A question & answer session to get to know the 2021 GG Scholar Amilcar Rodriguez, 2nd year graduate student in the Comparative Biomedical Sciences Program. He has joined the lab of Dr. Guohong Cui.

What aspect of genetics and/or genomics most interests you?

I am fascinated with how slight alterations to a single gene can produce such tremendous consequences in the proteins that are produced. Much of my work involves exploring environmental impacts on mitochondrial DNA and what rapid accumulation of mutations in the genome can tell us about the general wellbeing or diseased state of an organism. As I dive deeper and deeper into the subject, I find that I have way more questions than what I started with. When I first started my project, I assumed that much of my work would focus on exploring genetic aberrations through wet-bench work and gene-manipulation protocols. While those elements are a big component of my work, what I didn’t expect was how large of an influence bioinformatics would become. Now, there isn’t a day where I’m not diving deep into discussion of data analysis, coding, or the pros and cons of one analytical pipeline over another.

What (or Who) influenced you to go into your field of study?

My path to becoming a Ph.D. student has been a long and winding road with lots of obstacles, informal education, and many mentors who have helped shape me and open opportunities for me. It’s hard for me to pinpoint any one event, subject, or person; however, the theme has always been the same: How can I empower others. My first true exposure to the great big world of science and medicine was when I worked for a (now-defunct) insurance military contractor investigative and case management firm. This opportunity greatly shaped my worldview and taught me about the power that scientists and medical professionals have in spite of crises that may unfold around them. From that experience, I knew that I wanted to focus my studies on medical research in a way that would give others the power and tools needed to shape the environments around them for the better.

As a non-traditional student, I had no idea how I would accomplish this. The first time I tried college, I failed pretty hard. I wasn’t prepared or focused enough for what was expected of me. I knew that financial resources were very important, but that wasn’t a privilege that my family or I could provide without taking time to prepare. I worked for years in different jobs, including restaurant and satellite technician positions. I got a chance to travel around the East and Midwestern U.S. and spent a lot of time meeting people all over North Carolina. These life experiences provided me with reinforcement that I was prepared to return to college to pursue a life in scientific research.

When I returned to Wake Tech, I had a lot of support both from the community of people that had joined my journey during my travels and at Wake Tech themselves. There, Dr. Laura Leverton, Dr. Jackie Swanick and Erin Doughney became some of my biggest supporters and helped get me into my first research projects. Their help got me into NC State where I came under Dr. Caiti Heil’s wing and mentorship, and I was given the tools and encouragement to integrate an interdisciplinary approach to explore my scientific and community engagement interests. 

Now that I’m a IRTA GPP Fellow at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in Dr. Guohong Cui’s In-vivo Neurobiology lab, I’m convinced that I’ve made it to where I belong. It was a long adventure, but without it, I wouldn’t be who I am today and the lessons I learned aren’t anything that can be taught in a classroom. Everyone, from the homies that I used to work with at the moving company that taught me to be proud of my heritage and humble environment and to be physically resilient, to the local medical professionals in Afghanistan who always seemed to have a solution for everything, to the bar crew I would hammer out drinks with until 3am in the morning during my undergraduate so I could make rent, or at least have a good time trying, all of them were critical to getting me to where I am now, and I could never thank them enough.

Who or what do you hope benefits from your research?

I hope that my research empowers communities to advocate for themselves and put pressure on policy makers to take action to resolve important environmental and healthcare access issues that exacerbate the severity and prevalence of disease. There’s a lot of technical stuff involved in my research that many stakeholders would find interest in but may not understand how exactly it involves them. To be honest, a lot of post-modern scientific research can become so specialized and focused that, to the communities whom the research matters most, the research outcomes produced seem alien and dissociated from the realities of their day to day lives. One of my favorite reflections on specifically neurobiological work comes from a Vice report where community advocates challenged the logic in spending millions of dollars to research a neurodegenerative disease that they all already knew was being aggravated by the poor civil infrastructure of their neighborhoods. 

For me, I feel that being a funded-scientist is as much of a privilege as it is to be a professional athlete or movie star. We have an obligation to our stakeholders in industry, academia, and especially the public for which the research should ultimately serve. It’s not enough for me to publish papers on visualizing some elusive protein structure or identify a new promoter. It’s a researcher’s moral obligation to ensure that the research they conduct, no matter how niche, becomes as accessible and inspirational as possible for those outside of our ivory towers.

How can your research be used to inform decision makers (e.g. policy makers, resource managers, health practitioners, K12 educators, etc etc)?

My focus is on better understanding the early indicators of Parkinson’s disease by exploring the gut-brain axis, gut microbiotia dysbiosis, and mitochondrial dysfunction by challenging assumptions made by various hypotheses on PD development and alpha-synuclien aggregation. In other words, is our environment allowing for pathogens to damage our central nervous system, and if so, what could biases in mitochondrial mutagenesis of PD diseased states tell us about identifying the disease early and providing early treatment options? I know that I’m in the right field because as I present all the different study options I want to undertake to my PI, my noble PI brings me down to Earth and reminds me that I have a lifetime to explore these questions, but only a few years of funding to earn my Ph.D. 

One thing I would most certainly like for my research to do is provide further guidance to medical professionals for diagnosing patients with neurodegenerative disease, including CTE/TBI. Evidence supports that many under-represented communities are often misdiagnosed despite presenting the same symptoms and signs as their privileged counterparts. Such problems can have dramatic consequences on the patient and the friends and family members who are responsible for their care. I believe that by improving standardized-objective methods for diagnosing neurological diseases and trauma injury, we can reduce poor health outcomes and empower patients and their caretakers to advocate for themselves and their respective communities.

What do you think is the most pressing issue or problem in your field of study?

INCLUSIVE HUMAN AND ANIMAL DATA AND COMPLETING LONGITUDINAL STUDIES ON AMYLOIDAL DISEASES. Repeat after me,  a primarily european-ancestory cohort studied at the late stages of their lives is not sufficient to represent what could be occurring to patients across all walks of life and backgrounds during varying stages of their lives. I bet my defense on it. More and more evidence supports that many idiopathic neurological diseases may have their genesis much earlier in life than expected. And, epidemiological studies on military veterans with neurological diseases indicate that assumptions made about who are more likely to suffer from neurological diseases in the general public may be biased and hurt under-served communities. The lack of inclusive data, especially genomic data, is a critical issue for all scientific disciplines, and it’s one that I hope to help address.

How do you expect the GG Scholars program to impact your work?

The wonderful community and training opportunities GGS has provided me have greatly shaped how I approach my research. I’m very close to my GG Scholar colleagues and their support keeps me motivated to focus on my projects and seek positive criticism as much as possible. Many of the tools that I acquired during my first year in GGS have empowered me to build connections with others at the NIEHS by being malleable to interdisciplinary approaches to challenging scientific questions.

How would you describe your research interests to a 3rd grader?

Everything we play with and eat can make us grow strong and healthy. Sometimes, those same things can also make us sick when we get much older, and we don’t realize it until it’s too late. My job is to find out what those things are and figure out exactly how they mess with our brains so that we can grow healthy and live youthful lives for as long as possible.

What’s your dream job?

Super secret service space marine spy researching a suspicious rapid spread of disease at a space station located at the outer reaches of our universe. But, I’ll settle for Medical Scientist researcher at the NIH for now.