The Life 
of Science:
Fatima Rivas Believes She Was Born a Chemist


“I was always interested in chemistry, ever since I was a child,” said Rivas, who was born in El Salvador and grew up the youngest of three sisters in South Central Los Angeles. “I was infatuated with colors. I wanted to know what produces color, so I tried to extract the pigment from flowers.”

Fatima Rivas as a baby with her mother and two older sisters

LSU chemist Fatima Rivas as a baby held by her mother standing between Fatima's older sisters.

– Fatima Rivas, LSU

She remembers when she was around six years old, she would collect flowers, sort them by color, and set up an extraction system using water, ethanol, and newspaper. She would experiment because she was curious to discover the pigment concentrations when using the different solvents.

“Fundamentally, that’s what we do in the lab. As chemists, we look at specific components and characteristics to better understand the properties of the compounds that are part of that mixture,” she said.

Rivas is a natural products chemist. She studies the ethno-pharmacological properties of compounds derived from nature.

“Throughout our history as humans, we have been using nature as a remedy, if you will, to alleviate some of our diseases,” she said.

Her relatives on her mother’s side are from the Native American Pipil tribe, who are indigenous to El Salvador. Her ancestors practiced herbal medicine and have passed down recipes using native plants.

Because of her ancestral background, Rivas would love to study alkaloids derived from the red flowering plant erythrina, which indigenous people use in some instances to paralyze their prey when hunting.

Rivas knows from her own preliminary research that erythrina alkaloids can penetrate the blood-brain barrier, which she wants to study as a potential treatment for Parkinson’s disease and other disorders. However, that project remains on hold until she can find the time and funding.

These days, she is studying a specific fungus called Ganoderma, which is common in herbal medicine in Asia. She and her collaborator Associate Professor Michelle M. Martínez Montemayor from the Universidad Central del Caribe School of Medicine in Puerto Rico identified a natural compound derived from Ganoderma lucidum mushrooms called ergosterol peroxide.

In their research, they found this compound to be safe for healthy cells but cytotoxic to cancer cells. From the compound, they have developed Erperox and have licensed it to a Canadian company called Revive Therapeutics.

When Rivas was in college, two of her cousins, an 8-year-old and a 20-year-old, were diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Her younger cousin survived. But her older cousin, with whom she was very close, died.

“I was so sure that he was going to make it, so it was extremely shocking for me when he died,” she said. “It changed my perspective because I didn’t realize how tragic it can be for a person when they depart. I was still very young at that time, but I realized I wanted to do something so no one else had to go through what I had gone through.”

After her cousin died, she earned her PhD from the University of California at San Diego and became a post-doctoral researcher at Scripps Research in La Jolla, California. Then, she was on the faculty at St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis for about 10 years before becoming an LSU faculty member in 2020.

For more than seven years, she has studied acute lymphoblastic leukemia, the disease that killed her cousin. She has conducted research on the steroid hormones secreted by the adrenal glands called glucocorticoids that help control metabolism as well as drug-resistance in acute lymphoblastic leukemia patients. Her research has also expanded to find new treatments for other types of cancer such as triple-negative breast cancer, or TNBC.

TNBC is an aggressive form of breast cancer that more commonly affects women of color and those under the age of 40. TNBC patients have limited treatment options and a shorter overall survival rate. Currently, TNBC treatment involves multiple types of therapies including surgery, radiation, and non-selective chemotherapy. However, non-selective chemotherapy can be problematic for patients.

“Non-selective chemotherapy treatments can’t differentiate between cancerous and non-cancerous tissue, resulting in harm to non-cancerous, healthy cells,” Rivas said. “Thus, there is a critical need to discover effective drug therapies that target TNBC cells without harming normal cells.”

She and her collaborator Montemayor have discovered that their mushroom-derived compound, Erperox, targets TNBC cell models without harming healthy tissue. Revive Therapeutics has funded the next step of their research to further determine how Erperox works in addition to its efficacy and safety before it can be used by TNBC patients in clinical trials.

The research team has also received funding from Columbia University’s Translational Therapeutics Accelerator, Puerto Rican Trust, and the National Institutes of Health IDeA Networks of Biomedical Research Excellence program.

These sponsored funds will assist them in expanding their knowledge of drug dosing, potential synergies with current chemotherapeutics, and potential toxicity effects. “I feel proud that I have contributed to society by identifying compounds that have potential properties to alleviate disease,” Rivas said.

Throughout her career as an organic chemist and prior to coming to LSU, she was often the only immigrant woman of color at work, which has made her sometimes feel like she didn’t belong and made following her dreams challenging and often lonely.

She is committed to mentoring her students and is frank with them about obstacles along the scientific career path, particularly for women.

“With my students, I think I’ve made it clear to them what the challenges are they may have to face so when it happens, they see it coming. I think it’s important to know what to expect because if you know it’s going to happen, you don’t take it personally,” she said.

