Scouting sparks a scientist

Graduate student Karina Barbosa is inspired to take on big healthcare challenges
Karina Barbosa, graduate student, in front of white board

At the age of 10, Karina Barbosa joined the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts at the suggestion of her mother, once a scout herself. Little did she know how the experience would lead her to a career in biomedical research.

Today, Barbosa is a Ph.D. student studying epigenetics—the modifications to DNA that control gene activity. She is studying how this fascinating field of biology impacts cancer under the guidance of Ani Deshpande, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Tumor Initiation and Maintenance Program at Sanford Burnham Prebys.


Growing up in Mexico, Barbosa became a Girl Guide, the country’s equivalent to U.S. Girl Scouts. Before becoming a Girl Guide, she had seen scientists on television but had never met one in person. As part of her program, she visited a lab for the first time. Suddenly she could see herself as a scientist: “If it wasn’t for that experience, I might not have pursued research.”

Barbosa is researching acute myeloid leukemia (AML), an extremely deadly cancer, with only a quarter of patients living five years past diagnosis. Understanding epigenetics could create better treatments for AML and beyond: Scientists are linking epigenetic processes with many types of cancer, autoimmune disorders and neurological conditions.

If it wasn’t for that experience,
I might not have pursued research.

Karina during Girl Guide community service activities in Tijuana, Mexico, 2010.
Karina recently spoke to her former Girl Guide troop about her life as a cancer researcher.

Inspiring future scientists

While currently focused on completing her Ph.D., she aspires to serve as a role model for other girls. One day she hopes to plan a field trip to Sanford Burnham Prebys for her former troop. “Many young people don’t grow up thinking of science as a career because they don’t know a scientist,” she says. “I feel a responsibility to help others understand what scientists do, and how we work to solve many of the health issues facing society today.”

Barbosa is pleased she landed at the Institute, noting, “Here, scientists not only share supplies, but we share ideas, and there are tremendous opportunities to collaborate.”