Work for the stories

Tomorrow there will be a symposium honoring my late mentor.  I will not be able to attend but I thought I could post some old NIH stories.  Hank had lots of stories.

NHLBI is the abbreviation for the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.  There are meetings with the section chiefs and every once in a while one of the old scientists would try to get the name changed to Heart, Lung and Gizzards.  The name change was never approved but they seemed to have a good time trying.  I am not sure whether this was Hank's favorite story but it is the most he told most often.

My favorite story was the one about the wasps.  Many years ago, all the scientists worked in building 10.  Building 10 is the largest brick building on the NIH Bethesda campus.  There was a scientist who was analyzing wasp venom.  He would take a wasp, strap in into a tiny electric chair and apply an electric voltage to get the venom.  One day, he ran out of wasps.  So he ran an ad in the paper saying that wasps were needed for medical research and the researcher would pay money for the wasps.  It wasn't long before he encountered a young boy in the middle of building 10 holding a very large paper bag full of buzzing wasps.  The researcher calmly took the paper bag and put it in the cold room.  Then he paid the boy his reward money and told him not to do this again.  Of course, there was a lot of talk about how the papers would say about the NIH if the wasps had gotten out of the paper bag and stung all the patients.

Another story that Hank told several times was the one about the snake.  Hank's old lab was in the middle of the 7th floor of building 10, next door to the area where they performed heart transplants.  Hank's lab started working on these mildly poisonous black snakes from Guam.  One day, a snake got out of the cage and they spent months looking for it.  The physicians that performed the heart transplants were not very happy with Hank.  But the snake was found in a fire extinguisher cabinet next to a mouse.

I have a lot more stories.

The rush to find a cure

I have met many people that want to accelerate the pace of discovery that may find cures for human disease.  Barriers do exist.  But few people will talk about what the barriers really are.  Instead so much effort is put into programs and policies that may never work.  When I was thinking about a career in academia, I examined the discovery process to see how it can change to help everyone.  Now I am in industry and I examine the entire process to maximize the amount of money a discovery may bring.  Completely different way of thinking.  Society still benefits.  Just my position has changed.

One barrier is good scientific training.  Many people have asked me about biomarker training in my company.  But if you do not know anything about biomarkers then why do you expect to be hired in a biomarker company.  Most people get their PhD and do several years more training in a specific area to obtain the skills need to do world-class research.  Why do some people feel they can completely disregard this experience and expect to find biomarkers.  I gave up training when I started the company and gave up on academia.  Scientists are expected to arrive with their skills perfected.  Training would slow down our pace.  Something we cannot afford to do in industry.


 

New Year, New Direction, Rare Diseases

I am excited about starting a company this year.  It has taken a lot of courage to leave behind what I thought I might do and go in a new direction.  Everything I know about biomarker discovery, refined and redeveloped, has been used to create this company.  But I am not telling all my secrets.  If I did, it would take away some of the fun.  We need to hold on to a little of the fun.

What inspired me to write today's blog was an email from someone with a rare disease.  I became interested in rare diseases while I was at the NIH.  For me, rare diseases are an additional challenge to the already difficult task of biomarker discovery.  They are an additional test of my skills as a mass spectrometrist and research strategist.  I once heard a scientist comment that once you made a great discovery then people think that you can only go downhill from there.  Well, I keep looking for more challenges.  It would be easier to leave this challenges behind if I had been unsuccessful at finding candidate biomarkers a very rare disease.  I was successful so the challenge remains.

Who should be concerned about rare diseases?  Everyone.  Diagnosis can be fustrating so if we develop diagnostic tools for rare diseases, who would want to be tested.  Everyone.  If we can use the knowledge to direct people, at an earlier disease stage, to therapy that may prevent permanent disability, who would want to be tested.  Everyone.  The people with rare diseases are not the only people that would benefit from this research.  Who would benefit from this research, everyone. 

I am fortunate to know people with disease because these people inspire me.  When challenges seem too great, I think about the people that I know, take a little rest then move forward.  We all need people that help us to move forward. 

Please continue to inspire me and I will continue the fight against disease.

Cardiomyopathy

The disease that has brought me the greatest fustration is cardiomyopathy.  I have great passion for conquering this disease yet little resources to accomplish this goal.

