Nicolas Cifuentes Muñoz became interested in science while growing up in Santiago and Punta Arenas, Chile. The environment around him inspired his curiosity about nature and animals, but the defining moment was when he received his first microscope. “When I was in 8th grade, my parents gave me a toy microscope -which I still own- and I started using it to see everything I could: ants, hairs, water, blood, etc. I really enjoyed watching these microscopic things. Later in high school I was in a scientific program with focus in chemistry, mathematics and biology and dreamed about being a photographer for National Geographic,” he said.
After completing high school at 17, Cifuentes Muñoz went on to study biochemistry at the Universidad de Santiago de Chile and then biotechnology at the Universidad Andres Bello. He received grants to continue postdoctoral research in Chile but then started to look for programs outside of his native county. Cifuentes Muñoz said, “I was looking for an interesting opportunity outside Chile to do a postdoc in the area of Virology, which is my expertise area. So that is when I came in contact with [Dr. Becky Dutch], who had an open position in her lab at UK. After several emails and Skype interviews, I decided to come in 2014 to UK and to live in Lexington with my family, a decision we are very glad to have made.”
Now he is continuing his study of viruses in Dr. Dutch’s lab. “I currently study the different aspects involved in the assembly of two important human viral pathogens: Hendra virus and human metapneumovirus. It is important to understand that viruses do not sexually reproduce; instead they just produce enough copies of all virus components and then assemble into a particle, like a car is assembled in a company. What is interesting is that in this process viruses hijack the cellular machinery in order to multiply themselves and then exit the cell to disseminate between hosts. Moreover, even when both viruses belong to the same family, the strategies used for their assembly are very different. We use confocal and electron microscopy, which together with biochemical and virological tools have helped us to understand how these viruses assemble, which ultimately will lead to new knowledge that will aid in developing antiviral strategies against these pathogens,” said Cifuentes Muñoz of his work.
When Cifuentes Muñoz is not in the lab, he divides his time between activities at the university and at home. At UK, he is involved with Society of Postdoctoral Scholars (SOPS) and in postdoc activities in the College of Medicine. Outside of the university, Cifuentes Muñoz spends most of his time with his wife and young daughter. “Together we travel and visit new places, meet new people and learn about different cultures, always with my camera to capture the special moments.”
He always imagined that his career would lead him back to Chile to open his own lab, but now he’s considering other options. “[T]he truth is that 2 years ago I would not have imagined that I was going to be in the US doing research so I am actually very open to opportunities that could come in future.”