Training and Diversifying the Biomedical Workforce

2 spectragraphs, one of Sunlight, noon, San Marcos, TX. The other of 4100 K Fluorescent light. Absolute spectral irradiance vs. wavelength (nm)
2 spectragraphs, one of Sunlight, noon, San Marcos, TX. The other of 4100 K Fluorescent light. Absolute spectral irradiance vs. wavelength (nm)

Growing up, Dr. Raquel Salinas did not believe that someone like her could turn a passion for science into a career. It was the classes she encountered at the LBJ Science Academy, a magnet high school in Austin, Texas, that ultimately led her to a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry from the University of Texas at Austin. She then obtained a Master of Science in Biochemistry from Texas State University, and a Ph.D. in Pharmacology from Duke University. Dr. Salinas will tell you that she has been fortunate to work with strong scientific mentors who recognized her potential and supported her passion.

Dr. Salinas first met Dr. Ron Walter while working on her Master’s degree, and it was in his laboratory that her “love for science gained a new facet, the desire for discovery.” Recognizing how enthusiastic and dedicated Dr. Walter is, she came to share his interest in understanding light perception in animals. After completing her doctorate and postdoctoral fellowship at Duke, where she studied factors affecting scientific identity development in underrepresented minority students in the biomedical sciences, she returned to Texas and began working in Dr. Walter’s laboratory. Dr. Salinas saw an opportunity to train under a successful scientist, one who has come to serve as a model for her own career.

Dr. Walter’s laboratory performs unique, multifaceted work examining transcriptional profiles to understand how vertebrates perceive light in organs other than the eye. Dr. Walter also serves as the Director of Texas State University’s Xiphophorus Genetic Stock Center (XGSC), a resource that is supported by an Office of Research Infrastructure Programs (ORIP) R24 grant. The Xiphophorus fish is used as model to study the genetic etiology of diseases, such as melanoma. The XGSC is an important resource for national and international researchers, but also to Texas State University, a minority-serving institution. “It is the only national resource at such a campus, and the impact on the 38,000 students is huge,” Dr. Walter states. “We have had the opportunity to greatly contribute to the soul of this university as it continues to grow.”

At the XGSC, Drs. Walter and Salinas are performing research aimed at determining the genetic response in various vertebrate organs after exposure to artificial (e.g., fluorescent) light sources and, in other studies, exposure to specific light wavelengths. Two key findings from the research group indicate that the genetic response to fluorescent light is a shared response among vertebrates (including Xiphophorus, zebrafish, and hairless mice) and involves induction of acute phase and innate immune responses. Further, the Walter laboratory discovered that in fish, genetic responses to discrete wavelengths of light may up- or down-modulate specific genetic pathways in the skin, as well as internal organs, such as brain and liver. According to Dr. Salinas, “This is an important finding because it indicates that utilizing specific wavelengths of light can be used to turn on or turn off signaling pathways, which may allow for future targeted phototherapeutic applications.”

Dr. Salinas’ previous cell biology training using mice and Xenopus to study visual systems complements the research directions of the team at the XGSC, where she is expanding her animal model capabilities and receiving high-level research training in bioinformatic analyses, while serving at a diverse and primarily undergraduate institution. It was in this context that Dr. Walter sought supplemental funding to support her research, discovering the Funding Opportunity entitled “Research Supplements to Promote Diversity in Health-Related Research”. This program allows ORIP’s Division of Comparative Medicine (DCM) to support the research training of students, baccalaureates, postdoctoral fellows, and faculty investigators who are members of underrepresented groups in science. These supplements function by providing additional funding through the active ORIP/DCM parent grants, such as Dr. Walter’s.

On receiving the supplement, Dr. Salinas developed a project, using the hairless mouse as a model organism, to expand the Walter laboratory’s initial studies to further examine how select wavelengths of light can be used to turn pathways on and off in select mammalian organs. This project would not have been possible without the ORIP/DCM Diversity Supplement, which allows Dr. Salinas to dedicate all of her efforts to the project and her research training. Funding from the supplement has provided her with the freedom to pursue challenging and rewarding research. The funding also provides some support for research costs, including RNA sequencing (RNAseq). Dr. Salinas states that RNAseq is a “costly but exceptionally informative technique that will provide a wealth of data for publications and that will serve as the scientific foundation for my first independent research grant application.”

The Walter laboratory also provides Dr. Salinas the opportunity to mentor and train students, particularly underrepresented minority students. “Developing this facet of my career is quite important to me, as I personally know how critical it is to have the support of good mentors in navigating a career in science”, Dr. Salinas says. To this end, Dr. Salinas mentors and trains students in the South Texas Doctoral Bridge Program, specifically designed to recruit and provide enhanced training to underrepresented minority students in Master’s programs, preparing them for success in biomedical science doctoral programs. These students are often first-generation college students and underrepresented minorities who lacked mentors and research opportunities. According to Dr. Walter, co-principal investigator of the program, this important initiative would not exist at Texas State University without NIH’s long-standing support for the XGSC, and he states that the “Bridge-to-the-Doctorate” program has “changed life trajectories for many first-generation Hispanic college students by placing them in top-tier doctoral training programs nationwide.” He acknowledges the enormous impact that ORIP’s support of the XGSC has had on science training and institutional growth at Texas State University, as well as on the fundamental scientific discoveries achieved by the scientific community that it serves.

ORIP/DCM knows that a strong and diverse research workforce is needed to conduct innovative research and make creative discoveries that protect and improve health; therefore, ORIP strongly supports this program to promote diversity at different levels in the biomedical research workforce. ORIP’s support of a dynamic and motivated researcher like Dr. Salinas is allowing her to foster new skills in bioinformatics, as well as personal skills in mentoring students. Dr. Salinas is grateful for the ORIP/DCM Diversity Supplement, believing that these “facets will better prepare me for the independent career I hope to build once my Diversity Supplement ends.” As Dr. Walter states, researchers such as Dr. Salinas have a “direct impact on young scientists each and every day.”

For more information on ORIP funding opportunities, including the Diversity Supplement, please visit orip.nih.gov/funding-opportunities-list.