Research Supports Patient Care: Spotlight on Nicole Jimenez

March 28, 2024

Nicole Jimenez, Ph.D.
Nicole Jimenez, Ph.D.
Source: Alessandro Photos
Research plays a pivotal role in advancing quality patient care. It was with this understanding that Nicole Jimenez, Ph.D., embarked on a trajectory that led her to explore the intricate relationships between the vaginal microbiome and gynecologic health. Through her extensive research on various gynecologic conditions, Jimenez underscores the critical need for research in this under-studied domain to develop non-invasive diagnostics and effective treatment plans for patients.  

Jimenez is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, Phoenix whose aptitude for science developed at a young age. She credits this, in part, to the fact that she grew up in a woman-led household surrounded by family members, like her mother, who celebrated the value of education and exploration. When Jimenez was a child, her mother, an elementary school teacher, often brought her along to school supply stores. On these coveted shopping excursions, Jimenez would gape at science kits and books about plants and animals. The best outings ended with her mother gifting her a rock kit, crystal growing kit or terrarium for her at-home experiments. “I was really intrigued and curious about the world and how it worked,” Jimenez said. “I didn't fully understand this at the time, but [my mom] was trying to help build my curiosity.” 

It wasn’t until high school that Jimenez started thinking about a future career in STEM. As she geared up for college, Jimenez felt particularly drawn to health sciences. Through support from the Los Diablos Scholarship, an Arizona State University (ASU) program that provides mentorship, professional development opportunities and financial assistance to students who identify as Hispanic/Latine, Jimenez attended ASU. She entered as a human nutrition major and gathered intel on how nutrition could impact a patient’s health outcomes. Through her studies, Jimenez was introduced to research on the gut microbiome. This research, which was just emerging at the time, piqued her interest so much that she promptly switched her major to microbiology.  

One of Jimenez’s mentors (who she connected with via the Los Diablos Scholarship) recommended that she apply to the Postbaccalaureate Research Education Program (PREP), an initiative supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Through PREP, Jimenez found her way to Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), where she earned her Ph.D. “It was really through that program that I started learning more about research [pertaining to] human health. And, also, about grad school and what it entails,” Jimenez said. “I highly recommend [programs like PREP] to folks starting off in their career.” Jimenez also found support through VCU’s Center on Health Disparities programs that assisted graduate students from historically underrepresented groups who were interested in biomedical research.  

VCU houses an established vaginal microbiome consortium of which Jennifer Fettweis, Ph.D. (former assistant professor at the university) was a key faculty member. The lab focuses on investigating the vaginal microbiome in pregnancy and preterm birth. Drawn to this research focus, Jimenez enthusiastically joined the team. “We were looking into the vaginal microbiome and how it is related to gynecologic disease and conditions like bacterial vaginosis and trichomoniasis, which is a parasitic infection, as well as how the microbiome changes throughout pregnancy. We also investigated the transmission of a [birthing parent’s] microbes to infants, and how that impacted them later in life,” Jimenez explained. This is an ongoing investigation for the lab. She highlighted that joining the Fettweis lab was a good move—it exposed her to not only microbiology research and computational biology, but also to clinical research. 

While working in Fettweis’ lab, Jimenez also examined the evolutionary biology of Bifidobacterium, a bacterium that is commonly found in the gut. Only, Jimenez considered the role of the bacterium in the vaginal environment and how it adapted and presented in conditions like bacterial vaginosis. “[Bifidobacterium] tends to be known as a probiotic in the gut, however, not as much literature is out [about its behavior] in the vaginal environment. So, I was wondering whether or not it could be potentially [used as] a probiotic in the [vaginal] environment as well,” she said. While researchers are still investigating this, they were able to ascertain that gut Bifidobacterium holds several similarities to vaginal Bifidobacterium genomically. But vaginal Bifidobacteria, compared to Lactobacilli (which is also found in the gut and vagina), is not as well-studied.  

After finishing her Ph.D., Jimenez faced several questions often pondered by students wrapping up their graduate work: “What do I want to do with my life? And where am I going next?” Her quandary prompted her to return to her home state of Arizona, where Melissa Herbst-Kralovetz, Ph.D., the Director of the Women’s Health Microbiome Initiative at the College of Medicine-Phoenix, was investigating the vaginal microbiome with a keen interest in host-microbe interactions. Through both clinical studies and 3D in vitro work, Herbst-Kralovetz' team observed different infections with a variety of bacteria, drawing connections to the development of several different gynecologic conditions. "[This work] is unique as we can take what we learn in the clinic with our multi-omics studies and then decipher how different bacteria interact with the host and contribute to gynecologic disease,” Jimenez said. 

