli, and are looking for a way to drive the bacteria back to its original state – in which it was vulnerable to basic antibiotics. The hope is to not only help cure the E. coli infection, but to learn how to drive other bacterial infections back to that vulnerable state, because bacteria have rapidly evolved to resist conventional medicines.

Mira also helps Barlow with her Facebook and Twitter campaign called Project Protect, which is a way for Barlow and her student researchers to help the public get more information about antibiotics and infectious diseases.

“The medical field – and human health in general – really piques my interest. I really want to be able to have an impact on people and the community at large, whether it is through direct contact with patients in a hospital or doing research that could be used in a hospital to treat patients,” Mira said. “I have just found my place in the 'background' so to speak, with research that I hope will make it to the community.”

Medical research is hard work, but that’s nothing new to Mira.

The daughter of two drug-addicted parents, she grew up in foster care with a disabled younger sister to look after. A lot of kids in foster care don’t do well in school, but for Mira, it was an escape.

“I took school as a way out of my regular life and responsibilities,” she said. “I love learning – it’s something I have always loved.”

She said she considered going straight into the medical field after graduating with her bachelor’s in the spring, but many people encouraged her to get an advanced degree, and “everything just fell into place.”

“Dean Meza has been the key in all this – he has given me so much information and support,” she said.

“Portia was one of the best students in my BIO 180 class,” Meza said. “I was particularly impressed by her understanding of the mathematical models although it was clear that she was also quite knowledgeable about the biological components. During one of the office hours, we started talking about her future plans. I strongly encouraged her to apply to graduate school and I was delighted when she ended up in our graduate program.”

That kind of personal attention is one of the benefits of attending a smaller school like UC Merced – the faculty-to-student ratio is low, especially for grad students, so they get much more one-on-one time with faculty mentors, and can develop great relationships.

As it is for all students, graduate school is a balancing act for Mira, who has a 3-year-old daughter, Briana. Her husband, Jairo, is an undergraduate student at UC Merced and works in campus Dining Services, while Mira is a teaching assistant as well as a student and researcher.

Along with Meza’s, Jairo Mira’s encouragement was instrumental in Portia’s decision to continue on at UC Merced for grad school. She said she wouldn’t have done it without him.

Barlow said Mira is a great communicator, which helps her keep up on everything, despite being so busy. She has nothing but praise for Mira’s dedication to her graduate studies.

“Portia is extremely well organized.  This enables her to accomplish everything she needs to get done in a day,” Barlow said. “She also works very hard to make sure she does everything right the first time.  She does all she can to avoid mistakes.”