December 2016 spotlight of the month
Juan Medina Briceno
Honours degree with a focus in Bio-Medical Sciences
University of Guelph, Guelph, ON, Canada
Visiting Post-Baccalaureate Researcher
Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD)
National Institutes of Health (NIH), Bethesda, MD, USA
- How did you become interested in research relating to Hypertension and Cardiovascular Disease?
Hypertension and cardiovascular disease are among the top causes of death in America, and are considered to be a major health issue worldwide. Although they are highly preventable, efforts to control, treat and raise awareness of these diseases have had little effect on their increasing prevalence. This is alarming considering their role in the development of sequelae and decreased quality of life. Consequently, there is an urgent need to elucidate all of the aspects of cardiovascular health, including the biological mechanisms and the socio-economic factors by which the diseases develop, in order to prevent future disease and create effective treatment plans for those who are affected.
During my undergraduate career, I was fortunate enough to learn about the heart and its intricacies from Dr. Glen Pyle, a professor and cardiovascular researcher at the University of Guelph, Canada. This exposure piqued my interest and began my search for a better understanding of the heart and the mechanisms involved in the development of cardiovascular diseases.
- Describe your research & the program/lab (info of your supervisor) that you are in?
I am currently working under Dr. Stratakis, distinguished researcher at the NICHD who focuses on the molecular genetics of adrenocortical tumors and related disorders. My research activities include collecting clinical samples which are used to identify markers of these disorders, learning from inpatients and outpatients at the Clinical Center of the NIH, and attending lectures to develop foundational concepts in research and medicine.
- What do you consider to be your substantial scientific contribution so far (provide Pubmed PMID if possible)?
As a recent graduate, I have only scratched the surface of my research potential. I hope to someday consider my time at the NIH as the launching point for a successful career in research, which allows me to make those substantial contributions and change the lives of others, one scientific breakthrough at a time.
- What is your favourite manuscript from a lab or mentor other than your own (provide Pubmed PMID if possible)?
A recent publication by Gardener et. al (2016) in the Journal of the American Heart Association (J Am Heart Assoc) (PMID:26984255) on the effect of modifiable risk factors of cardiovascular health on cognitive aging in the Northern Manhattan study; which combined the areas of health that I am most interested in (cardiovascular health, aging, and neurology and cognition).
The findings of the study solidified the importance of cardiovascular health in systemic health and quality of life for me. Furthermore, it stressed the preventability of cardiovascular disease and sequelae by focusing on target risk factors that can be modified through positive lifestyle changes.
- Where do your research strengths lie? Why? What are your research weaknesses? How will you improve?
My biggest weakness lies in my inexperience as a new researcher, as I still have a lot to learn about the evolution of an effective researcher. Nonetheless, a combination of the opportunities provided by working at the NIH and my determination, curiosity, and enthusiasm for working with patients and colleagues has given me insight into the inner workings of the scientific process, allowing me to refine skills that I can one day use as a successful researcher.
- Describe your unforgettable (proudest) moment in science, and the most challenging situation that you have had to overcome (lessons learnt) so far?
Graduating with honours from a program that I am passionate about was my proudest moment in science as well as in my life. As a child of well-educated immigrants who sacrificed their careers and personal successes to ensure that of their children, walking across that stage during convocation was the culmination of many generations of hard work.
Throughout this process, I learned that biggest challenge in achieving your goals is knowing the best decision to take when there is no “right path” to follow. However, keeping an open mind, being adaptable and taking calculated risks are all you need to navigate any uncharted path.
- At which conference did you first present? How was your experience?
During my final year of undergrad, I co-coordinated the Human Health and Nutritional Sciences (HHNS) Symposium, a research-based conference that has been held annually at the University of Guelph, in Ontario, Canada for the past 47 years. The conference focused on diabetes and highlighted epidemiological, sociological, nutritional, molecular, and exercise physiology research relating to the disease.
As a co-director, I was tasked with being the primary presenter of the symposium. Although I did not present any of my own research, coordinating effective speakers to demonstrate a multidisciplinary perspective was an invaluable experience, and I was honoured to be a part of a long-standing tradition at the University of Guelph.
- How did you learn about ISH/NIN and its activities?
I was introduced to the ISH/NIN and its activities through Dr. Fady Hannah-Shmouni, an endocrinologist and fellow researcher working with Dr. Stratakis at the NICHD.
- What area(s) do you wish to specialize in the future?
Ideally, I would like to become a Medical Doctor and a clinical researcher, and hope to specialize in cardiology or endocrinology. Additionally, I am interested in the socio-economic factors that contribute to cardiovascular health and obesity, and would consider getting an MPH to enhance my understanding in this area.
- Who is your role model in Science? Why?
Giordano Bruno was an Italian monk and renaissance philosopher, who challenged the views of his time by proposing the idea of an infinite universe with countless planets revolving around countless stars. Though he had no evidence of this, Bruno was able to understand the boundlessness of the universe from thought experiments posed by other philosophers well before his time. As a monk, he managed to reconcile his scientific beliefs and faith by arguing that it was logical for creation to be infinite if created by an infinite God. His refusal to recant these beliefs, and other heresies as assigned by the Catholic church, eventually cost him his life.
I have always been impressed with Bruno’s capacity to come to these conclusions without any of the objective evidence we now have of a boundless universe, at a time when this kind of thinking was discouraged. Furthermore, I admire his ability to unify his scientific and religious beliefs, while still going against society as he tried to develop a better understanding of the universe he lived in. Keeping an open mind and thinking outside of what is generally accepted is imperative to the scientific process.
- What are your scientific goals? Advice for talented emerging scientists?
My long-term goals include becoming a physician, first and foremost, who changes individual lives through appropriate personalized care. I would also like to become a clinical researcher that contributes to the vast pool of scientific knowledge in order to change lives through scientific discoveries.
In the interim, my goal is to pursue medical school and to learn as much as I can on my journey there. As an emerging scientist myself, all I can say from personal experience is that those further along in their scientific career are more than willing to help you. The best way to learn or open doors of opportunity is by asking for help and guidance.