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Winston-Salem, North Carolina
Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative MedicineVIEW PROFILE
Almudena Martinez-Fernandez, Ph.D. (CV ’12), was enmeshed in cardiovascular research at Mayo Clinic for six years, completing a fellowship in cardiac regenerative medicine and receiving the Mayo Clinic Alumni Association Edward C. Kendall Award for Meritorious Research in 2015. Her research focused on finding the best stem cells to regenerate the heart. Her mentors at Mayo Clinic described her as being in the forefront of cardiac regeneration and someone who would drive the field forward. Two years ago she left Mayo Clinic to focus on translational regenerative medicine — bringing projects to clinical trials. “I want to touch people’s lives more directly — not wait 20 years to affect their lives,” she says. Despite a new focus, she’s determined to be a force in driving regenerative medicine forward.
It took some time to understand that academia wasn’t my only option. I felt I was leaving a part of me behind when I left Mayo Clinic. It was the human factor: I wanted to touch people’s lives rather than stay on the basic science research bench. My work at Mayo was exciting, but I knew it would take a long time to affect people’s lives. I wanted to see the effects of my work. In my new position, I know I’ll be doing a clinical trial in one to two years.
I talked to my mentor Andre Terzic, M.D., Ph.D. (CV ’92), who helped me define what I wanted to do and sent me to a conference to meet the right people. His references are amazing. He also told me about the translational group at Wake Forest, which is working with the FDA to bring regenerative medicine interventions to clinical trial. I was very excited about their work at a scientific level.
My husband, Santiago Reyes, Ph.D. (MPET ’10, CV ’13), was at Mayo Clinic, too, and found a position doing hypertension research at Wake Forest School of Medicine.
The Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine functions like a biotech startup. The focus is on translating regenerative medicine discoveries into clinical therapies to repair or replace diseased tissues and organs. We’re a regenerative medicine clinical center with process development, manufacturing and quality groups. I’m working on bioprinting, tissue engineering and gene therapy projects.
In the beginning, it was scary to diversify from cardiac medicine, but I enjoy learning new things. It’s nice to not have to worry about publishing or funding.
At Mayo, I gained a set of skills that I use every day, including teamwork and collaboration toward a common purpose. I’m used to learning from others and asking for help.
Everyone’s eyes open big when you tell them you trained at Mayo Clinic. It’s a great conversation starter. The Mayo name gives robustness to anything you do and suggests a job well done. People presume if you trained at Mayo Clinic, you know what you’re doing.
I want to keep growing in the field of translational regenerative medicine. So far it has exceeded my expectations. It’s fun and diverse work with a huge regulatory component. At some point I’d like to lead a group like this in an academic institution or industry.
I have two children: Pablo is 3, and Laura is 1. My husband is still in academic research. If we both were still in academia, it would have been too much for me. I work a lot, but when I’m done, I can do other things. I can cover for my husband at home if he needs to work late or on the weekend.
I think we are still recovering from the many winters in Rochester! We’re outdoors as much as possible, riding bikes, gardening and doing yardwork, going for walks.
Listen to yourself. I listened to myself when I felt like my work wasn’t as fulfilling as I wanted it to be. Then it became clear that I wanted something closer to the patient. Academia isn’t the only option. Other areas can be meaningful. Many people questioned my leaving academia. You put so much effort into an academic career that it can feel like you are giving away that commitment. It took a lot of thought before I took that step. It felt a little like a brave move, but it really paid off.
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