August 3, 2009

Strong Mexican Woman Studying Amyloidosis Research: Dr. Marina Ramirez-Alvarado

Name:  Marina Ramirez-Alvaradomarina
Hometown: Mexico City, Mexico
Education: (College/s name/s)BS, MS 1986-1994: National and Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), Mexico.
PhD 1994-1998: European Molecular Biology Laboratory, Heidelberg Germany.
Postdoctoral fellow 1998-2002: Yale University
Current Status: Assistant Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. I have been married to Jim Berglund for 10 years and we have one son, Danny, who is 6 years old and will be in 1st grade at the Rochester Montessori School.

 When did you start work/school at Mayo Clinic? April 1st. 2002

How did you become interested in or hear about Mayo Clinic?When I was a postdoctoral fellow at Yale studying mechanisms of amyloid formation using a model system, I attended the FASEB amyloid meeting and met Angela Dispenzieri, currently a professor in the division of Hematology here at Mayo. She expressed interest in having a basic scientist working on amyloidosis working at Mayo. I was starting to get ready to consider options for independent investigator jobs in the Midwest (my husband is from Afton, Minnesota). I visited Mayo very informally the summer of 2000 and gave an informal seminar to the division of Hematology in December of 2000. The department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology advertised two assistant professor positions in January of 2001 and I applied to the job. The rest, as they say, is history.

What do you do here at Mayo Clinic? What is your area of specialty?  I am a protein biochemist interested in the mechanisms of amyloid formation in light chain amyloidosis, a rare and devastating hematologic malignancy and protein misfolding disease. My lab performs biochemical, biophysical and cell culture studies. We work together with a team of hematologists and nephrologists that manage the treatment of patients suffering this disease.  I am the team leader of a group of talented technicians, students and postdocs. My first PhD student (Dr. Liz Baden) graduated in January of 2009. I serve as principal investigators on grants from the NIH and American Heart Association and as co-investigator on an NIH funded clinical trial project. I co-direct the advanced course on Biological Macromolecules in the fall and lecture in the Genome Biology and Molecular Biophysics courses for first year graduate students.  I am part of the advisory board for the IMSD program here at Mayo. I have served as the BMB department seminar series coordinator, BMB SURF director, member of the BMB education committee, member of the MD/PhD admissions committee and a member of the CTSA curriculum committee for the pre-doctoral program.

Do you participate in any organizations, societies, clubs, memberships, professions at Mayo Clinic and/or Rochester community?  I have been a member of the IMSD advisory board for 4 years. I am a member of the Association of Women in Science.  I am an active member of the PTSA in my son’s school (Rochester Montessori School) and have co-chaired 3 fundraising events to continue to build the outdoor environment and to increase the energy efficiency at his school. I am a dedicated Christian and serve as a member/missionary of People of Hope, a Lutheran church in mission here in Rochester. I participate as worship leader, and sing and play the guitar as a member of the praise band during worship services. I have participated in the Habitat for Humanity Women Build project and hope to participate in more Habitat for Humanity projects.

How does working at Mayo Clinic Rochester location differ from your hometown or where you attended school? Rochester is a very small city compared to Mexico City (current population of the Greater Mexico City area exceeds 20 million people, the third largest metropolitan area in the world). Mexico as a whole is a very young country: half of the population is under the age of 25. Mexico City has very mild weather with minor changes in temperature and sun light throughout the year so Rochester is very different from where I come from. I understand diversity as having people from different cultures and ethnicities. With that in mind, Rochester is far more diverse that Mexico City in my opinion because there is representation of a wide variety of cultures and ethnicities here in Rochester. Mexico City is populated mostly by people of Mexican origins.

Do you consider yourself diverse? I consider myself diverse. I am a Mexican-born woman and I am very proud of my Mexican heritage and my culture. I am a history buff and have carried around with me all throughout my scientific journey books about the history of Mexico. When I was in college, I learned how to speak the ancient Aztec language. My husband is an US-born American citizen. We encourage our diversity by celebrating our holidays both in the Mexican and the American way. I speak to our son only in Spanish. However, I don’t think that being diverse means being isolated from the numerous cultures and heritages living in Rochester and in general in the US. Being diverse gives you the responsibility to teach others about the true nature of your ethnicity, to become an ambassador of your culture and to create bridges.

What types of hardships or hurdles did you have to overcome to get your education or profession at Mayo Clinic? Did your diverse background have a role in these hardships? I am the only one in my family with a graduate degree. My oldest brother and I are the only ones with a college degree in my family. My family had to make tremendous sacrifices to offer to all of us a private, bilingual education and I am forever grateful for the opportunity. I always liked to travel and when the opportunity came to study abroad, I took it enthusiastically. I first felt that European students and scientists were ‘better’ than me and I was not part of their ‘league’, but little by little I realized that my Mexican colleagues and I had the potential to be as talented scientists as anyone in Europe or the US and what most of my Mexican colleagues lacked was English proficiency.   Once I felt ‘part of the big league’ I never felt any different in terms of my education.

There have been numerous hardships and hurdles in my journey as an independent investigator at Mayo. However, I don’t think that my diverse background had a role in these hardships in a direct way. In the past couple of years I have learned that women in general tend to volunteer to do more of the thankless duties in a department compared to our male counterparts. We do this because we want to contribute to our community and be good citizens but more often than not we end up spreading ourselves too thin and losing the precious time we need to think. This happened to me. With the help of my mentor, Grazia Isaya and my department chair, I drastically reduced my commitment to things outside my own research and started appreciating the importance of focus on our work. Since the reduction of my outside committees happened, I have started two new lines of research in my laboratory, so it has definitely paid off.

