Q&A with Dr. Manuel Varela

Dr. Manuel Varela

Q&A with Dr. Manuel Varela

Q: Tell me about your academic background and your past professional positions.

A: I have a bachelor's in biochemistry from UNM (University of New Mexico) in Albuquerque, I have a master's in medical science in biochemistry from UNM, and I have a Ph.D. in biomedical sciences with an emphasis in biochemistry and molecular biology from UNM. I have post-doctoral training in microbial physiology at Harvard Medical School in Boston. I have been at Eastern since 1997.

Q: Tell me about your research and what inspired you to pursue the topic.

A: I read about this famous transporter called Lactose Permease from E. coli. I was fascinated by it because I was studying the opposite sort of thing. The lactose transporter brings lactose sugar from the outside of a cell to the inside, and I was studying that as a model for what I was doing in grad school which was the opposite. Antibiotics inside of a bacterium would be transported out of a cell so that they could resist that medicine and grow better and cause disease, death, destruction, and whatnot. When I finished my Ph.D., I decided that I wanted to try Lactose Permease because it was so fascinating. The system that they had used to make it happen was a genetic system called lac operon, and the people [who] discovered it won a Nobel Prize. And I thought we must all know about it if it's going to be a Nobel Prize worthy thing. So that's why I got interested in microbiology. When I came [to Eastern New Mexico University] I was a sugar transport person, but when I got here, I figured out that people are more interested in the antibiotic stuff, so I went back to focusing on that.

Q: What is your current topic of research?

A: We are doing a couple of things. One of them is we are trying to use common food spices and food additives like garlic, cumin, chocolate, or vanilla, that would kill bacteria rather than having to go through all these complex and expensive antibiotics. We don't want to have to discover a new chemical that may not be safe for people. We want to study stuff that is already safe. We know about how things like vanilla and chocolate can kill microbes and we try to see if we can combine them to see if they work better together than separately. This phenomenon called synergy, if one thing works this much and the other thing works this much, if you combine them together, they increase how well they work. It is a synergistic relationship.

Q: What inspired looking at common food spices and additives for natural antibiotics?

A: Well, we wanted to look at foods that were safe and we wanted to look at things that people use a lot. It all started with a paper I read on chile, the capsicum, it was some work done out of New Mexico State, and I thought it was interesting because they study chile over there. They said that this capsicum kills their bacteria. So, we thought we would try it, and it killed them. This got us on the bandwagon and made us think if capsicum can kill bacteria maybe other things can too! We found something with cholera and garlic. We found out that if we use a low concentration, it would affect our efflux pumps, and we could use antibiotics to kill them, which we could not do before. But if we use them with a higher garlic concentration, then it works on a different part of the bacterium called the respiratory chain, which is a piece of metabolic machinery [for] when you eat food and you breathe. The food you eat takes your electrons from your food and takes it to the oxygen you breathe. This chain makes energy, and we found out that garlic at high concentrations inhibits that chain, whereas garlic at low concentrations inhibits that pump [efflux pump]. We also tested the active principle of garlic which is an allyl sulfide. When we added [allyl sulfide] to our experiments and our bacteria, it killed the bacteria.

Q: What are some other projects you are working on outside of the classroom?

Another project we are doing has more to do with our books, which I really have just thoroughly enjoyed. [The books] all began one year at a Christmas party at the CUB (Campus Union Building) [when] my wife and I saw Dr. Shaughnessy. I was telling him that I enjoyed his book with Doc Elder. I told him about how my post-doctoral advisor would lecture on famous scientists and what they did, how that was important, and how that inspired me to do the same when I became a professor. Shaughnessy said, "Why don't we write a book on that?"  I was like, "Well, okay!"

So, I basically just took my lecture notes and started writing and we did it in the question-and-answer format. He would ask about something, and I would just go and answer it. I thoroughly enjoyed it because I would go back to the original papers from, ya'know, the 1800s, 1700s, and 1900s and see what they really did, and it was just amazing to me how these human beings, long ago, did the experiment. Not only that, they did it under crude conditions and had to overcome a lot of adversity. Like Louis Pasteur—the most famous scientist who has ever lived—he pasteurized food. People would argue with him! Scientists just want to know the truth. What is the world really like? We [scientists] do not try to seek our agenda that we might have.

Q: What is the latest book you are working on?

Our latest project now is on blood. We haven't published it, but the tentative title of the book on blood that we are writing is "Blood: The Basic Element of Being Human." My co-authors are Ann F. Varela and Michael F. Shaughnessy. Based on a book proposal that Dr. Shaughnessy wrote, "This book will delve into all of the elements of blood-different types, Rh factors, how blood flows through the body and what can be determined from a CBC-Complete Blood Count and CMP-Complete Metabolic Panel, etc." So far, we have completed about five chapters and are working on number six.

Q: Have you enjoyed writing books?

I have found my passion! I love writing. I wish I would have done this a lot sooner.

Q: How is writing a book different from writing a research paper?

It is! It is more fun because [in] these research papers, you have to submit your manuscript, and it will go to the editor, the editor will send it to reviewers and then reviewers just pound it down. They will give you a long list of edits, and they will never accept it as is. They might reject it with minor revisions, or they will reject it with major revisions and all of that is no fun. But writing books is way more fun because Dr. Shaughnessy does the footwork on our books. He deals with the editors of the publishers, and he has to bargain with them, and he makes a proposal. After he does that, the publishers will typically agree to publish the book, and after that we just have to write it. So, the pressure of getting rejected is less when writing a book. You know that if you start and finish a book something will happen to it, it will live somewhere.

Q: How do you collaborate with other researchers both within ENMU and outside of ENMU?

I collaborate with Dr. Shaughnessy and my wife Ann Varela. The three of us have been working together on these books for about four or five years now. I have collaborated with a few professors here in the past, but I think most of them have retired or left at this point. I do have a collaborator who lives in India, and he is an assistant dean over there.  I get all of these invitations to write review articles and I will ask him if he is interested in collaborating with me.  I will write a big outline [of the research], and I will give half [of the outline] to him and then he and his people will write that half and then me and my people will write the other half. Once my collaborator is done with his half of the research then we just put them together and send it to the editors and wait until they give us edits back.

Q: What advice would you give to others interested in becoming a researcher or a scientist?

Follow your bliss. Whatever your favorite thing is, try to find some way to get paid to do it. Get educated in it and get paid to do it.

 Links to some of Dr. Varela's work: