Why study that, Vivian Gama?

Today, read from Dr. Vivian Gama, Assistant Professor of Cell and Developmental Biology, who studies how the regulation of apoptosis controls stem cell fate. I think you’ll really enjoy a fresh perspective on how lucky scientists are to be able to do what they are passionate about!

-by Vivan Gama, PhD.

In my laboratory we are fascinated by the molecular mechanisms by which mitochondrial proteins regulating cell death processes may also be involved in maintaining pluripotency and self-renewal. Our ultimate goal is to translate these findings to pediatric and adult glioblastoma. While reflecting about the answer to the question “why study that” I recognized that the main forces that have driven my scientific path are the mentors I have been fortunate to encounter along the way.

I was born in Bogota, Colombia. When as an undergraduate student, a mentor of mine, Carlos Jaramillo, opened my eyes to the possibility of being part of a graduate program in the United States. It was very clear from the beginning that the opportunities here were not available in Colombia. Not only was there not a lot of support for science at the time, but there was also a lot of bureaucracy. If you wanted to work in an area of medicine that directly and immediately affected the health of the population, there were excellent labs, but the career I was really passionate about (cell biology/cell death) is focused on basic, fundamental scientific questions that did not receive significant financial support. Carlos made me realize that there were opportunities in this country where I could pursue training in those areas. I came to the US initially for my master degree and during that time I met Dr. Paula Tracktman, a professor in the Medical College of Wisconsin. As a chair of Department of Microbiology and Immunology, Paula showed me that it was possible to have a family and a successful career in science. With that motivation in mind I started my Ph.D and was finally able to work on cell death, when I joined the laboratory of Dr. Shigemi Matsuyama at Case Western University.

After my Ph.D. I was convinced that research in cell biology, and in stem cells in particular, was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I started looking for postdoctoral positions and applied to many top-notch laboratories in the US. I was surprised when offers started to come in. It was an amazing time, being able to visit laboratories and meet outstanding scientists all over the US. One of those places, the laboratory of Dr. Mohanish Deshmukh, stood out. Mohanish was not only a very successful researcher but it was also (once again) an amazing mentor. There was immediate scientific chemistry. We were interested in similar research areas and his laboratory provided the flexibility to start investigating a new cell model system that I wanted to explore: human embryonic stem cells. Mohanish embodies the kind of mentor I want to be for my students. He is patient, kind, gives the freedom for students to uncover their own path of discovery, while allowing them to make mistakes, to fall, to learn and then reach their maximum potential. I have learned that fostering relationships with your fellow students, colleagues, mentors and collaborators is going to be crucial as you advance in your career. These relationships not only will be fundamental in your future, but will also invigorate you and motivate you to continue improving and reaching higher goals.

In my home country, people are just happy to get a job. You don’t have the luxury of questioning, “What do I love, what am I passionate about?” I would like to make sure that students realize that being able to pursue goals and dreams is a privilege that few people in the world have. This is one of the few countries in the world where a first-generation immigrant like me, can rise to their full potential and give back to the country by contributing to educate young trainees and advance human health. What a gift that is!

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