I also think that women and men deal with hardship differently and that in general women tend to be harder on them than men are. This is true with the way we deal with paper rejection and bad grant scores.  Last, but not least, women’s schedules tend to be busier because women are in general in charge of most of the household responsibilities, child care, family care, elder care, connections and social life in general, so when we go home, we have a full schedule of activities and duties to cover. I am always running around and I have a full schedule even on weekends. I tend to do more than one thing at a time. I don’t have time for casual chats in the corridor or to socialize with my colleagues and sometimes that makes me feel that I don’t belong to the “club”. I do a lot of my thinking when I am alone driving or while I take a shower. Any moment counts since the priorities in my life are such that preclude me from having much time left for anything. I don’t regret my very busy life since this is my choice, but I recognize that there are dramatic differences between what I have on my plate and what’s on my colleagues plate. I think that little by little my male colleagues recognize the differences in responsibilities that women scientist have outside of the work environment.

How has being from a diverse background helped you succeed in getting your education or profession at Mayo Clinic? The only thing that my diverse background has helped me relates to the start up package when I was offered a job at Mayo.  Mayo was trying to come up with a package that could fulfill my equipment requirements. During one of these negotiations, I was told that I could get extra 10,000 dollars for equipment because I am a minority and there had been a fund to support minority recruitment. I joked with my administrator that I should get 20,000 dollars because I am a double minority. I didn’t get the extra money…

At this stage of my career, there are very limited opportunities for grants geared towards diverse people compared to the opportunities found for students and postdoctoral fellows.

Coming from a diverse background, do you feel that people treat you different at Mayo Clinic or Rochester, MN?Not really, although I try to be very friendly with people all the time and sometimes people turn away and don’t make eye contact with me. This happens on the street, in my floor, and all around campus. I don’t think this is because of the way I look; it is mostly because some people are used to minding their own business and may feel that my smile may be an intrusion to their personal space. In Mexico, we have literally no personal space and you can start a conversation with anyone at any point.

Do you feel that diversity plays a role in the education you are receiving or as a professional at Mayo Clinic? I have been really pleased to see the emphasis on diversity here at Mayo, mostly from our College of Medicine (IMSD, graduate and medical school).  I have also been involved with some initiatives to help professional women to develop their careers here at Mayo. A lot is being done and a lot needs to be done and part of my role as a diverse woman in science is to identify issues that are important to maintain a diverse education environment and workforce here at Mayo and to work together with the different groups involved in making changes.  It is not going to happen overnight, so we have to be patient, but we cannot become complacent either.

Do you think Mayo Clinic and/or Rochester, MN and/or your program is diverse?I believe that we are making great progress in having a diverse Mayo Clinic, particularly in our College of Medicine but more needs to be done. My department is unfortunately not diverse. I am the only faculty member of diverse ethnical background out of 55 members. There are only 8 female members of our faculty (2 in Scottsdale) according to our website. Only 2 women have primary appointments in our department. Mayo is not alone in this regard. Numerous studies have shown that there is no bias with any gender in medical school and the disparity has greatly diminished in graduate school in Science Technology and Mathematics (STEM), but at the academic independent investigator level, there is a disparity between male and women professors that becomes worse and worse as faculty members become more and more senior.  I don’t think there is a ‘magic bullet’ that will change this disparity overnight. The issues involved in this disparity are complex and hard to tackle. People of diverse background may not feel comfortable being one of a kind in a group of people (lack of mentors of their diverse background), so they may tend to go to professions or work areas where there are already more members of diverse backgrounds. In the case of women, many women that are about to become independent investigators may feel compelled to find a job outside academia because those jobs may be more flexible or adaptable to raising children and caring for elderly relatives.  Many women also take a less demanding job to allow their partners to fulfill an ambitious career. Some women leave academic workforce because they find the environment too isolating and family unfriendly.  Hiring freezes across institutions are making the problem persist since there is no opportunity to diversify the workforce at the moment, maintaining the disparity where it is.

Since we cannot change the hiring freeze at the moment, Changes could be implemented to make our environment more family friendly by finding out a good way to allow part time work opportunities for independent investigators. That will allow more women to fulfill their family responsibilities while still conducting basic research. At the moment, there is no such thing for investigators at Mayo or many academic institutions. It requires a carefully crafted plan approved by each Department together with the Research committee.

Other things that members of the diverse community can do is to understand that changes in the culture have to happen and they can happen if we communicate about how we feel with our male and non-diverse counterparts.

I also think that as a diverse person, I can make an effort to fit in with the rest of my colleagues and find common interests that will make us feel less isolated.  We have to move out of our comfort zone and start building bridges.

Reflection::: As members of the diverse community at Mayo, I believe that it is our role to become role models and cheerleaders of the future generation of diverse scientists and we have a responsibility to do everything we can to be part of the larger community. We cannot isolate ourselves, we need to be brave and create bonds with everyone, regardless of their background. These bonds could be based on our passion for education, research or our medical practice. We are the bridges that will bring more diversity into our community.detail paseo de la reforma sculptures compress

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