Playing a part in helping her students achieve their dreams has been her greatest accomplishment so far.

Emily Seighman working in lab

Emily Seighman

Hometown: Walker, Louisiana
Senior, Biochemistry

Why LSU?

Growing up with LSU alumni parents and grandparents, I have been surrounded by LSU culture my entire life. It was clear from the beginning that I wanted to attend LSU for my collegiate career, and as I learned more about the many opportunities that LSU could offer me, that decision was only further solidified.

How did you get involved with the Rivas research group?

After talking with a couple of friends and hearing stories about their research experiences, I really got the urge to join an undergraduate research lab. The opportunity to research with the Rivas group came about in November of 2021, and after talking with Dr. Rivas, I knew that her research group was the right fit for me. Being new to research, I was definitely nervous to begin, but everyone in the lab welcomed me in, and they continue to help me learn everything I need to know.

Describe a typical day in the lab.

A typical day in the lab can vary depending on what stage we are at. Most days, I am purifying compounds that we extracted from our biological samples using column chromatography, all with the help of Dr. Taotao Ling, the Rivas’ group research staff scientist. The purification process is the bulk of what we do, and it is done with the hope of finding a compound that we can biologically test to see what kinds of properties it may contain.

What is your research project?

Ganoderma lucidem mushroom The Rivas group has a large focus on utilizing natural products as possible therapeutic agents. The project I help collaborate on focuses on understanding the phytochemistry and exploring the biological function of a species of mushroom called Ganoderma multiplicatum. As we explore its biological function, we are hoping to find anticancer and antiproliferative properties that can be used to eventually treat multiple forms of cancer.

How has being involved in this project impacted you?

Being involved in this research project has given me some great friendships and offered me new opportunities to collaborate with undergraduate students, graduate students, faculty, and a sister research group located in Puerto Rico. Aside from hard skills, being able to partake in this research has also impacted me as an individual. A lot of our biological testing that we do in the lab specifically involves looking at activity of the mushroom against breast cancer cell lines. As the granddaughter of a breast cancer survivor, this project really hits close to home. As an undergraduate student, it has really been the opportunity of a lifetime to join in on the research to possibly treat and cure cancer.

What are your plans after graduation?

After graduation, I hope to attend dental school and begin my journey to becoming a dentist. Being involved with research has helped me develop both personally and professionally, and I know that a lot of the skills I have learned will be the foundation for success in my future career.

William Smither working in lab

William Smither

Hometown: Baton Rouge
Senior, Biochemistry and Psychology

Why LSU?

Being in-state, it was a very affordable option with solid STEM departments and research opportunities.

How did you get involved with the Rivas research group?

I heard about the Rivas lab last April from my mentor, Jose Garfias, who was working as my organic chemistry lab TA at the time. I had expressed to Jose my desire to diversify my research experience beyond just psychology, so he introduced me to Dr. Rivas and the other members of the lab to see if I would be interested in trying my hand at chemistry research. There was a steep learning curve coming from an entirely
different sector of research to organic chemistry, but the rest of the lab group was incredibly helpful in teaching me the ropes.

Explain your research project.

My research project is focused on the development of a novel, bioactive molecular scaffold to be used in drug discovery against colorectal cancer. The philosophy of our lab is that the best designs for medicinal compounds come from the natural world; so, by drawing inspiration from and modifying preexisting natural products we’re provided easy access to a staggering number of clinically useful, anticancer compounds.

The scaffold I’m working on, specifically, is heavily inspired by a naturally occurring flavonoid found in dozens of common terrestrial plants like oak, buckwheat, and cannabis. If this project yields the results we hope it will, it could provide clinicians and pharmacologists with an inexpensive, reliable tool for the development of new colorectal cancer treatment options.

What is a typical day like for you in the lab?

I usually come into the lab around 9:30 a.m. after my morning class. I set up my laptop, make coffee, and check with our
research staff scientist, Dr. Taotao Ling, for any updates or important developments before I get to work. It’s difficult to describe a set routine that I fall into because each day presents a radically different set of challenges, but most of my time is spent reading articles, setting up reactions, purifying compounds, and testing compounds with biological assays.

How has being involved in this project impacted you?

Being a part of the Rivas lab has been one of the most rewarding experiences in my life thus far. The work isn’t easy,
but overcoming the challenges it presents with the help of my lab group has undoubtedly made me a more confident communicator as well as a sharper, more determined student.
I’ve never learned so much in such a short amount of time, and I’ve made invaluable personal connections that will likely stay with me for the rest of my academic career.

What are your plans after graduation?

After I graduate, I plan to pursue an MD-PhD in oncology and hopefully start a lab of my own one day. I was originally
planning to pursue an MD in psychiatry but working under Dr. Rivas has given me an intense respect for the field of
cancer research, and I can absolutely see myself building a meaningful career in it.


Famima Rivas with students in lab

Fatima Rivas with members of her lab group.