Marina Ramirez-Alvarado, Ph.D

Marina Ramirez-AlvaradoTell us about your current career position.
I am currently a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

What are the key experiences and decisions that have enabled you to reach your current position?

When I decided to study abroad, I came to the realization that the scientists in the developed countries were not better than my colleagues in Mexico. This was key for me because I was always very intimidated by hearing the big shots in the field. It helped me to learn more from their work and to believe that I could make a difference in the field of Biochemistry at some point in my career.

How did you first become interested in science?

When I was 15, I wanted to become a travel agent because I loved traveling and seeing new places. A friend of mine in middle school, Margarita Castrejón Balderas opened my eyes by pointing out that my talent for science would be wasted in a travel agency. She helped me develop my love for Chemistry. When I went to college I minored in food chemistry as I wanted to develop nutritious food to solve world hunger. In my 2nd year of college, I learned about proteins and fell in love with their complexity and their beauty from my Biochemistry Professor, Homero Hernandez. I started doing protein research shortly afterwards.

Were there times when you failed at something you felt was critical to your path? If so, how did you regroup and get back on track?

I was very naïve about authorship as a student and ‘gave away’ my position in a joint first authorship as a sign of friendship. This happened at a time where journals didn’t give much credit to the second name in the list.
After that experience, I discuss authorship even before we start writing the first draft of the paper.

As a junior assistant professor, my grants and papers got rejected constantly. I felt very inadequate and questioned my ability to run an independent research program. My mentor Grazia Isaya shared with me at the time that in general, female scientists take failure as a sign of inadequacy. Hearing these words from an established investigator motivated me to keep trying. Another colleague of mine, Tom Spelsberg used to tell me: Persistence is what we need in academy, keep trying kiddo!

What are your hobbies?

I am a martial artist. I started taking Tae Kwon Do classes with my son and now we are both black belts. I sing and play guitar in a band. I am a beginner but enthusiastic gardener for native species and pollinator friendly plants.

What was the last book you read?
“The hot zone” by Richard Preston (thanks Dr. Sara Holditch for the recommendation!). Terrifying story about filoviruses written in 1995 and very relevant today.
I followed it up with “Love is the cure: On Life, Loss and the end of AIDS” by Sir Elton John. A human, inspiring story about the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.

Do you have any heroes, heroines, mentors, or role models? If so, describe how they have influenced you.

Homero Hernández, cell biology and biochemistry in 3rd and 4th year. First research mentor Agustín López-Munguía, food enzymology in 3rd year. Agustin became my undergraduate thesis research mentor and is now a dear friend.
Eduardo Bárzana, industrial fermentations. Lalo helped me decide my path for graduate school.

During my PhD, Anne Ephrussi was my first female scientist role model. She was a scientist and a mother who inspired me to seek work life satisfaction and integration.

During my postdoctoral training, Andrew Miranker was a role model. He was our next door lab neighbor. I was the only one in my lab working on amyloid and Andrew had just started his laboratory working on amyloid studies.

As an assistant professor, my first mentor was Frank Rusnak who helped me so much in a very short time and died tragically 6 months after I started to work at Mayo. Grazia Isaya became my mentor at that point and offered me her wisdom and calm during the hard days of rejections.

Outside Mayo, I received the support from Jeff Kelly who believed in me and has always supported my research. When I was invited to be an editor in chief for a protein misfolding book, Jeff accepted to edit it with me and recruited Chris Dobson, who was a pleasure to work with and whose work I have admired since my years in graduate school.

Joel Buxbaum is a fantastic role model. Starting from the way we met in Tours, France during the Amyloidosis Symposium. Joel has been a source of wisdom and good humor in my life as a professor. Writing a book chapter with him was an incredible experience.

An unusual role model and hero is Tim Stepanek, the first patient with amyloidosis that I met. Tim was involved as a patient in ways I never thought patients would get involved. He was the first person that believed in what I was doing with all of his heart. He gave me advice in ways he probably never realized. He faced a devastating disease with grace and dignity and when he died 11 years ago, Tim trusted me with the task of trying to understand his disease so that people like him do not have to die anymore…

What is it that keeps you working hard every day?
I have the honor to conduct biochemical studies on a rare, devastating, incurable disease. What keeps me working hard every day is the notion that one day, possibly before I retire, our research will contribute to finding a cure for light chain amyloidosis.
Interacting with young scientists in training and seeing them learn and grow is inspiring and rewarding for me. I love learning new things every day.