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The Transition Between Neuroscience to Anatomy: Advice for Upcoming Professors

Jailenne I. Quiñones-Rodriguez (she|her|ella) in collaboration with QMA

According to U.S. Census Bureau and Excelencia in Education, Latino males had lower levels of degree attainment than other males. As of 2014, 20% of Latino males had earned an associate degree or higher, compared to Asians (62%), Whites (45%), and African Americans (30%). 

Have you ever wondered how difficult a career in graduate studies would be as a minority student? And at some point finishing your graduate studies, have you asked yourself: How would the transition from being a graduate student and starting a tenure track signify?

If the answer to one of those questions was yes, I strongly recommend reading the inspiring story of Dr. Miguel P. Méndez-González, a Puerto Rican scientist who has been able to overcome all the barriers that have been crossed as a first-generation Latino scientist. 

In 2016 he successfully obtained his doctoral degree (Ph.D. in Biomedical Sciences with specialization in Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience) at the Universidad Central del Caribe, School of Medicine in Bayamón PR. Dr. Méndez-González has successfully submitted scientific publications in many scientific journals as first and second author, still continues to make contributions in scientific research at UCC- School of Medicine (Universidad Central del Caribe - Bayamón), has participated in several important conferences as part of the jury and at the same time, has presented his scientific research/posters in the island, United States, Mexico, and the Dominican Republic.

1. Why did you become a scientist? What drew you to this field? 
I decided to study science because since I was a child I was always someone who seemed fascinated by learning about that subject. I truly enjoyed the complexity of life's questions. I also loved to know how things worked. As a kid, I used to dismantle my toys to know what they were made of and how they worked. Although many times I failed to fully understand, this spark of curiosity and learning was always kept alive. Once I grew up, I had an immense passion for helping others and, for some reason, I always tried to help with health-related issues. On the other hand, I knew that being a doctor was not my passion, I didn't want to help 1 patient at a time, I wanted to help improve the health of many people at once. For this reason, I decided to pursue a Ph.D. with research; in order to try to understand neurological conditions and develop therapies to improve the quality of life of these patients (many patients at a time).

2. What have you learned during your academic career that will benefit you for your actual work position?
One of the things I learned, thanks to the great example of my parents, was perseverance and to fight tirelessly to achieve the goals you set for yourself. I have to admit that I was not always the smartest or the most diligent student, I learned to better those qualities along the way. However, I always had my goals clear and unequivocal focus. This helped me greatly when I started my high school studies and it was the biggest pillar while I was pursuing my graduate studies. In my graduate career, there were many times of despair, overwhelm, physical and mental exhaustion; however, I always remained focused on the final goal. There is a motto/quote that I love: "90% of success is based simply on persisting." It is evident that reaching our goals requires daily work and great tenacity. So, please start adding efforts on a daily basis and you will see your goals achieved closer every day.

3. What has been/was your most important scientific finding? Your most surprising finding?
I personally consider that all the findings I have had have been very important and significant. However, if you ask me which is the one that has impacted me the most and which I consider a pillar of my research, it is that we were able to demonstrate in cell models, cell cultures, and animal models that high concentration of sugar promotes a high-stress environment that makes the cells not to produce enough potassium channel (specifically Kir4.1). As a consequence, this creates an imbalance that causes an alteration in brain communication. As a result, the chances of suffering from seizures and epilepsy could be substantially higher.

4. How was the transition from different disciplines: neuroscience to anatomy? 
Both of my parents are distinguished health professionals. It is for this reason that I was always exposed to the field and surrounded by people who, like my parents, were passionate about it. I still remember that one of my favorite classes in high school was "Human Anatomy and Physiology". In this class, I was able to learn in detail what my parents and other health professionals were constantly talking about. I was impacted so much by the class, that when I finished high school, I sought a job as a teaching assistant teaching human anatomy and physiology labs. When the time came to pursue my longed-for career in research, I decided to pursue a career in biomedical sciences so as not to stray from my true passion, anatomy. Thus, I pursued a Ph.D. in Cellular and Molecular Biology with a focus on neuroscience. This way I could link anatomy and physiology from inside a cell to the whole system. Since graduating, I have continued to teach anatomy and physiology classes and continue my research in neuroscience.

5. What are your long-term goals? 
My long-term goal and career objective are to establish a biomedical sciences research program at UPR, which aligns with its research mission. As part of this goal, I am researching the effects of hyperglycemia on astrocytic-based neuronal epileptiform-like activity. One of my objectives is to investigate the impact of the astrocytic Kir4.1 channel on neuronal activity. Understanding the mechanism of how uncontrolled hyperglycemia negatively regulates astrocytic homeostatic functions will contribute to new information specific to the knowledge of how high levels of glucose in the brain contribute to neurological problems such as neuronal hyperexcitability seen in epilepsy. As this prevalence increases each year, there is a need to keep performing more novel and innovative research that will increase the care and prevention in the population. A challenging next step for me is to disentangle the pathophysiological mechanisms by which hyperglycemia causes or exacerbates neuronal hyperactivity.

6. What advice would you give a student who wants to follow a career in academia?
In many ways, the application process for an academic position differs from that of other professional positions. There is a strong emphasis on research; you are expected to excel as a teacher, researcher, and actively publish in refereed journals. However, you can approach an academic position in the same way as any other: by learning as much as you can about the requirements of the position, networking with people who might write you references or provide you with information about your potential responsibilities, meeting with graduate students, and being prepared to answer interview questions.

“Doing research is possible, it is fundable, and it is a serious intellectually stimulating career path to follow”


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About the author:
Jailenne I. Quiñones-Rodriguez is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology at Universidad Central del Caribe – School of Medicine (UCC-SOM) and is a current Junior Research Associate from Puerto Rico IDeA Network Biomedical Research Excellence (PRINBRE). She is a first-generation scientist in her family and received her Bachelor of Science in Biomedical Sciences from the University of Puerto Rico at Ponce. In 2015, she joined the graduate program at UCC-SOM. During her Ph.D., she graduated with honors from a master's degree in Anatomy and Biomedical Sciences. Her evident interest in human anatomy and neuroanatomy has led her to coordinate, instruct, and mentor medical students with interest in the surgical field through an outreach anatomy project, which promotes clinical anatomy research while the students could do peer teaching. 


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