 Melissa Herbst-Kralovetz and Nicole Jimenez in the lab.
Melissa Herbst-Kralovetz and Nicole Jimenez work together on vaginal microbiome research at the University of Arizona.
Source: University of Arizona College of Medicine – Phoenix Marketing and Communications

“At the time I was applying [to postdoc positions], she (Herbst-Kralovetz) also had a lot of papers on cervical cancer, especially within underrepresented groups, such as Hispanic and Latine [patients] and Native American and Indigenous [patients],” Jimenez added. “All of that interested me—microbiome work and patient health.”  

More than 2 years into her postdoctoral position at the University of Arizona in Herbst-Kralovetz's lab, Jimenez is continuing the work she started during her Ph.D. at VCU. While there, the lab’s team found that a bacterium of interest, Atopobium vaginae (now known as Fannyhesse vaginae), was actually 3 separate species of bacteria. This realization was supported by another research team in Canada as well.  

Now, at the University of Arizona, Jimenez is running a few studies to examine the differences between those 3 species of bacteria (among others) and how they might contribute to benign gynecologic conditions and gynecologic cancers, including endometrial cancer and cervical cancer. She's also working to understand the etiology of those conditions.

The more Jimenez has delved into health-related research for gynecologic conditions, the more she has realized that this is an under-studied and under-funded area of microbiology.  

“You start to think about, especially from a patient's perspective, how many people [these conditions] actually affect, and the prevalence is still unclear. And that's [in part] because diagnostics are still being developed, and current practices to diagnose and treat conditions can be very invasive and painful,” Jimenez explained. “Then you start investigating further, asking, ‘Why don't we have minimally invasive diagnostics? Why don't we have better treatments out there?’ And it's because it hasn't been researched yet.” As a result, Jimenez and her team are also investigating possible methods for non-invasive diagnosis. 

Jimenez hopes that as lab spaces become more diverse, so will the types of questions scientists aim to answer, as well as the populations that diagnostics and treatments will ultimately benefit. “Our lab is about 90% women, all from different backgrounds. We bring all these different perspectives that really help enhance our current research,” Jimenez shared.  

“There's also a lot we can do education-wise for the general public when it comes to [gynecological] health conditions, as well as training our next generation of researchers who could become educators themselves,” Jimenez added. “This could be in med school getting clinicians trained about these health conditions, not just in obstetrics and gynecology, but also for family medicine and internal medicine.” From the policy side of things, Jimenez encourages scientists to speak with their local representatives, emphasizing the importance of government funding for research that focuses on reproductive and gynecological health.  

In 2023, Jimenez was a recipient of ASM’s Career Development Grant for Postdoctoral Women. With this award, Jimenez attended the 2023 American Association for Cancer Research’s Special Conference on Endometrial Cancer, where she gave a talk on her abstract, “Patients with endometrial cancer and benign gynecologic conditions exhibit unique vaginal and rectal microbiomes.” 

With a clear research path ahead of her, this year, Jimenez is manifesting an era of celebrating her accomplishments, while avoiding comparison to others. “I’m trying to not dim my light as I move forward in my career,” Jimenez said. “My mentors also remind me that ‘comparison is the thief of joy,’ so as I move forward in my journey, I am trying not to compare myself or my timeline to others.” These manifestations are sentiments she hopes to pass along to her own mentees as they traverse the realm of microbiology. 

Jimenez is currently a mentor through the Los Diablos Scholarship program (the very program that supported her undergraduate journey), Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) at University of Arizona and ASM’s Future Leaders Mentorship Fellowship. Jimenez encourages her mentees to get involved in research as soon as possible and pursue topics that inspire and intrigue them.  

Identifying as Hispanic, Jimenez often felt isolated in STEM spaces where, in grad school especially, she noticed that it was rare to have students in her class who were also from a historically underrepresented group. For students who identify similarly to herself, she assures them that they have a place in science, and that their unique perspectives will strengthen their scientific endeavors.  

As her community has supported her, from her family in Arizona, to mentors at ASU, VCU and University of Arizona, Jimenez works to sustain similar networks for her mentees. “Always try to build your community and establish places where you can find support,” Jimenez said. 

Author: Leah Potter, M.S.

Leah Potter, M.S.
Leah Potter joined ASM in 2022 as the Communications Specialist.