Before I started working in Hank's lab at the NIH, I learned that my youngest sibling was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy.  Having already lost one family member to a similar form of the disease, I began reading all the scientific literature I could find.  I started reading to educate myself and found that it is thought to be an autoimmune disease.  Then I began reading as a research scientist.  I had found an autoantigen in rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease that affects the joints.  If cardiomyopathy had autoantigens then, with my expertise, I could find them.  I contacted the best expert in the area and arranged for a meeting to start a collaboration.  Hank, Ito and I drove to attend the meeting at another institute.  The meeting did not go as I planned and it was a great disappointment.  I was at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute and could not find the resouces to study a leading cause of heart failure.  During the drive back, Hank kept telling me that sometimes things don't work out.  Hank had always supported and challenged my research interests.  This was why I nominated Hank for the AWIS mentor of the year and why I was able to find biomarkers for 3 diseases in his lab.

After this experience, I realized that I needed to create the environment that allows me to make discoveries for many other diseases.  Fighting disease is a challenge for me and it is personal.

Remembering a mentor.

I was forwarded an email about my NIH mentor's death.  Hank Fales died on Thursday, October 28, at age 83.

I remember when I first joined his lab at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).  As I started to work at the bench, I found little stashes of reagents left in many different places by former members of his lab.  Some as old as 20 years.  There were many expired reagents on the shelves and other storage places.  I found myself throwing out all the old reagents.  Upon seeing the trash can full, Hank barricaded the trash can and slowly went through each item to make sure it had expired.  All had expired.  We went through this procedure a couple time more before he allowed the trash can to be emptied by the janitor without his examination.  I threw out a lot of stuff.

I remember the floors of his lab were dirty.  The floors were really, really dirty and sticky.  There must have been layers and layers of stuff on those floors.  Some parts of the floors were different colors from spilled experiments.  Hank had a mass spectrometry lab and the janitors would not clean the floors unless everything was off the floors.  The pumps of the mass spectrometers were the problem.  So the floor were not cleaned for years.  Years and years and years.  Then we were approached by a janitor that would clean the floors but Hank would have to pay to get them cleaned.  Initially, he would not pay for this service.  My complaints were useless.  Then Hank was selected as the AWIS Bethesda Chapter mentor of the year.  I nominated Hank for this award and he was very happy.  The day after the award, Hank paid to get the floors cleaned.  Hank paid to get those floors cleaned twice while I was his postdoc. 

I remember being told that I was "Whistling Dixie" when I would try to optimize proteomics experiments.  Nobody had ever told me this before.  "Whistling Dixie".  While in Hank's lab, I found biomarkers for 3 autoimmune diseases and began my studies to tackle a neurological disease. 

In spite of the scientific achievements, my memories of Hank are of him as a person.

A visit with a friend that has multiple sclerosis (MS)

An old friend called me by mistake.  She bought a new cell phone and was in the process of transferring numbers when she accidentally dialed my number.  I happened to be in the area and we arranged to meet the next day.  My friend has multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune disease that attacks myelin.  Several years ago, my old friend had to fight for her job in addition to fighting disease.

She retold her story.  Her department chair made allegations that the MS caused her to be unable to perform her job as a mass spectrometrist, that she had become violent and recommended a psychological evaluation.  My friend passed the evaluation then filed a complaint with a state agency.  A state investigator spoke with the department chair and wrote down everything he had to say.  Then, the state investigator told my friend that this was the best case she had ever seen and that the entire institute was in jeopardy of losing all federal funding.  But my friend did not want money or revenge; she just wanted to be treated fairly at work.  She kept her job. 

Near the end of our visit, my friend recalled the time she spoke about proteomics to an MS group and the wonderful response she received.  Still excited about research, she encouraged me to initiate an MS biomarker discovery project.  I saw the serious look in her eyes and it was the highest compliment.  Patients want cures.  My friend is a scientist and she has faith that I might find biomarkers for other diseases.  When I think of initiating new projects, I see many hurdles and obstacles.  But it is people like my friend that keep me going. 

The beginning of the blog

When I identified an autoantigen in rheumatoid arthritis, a well-known chemist asked me why I had made this discovery when many other people had been studying this disease.  "Why was it you?"  To answer this question, I thought about all the events that have influenced my research then I realized what he was asking.  How did a Latina scientist make this discovery.  You really beat the odds.  I think back on all the times I was discouraged to stay in science and about all the Latinas who have left science.  My conclusions are that society is losing valuable scientists because they look different than what is perceived as the norm.  I started this blog to inspire Latinas to become scientists, to convince Latina scientists to stay in science and to share many interesting stories.  Latina Scientist is a networking group.