From exploring the Puerto Rican seaside with her grandfather as a child to conducting research that targets IGF axis modulators in the context of prostate cancer health disparities today, Greisha L. Ortiz-Hernandez, PhD, found her passion for helping all living things at an early age.
When Greisha L. Ortiz-Hernandez, PhD, used to hop in her grandpa’s Jeep and explore the beaches of Puerto Rico almost every week, her love for animals and nature was born at a very young age. Whether it was cradling sea urchins or planting guava and orange trees in the backyard, her curiosity about all living things uncovered a passion for science.
When her beloved grandpa was stricken with cancer during her high school years, Ortiz-Hernandez’s driving force became making sure other minorities like him were able to gain access to the best medical care for the diseases prevalent in their communities. Fast forward, and today Ortiz-Hernandez is starting her third year as a postdoctoral fellow and trainee under the National Cancer Institute T32 Cancer Metabolism Training Program, in the Division of Biomarkers of Early Detection and Prevention at City of Hope National Medical Center in Duarte, Calif. Her work focuses on targeting IGF axis modulators in the context of prostate cancer health disparities and its impact on clinical outcomes. Goal met.
As a role model for the young scientists she meets at conferences or who find her on social media, Endocrine News asked Ortiz-Hernandez about the importance of influencing the future generation of Hispanic/Latina researchers and giving back to her community.
Can you share more about your childhood and when you first got the spark to become a scientist?
I was born and raised in Puerto Rico. I come from a very humble family but one with a really strong work ethic. When I was a kid, I remember working with my grandma selling alcapurrias right in front of her porch. Alcapurrias are like a fried tamale but crispier and the base is mostly made of green bananas. So, I grew up watching my grandparents work hard and my mom going to college and working at the same time. My mom completed her bachelor’s with a lot of sacrifices as a single mom. Watching them, including my father-in-law who helped my mom raise me, is what made me feel that I must give back to them.
“I really try to be very open about my own experiences as a young scientist, the good and the bad. It’s also very important to me to teach [students] about the importance of not losing sight of the bigger picture, which is to serve our underserved communities.”Greisha L. Ortiz Hernández, PhD, postdoctoral fellow, T32 Cancer Metabolism Training Program, Dr. Susan Neuhausen Lab, Division of Biomarkers of Early Detection and Prevention, Department of Population Sciences, City of Hope National Medical Center, Duarte, Calif.
I used to go to the beach almost weekly and played with the chickens that my grandma raised on the patio. It was a love for animals and for agriculture, too, because we used to plant guava and orange trees in my grandma’s backyard. Also, my grandpa used to take me and my cousins every Sunday in his big Jeep around the island, fishing and connecting us with nature. For example, he used to put sea urchins in our hands so we could play with them. So, experiences like that sparked that interest in me.
My grandpa got cancer when I was in high school. So, while in undergrad, I majored in biology, but I was still figuring out what type of career in science I wanted to pursue. I was part of the honors program at my college, and we were encouraged to participate in summer internships. My first experience was in the ecology field, a type of research I really loved but it was during that time that my grandpa also got really sick. I then became more interested in finding more biomedical opportunities that had to do with cancer and that’s how I ended up at Loma Linda University’s Undergraduate Training Program (UTP) at the Center for Health Disparities and Molecular Medicine under the direction of Carlos A. Casiano, PhD. It was there that I did prostate cancer research for the first time and learned about this cancer, but through a health disparity focus. So, that’s when I basically fell in love with the area of biomedical research.
You participated in the Endocrine Society’s FLARE (Future Leaders Advancing Research in Endocrinology) program in 2022. Can you talk about what impact it had on your endocrinology career so far?
FLARE helped me define what type of scientist I wanted to be. I’m in my postdoc and trying to acquire new knowledge and develop my own research program, skills that I didn’t necessarily learn while I was doing my Ph.D.
