Endocrinology: Here, There, and Everywhere

Pic Marina Fernandez

My first contact with the field of endocrinology occurred when I was in my third year of college. I was taking a biological chemistry class as part of my master’s in biology at the School of Sciences in the University of Buenos Aires. I remember one of my professors, Juan Carlos Calvo, talking about hormones and their effects in the body. I knew I wanted to do something in that direction, so, after that class finished, I asked him if he knew anyone who would want a student in their lab. He said he would ask around, and soon after I was interviewing with Victoria Lux and her group, in the neuroendocrinology lab at the Institute of Biology and Experimental Medicine (IByME), CONICET.

I realized that my deepest interest was to study how environmental contaminants are able to interact with the natural hormones of the body to alter their effects and functions.

I did my master’s thesis on the effects of GnRH in an experimental ovarian tumor under the direction of Dr. Lux. After graduating, I started to work on my PhD on the effects of Bisphenol A on the rat neuroendocrine system, under the direction of Carlos Libertun and Dr. Lux. Soon after starting my project, I realized that my deepest interest was to study how environmental contaminants are able to interact with the natural hormones of the body to alter their effects and functions. I realized that I would need more experience on in vitro and molecular techniques to elucidate the mechanisms of action of endocrine disruptors. When I was in my last year of graduate school, I decided to pursue a postdoc abroad to get training and experience in those techniques. In 2008, I had the opportunity of travelling to ENDO as an awardee of the International Endocrine Scholars Program. During the conference, I met Nicholas Webster, professor of Medicine at the University of California San Diego, and then I decided to go to the U.S. for a postdoctoral position in neuroendocrinology.

After getting married and defending my PhD thesis, all between February and March 2009 — and yes, I did everything in that order! —  my husband and I travelled to the U.S. The first few months were a little difficult; everything was new to us, and we didn’t know anyone in San Diego except for my boss. Things got better when we started to make new friends with people from all over the world. My husband started to study English (our native language is Spanish) and we both felt that we had arrived at our home away from home.

But what about the postdoc? It took me some time to get adjusted to the new place, but I was really excited about working at UCSD. At the beginning, I felt that I was bothering everyone all the time — Where is the ice machine? Where do you keep this or that reagent? Of course, things got better as I got used to the new place and people. For me, it was not only a very interesting working experience, it was a very enriching cultural one as well. People from China, India, Japan, Korea, different parts of Europe, to name a few places, were all working together in the same department.

I spent almost five years in that lab and worked incredibly hard. I collaborated on different projects, met principal investigators from different departments, mentored undergraduate students and obtained very interesting results on the effects of PPARγ in metabolism and reproduction. After spending four years in the U.S., my husband and I decided that it was time to come back home. We wanted to start our own family, and my husband had not been able to get a full-time job, as we were on a J visa at that time. I applied for an assistant investigator position at the National Research Council (CONICET) in Argentina in the Laboratory of Neuroendocrinology at the IByME. I was selected, so in February 2014 we flew back home.

Adjusting again to our home country was not easy. We had been gone for almost five years, and a lot of things happened during that time. The first difficult thing was to re-adjust to a “big city.” In San Diego, our life was more relaxed (except for the fact that I worked a lot, and had crazy schedules, but we scientists do that all the time, right?), we found time to go to the beach, to hang out with friends, to enjoy the sun. Buenos Aires, on the other hand is like any other big city, lots of traffic, everyone is in a hurry all the time. Also, during our first year back home, I got pregnant, so I had to not only to get used to the country but to also being a mom!

This may sound naïve to many, but I have hope that things will get better soon. We just need to keep motivating ourselves in the times of adversity.

I have been back home for four years now. Things are a little hard for us these days as it is difficult to get grant money in Argentina, not only for new investigators like myself, but also for more established ones. Often, lab directors buy supplies with their own money to keep research going because even when grants are awarded, it takes lots of time for money to come through.

The economy in Argentina is changing constantly and priorities shift all the time. However, I try to stay positive and I like challenges. I am lucky to be working in an excellent research institute, the IByME, and to have great mentors and colleagues. I continue stay in touch with my postdoc advisor, Dr. Webster, who is also one of my mentors, and with other PIs from UCSD, like Pam Mellon (who donated the cells lines that I am using in my research). I try to publish the best I can and to apply for national and international grants to study in vivo effects of endocrine disruptors on the neuroendocrine system. I am also mentoring MSc students and developing collaborations as I try to grow as a basic and translational endocrinologist. This may sound naïve to many, but I have hope that things will get better soon. We just need to keep motivating ourselves in the times of adversity.

Why did you choose endocrinology as a career? Share your story with the readers of Endocrine News! Contact editor Mark A. Newman

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