Dr. Micaela Cunha, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Space Research at Columbia University

Meet Our Postdocs: Micaela Cunha, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Space Research at Columbia University


Which department are you in at Columbia and what is your position?

I am a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Radiological Research in the Medical Center. I was awarded a fellowship by the NASA-funded Translational Research Institute for Space Health (TRISH).

Where are you from and how long have you been in NYC?           

I am from Portugal, from a small town near Porto. I have been in NYC since December 2016.

Where did you go to school? Describe your path to your current position.          

I did my bachelors degree in Biomedical Engineering and my masters in Radiation and Medical Imaging, both at the University of Coimbra, Portugal. After two years working on projects related to image-guided radiation therapy and dosimetry for space radiation, I pursued my Ph.D degree in Medical Physics at the University Claude Bernard Lyon, France. I worked on developing and validating a new biophysical model to plan tumor treatment by ion beam radiotherapy.

What research question are you trying to figure out right now?

How to protect astronauts from developing cancer later in life after exposure to the space radiation environment.

In a nutshell, what tools or approaches are you using to try and figure this out?

The major limiting factor of long-term space travel is the risk of developing cancer later in life due to continued exposure to space radiation.

A possible way to reduce such risk is to use radioprotectors that work at a biological level. Several chemical compounds such as vitamins, antioxidants, or aspirin, have been shown to provide protection against carcinogenesis. The challenge lies in determining whether this protection would also happen for carcinogenesis induced by space radiation.

I analyze data of carcinogenesis induced by space radiation in combination with radioprotectors. Using mathematical models, the goal is to extract information about the biological mechanisms involved in space-radiation-induced carcinogenesis.

What is the best part of your job?            

To know that my work might make a difference in preserving other people’s health, regardless of whether it’s astronauts or radiotherapy patients!

Tell us a bit about yourself or your projects that are not related to science.           

I love fried chicken and watching Game of Thrones! Not necessarily at the same time though (laughs). Recently, I started running Spartan Races and really enjoyed the great atmosphere of camaraderie at these events. Moreover, each time you feel compelled to get out of your comfort zone and achieve more! You might be surprised at the things you can achieve when you are motivated and feel confident and encouraged! I try to apply this positive mindset to my daily life too and the result is amazing!

What is your favorite thing about NYC?

I don’t know about other places in the U.S., but what I love about NYC is that you have the chance to be yourself and discover your true self without being afraid of judgement. Coming to NYC gave me the opportunity of breaking free of a lot of preconceived ideas and explore who I really wanted to be.

When did you join CUPS and what is your current role, if any?        

August 2018. I heard about it during the new postdoc orientation and started following it on social media. One day I finally decided to attend the General Meeting to check out what they had going on. The group was very welcoming and I felt my voice heard since the very beginning. I then attended all the committee meetings to get to know people in CUPS better. Currently, I am Co-President for the Medical Center, social media manager, and active member of the Outreach & Communications and the Networking & Community Building Committees.

What do you like the most about CUPS? 

I love that CUPS is a really nice group of people that will enrich your experience in NYC at both a professional and personal level! It’s not just about building your communication or leadership skills, it’s about making meaningful connections with fellow postdocs! I started friendships within CUPS that I’m convinced will last for life! Highly recommend everyone to join!

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