FLARE offered different workshops during the program, which were amazing. For example, we did a personal assessment test to help us improve teamwork, communication, and productivity. This was especially helpful because we had the opportunity to get to know ourselves in terms of how we can participate in different teams and our style of working. I also valued some of the workshops where the topics were to value the importance of working as a team because in essence, we cannot do science on our own. In the future, when I establish my own lab and expand my own team, I will definitely equip them with these tools.
I know it’s important to you to encourage other Hispanic/Latina researchers to network and get mentors. How has it been for you, finding women or Hispanic mentorship?
I will say it’s been a little bit challenging. In my case, I moved from Loma Linda University, which has a lot of diversity in terms of the faculty. But when I transitioned to my postdoc, I noticed the need for more Hispanic/Latino representation. At City of Hope, they foster a community that welcomes diversity, equity, and inclusion and is reflected in their people, which is something I really appreciate from the institution. But we know there is a lot more work to do.
In terms of mentorship, I do have one Hispanic woman mentor. Her name is Ana Robles, PhD, and she has been an essential part of my formation as a cancer scientist. She’s from Argentina and works at NIH, and she’s been like my career mentor for over six years. She’s helped guide my career based on her experiences. Also, my current mentor, Susan Neuhausen, PhD, is a legend in her field. She started her research career as part of a collaborative team that discovered the breast cancer genes BRCA1 and BRCA2. Now I really appreciate the time she is taking to mentor me about how to be a great scientist and woman in science.
At City of Hope, I know a Hispanic/Latina assistant professor, Lindsey Treviño,PhD, and she’s also been a part of the Endocrine Society for many years. She has her own lab here and if I have a question about how to navigate as a Hispanic/Latina in my institution, I know she’s a person who I can look to for advice.
So far, all the mentors I’ve had are amazing and I’ve learned valuable lessons from each one of them that I will carry for the rest of my career.
When you meet other young Latina scientists, I’m sure you’re looked at as a role model. How important is that for you?
It is very important. I participate in different programs, and at every conference that I go to, I try to participate in roundtables where I can mentor students, mostly at the undergrad level. At City of Hope, they also have a program where they incorporate high school and undergraduate students who come to do summer internships and research projects.
“My current goal as a researcher is to build a translational research program. In the meantime, I’m staying focused on helping my community and helping patients like my grandpa have better outcomes than those who didn’t have access to good care.”Greisha L. Ortiz Hernández, PhD, postdoctoral fellow, T32 Cancer Metabolism Training Program, Dr. Susan Neuhausen Lab, Division of Biomarkers of Early Detection and Prevention, Department of Population Sciences, City of Hope National Medical Center, Duarte, Calif.
I have students who come to me, thanks to Twitter, LinkedIn, and other presentations that I give to the public and in schools. Sometimes when we’re in conferences, they usually reach out to me, and I try to connect with them. I really try to be very open about my own experiences as a young scientist, the good and the bad. It’s also very important to me to teach them about the importance of not losing sight of the bigger picture, which is to serve our underserved communities.
What research are you currently working on?
My research at City of Hope focuses on exploring and targeting malignant pathways leading to prostate cancer and understanding the importance of racial and ethnic differences in clinical outcomes. Specifically, my current research project focuses on targeting IGF axis modulators in the context of prostate cancer health disparities. Unfortunately, there are not too many cellular models that represent the population that have a high incidents and mortality rate, and we are speaking about Hispanic/Latinos and African Americans, specifically.
Most of the cellular models do not represent the population being affected the most by prostate cancer. So, I would like to establish different cellular models that represent metastatic disease, for which currently there are no treatments.
I’m now trying to develop some preliminary data and applying for different grants to do my research independently. My current goal as a researcher is to build a translational research program. In the meantime, I’m staying focused on helping my community and helping patients like my grandpa have better outcomes than those who didn’t have access to good care.
Follow Hernandez’s work on Twitter at @greisha_ortiz.
—Fauntleroy Show is a freelance writer based in Carmel, Ind. She is a regular contributor to Endocrine News and writes the monthly Laboratory Notes column.