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Assistant Professor of NeuroscienceVIEW PROFILE
Minerva Carrasquillo, Ph.D., is an associate consultant in the Department of Neuroscience and an assistant professor of neuroscience at Mayo Clinic in Florida. She has a big goal. She’d like to find a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, or at least contribute to a cure through genetic research. She recently received a grant from the Florida Department of Health to investigate Alzheimer’s disease in African-Americans – one of eight Alzheimer’s grants Mayo Clinic in Florida received from the state. She juggles her research responsibilities with raising three children – ages 12, 8 and 5.
I grew up in Puerto Rico. I graduated from Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, and received my Ph.D. in human genetics from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. Then, I completed a postdoctoral fellowship in human genetics at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland, followed by a neuroscience research fellowship at Mayo Clinic in Florida. I became an assistant professor at Mayo in 2009 and an associate consultant in 2012.
My father was a pediatrician. I’m the youngest of four children. My older siblings also pursued careers in science – one is an orthopedic surgeon, and two are engineers.
My first biology course was in eighth grade and I was fascinated by everything in the course. I liked understanding how the human body works and, when it doesn’t work, how to fix it. I planned on attending medical school, so I pursued an undergraduate degree in biology with an emphasis on premed requirements.
A college counselor encouraged the premed students to get research experience, and I was selected for a summer research internship in cell biology at Yale. That completely shifted my interest. That’s when I decided to get my Ph.D. in biomedical research. I realized that I could help physicians better apply medicine instead of being a physician myself.
I wasn’t aware that Mayo Clinic conducted biomedical research until my first postdoc year at Johns Hopkins. I went to a conference and reviewed a book of research abstracts. The first one I read was about the genetics of Alzheimer’s disease from Dr. Steven Younkin (M.D., Ph.D., PHAR ’95) in the Department of Neuroscience at Mayo Clinic in Florida.
I was ready to take the next step to study truly complex genetic disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease. I immediately inquired about the possibility of conducting a postdoctoral fellowship in Dr. Younkin’s laboratory.
My brother had recently moved to Jacksonville to work in an orthopedics practice. My parents had just moved from Puerto Rico to St. Augustine, Florida, to live near my brother and his family. The fact that Mayo in Florida was conducting such exciting research was a fortunate coincidence for me. This fellowship would provide the perfect setting for me to continue my career in research and for my husband and me to start a family, with family support nearby.
The majority of people going to graduate school for biomedical research careers are women, but most PIs are men. We need a culture change to allow women to advance and have children.
My research focus is on studies aimed to identify genetic risk factors for late-onset Alzheimer’s disease. As a postdoc in Dr. Younkin’s lab, I led one of the first Alzheimer’s disease genome-wide association studies. We published the results in Nature Genetics in 2009 and immediately made these data available to other investigators. This led to our involvement in multiple large Alzheimer’s genetics consortia whose joint efforts have led to the identification of 20 Alzheimer’s genetic risk factors.
Most recently I began to focus on the identification of genes that may differentially impact the risk of developing Alzheimer’s in understudied populations. In 2016 I was awarded a grant from the Mayo Clinic Office of Health Disparities Research to conduct a pilot project in an African-American cohort. Most studies on Alzheimer’s have involved patients of European descent. Therefore, over the past few years, we’ve been more actively recruiting African-American patients at Mayo to fill in the knowledge gap.
Alzheimer’s disease is twice as prevalent in African-Americans as in individuals that are primarily of European descent. African-Americans also have a higher risk of cardiovascular disease, and there’s strong evidence of a link between vascular disease and Alzheimer’s disease. The Florida Department of Health grant that I was recently awarded aims to improve our understanding of the influence of vascular disease risk factors and inflammation on Alzheimer’s disease in this minority population.
I also am a contributing scientist to two large NIH-funded multi-institutional consortia whose ultimate goal is to identify drug targets that will lead to the development of therapies for Alzheimer’s in a short period by means of intense collaboration among investigators in academia and the pharmaceutical industry. I consider myself very fortunate to be able to contribute to these projects. The more we study Alzheimer’s, the more we realize that we must integrate our genetic data with complementary datasets to get a more comprehensive understanding of the pathophysiology underlying the disease. We think this approach will be effective and have a big impact.
When I had my first child, I went from having complete flexibility of when and how much I could work to working around her schedule. I had to put my daughter in daycare when she was only 6 weeks old, and it was really tough for me. Eventually, I realized that having children grounded me and helped me a strike better work-life balance.
During the week I work as much as possible. I try to dedicate weekends to my family and household. My husband works long hours but is very supportive. We take turns with child duties and have some help from our parents. It’s extremely challenging juggling kids and work. You can’t give 100 percent to either.
Sometimes I feel like I’m failing as a mom. Then someone will say to me, “You’re doing so great. How do you balance it all?” But I don’t feel like I am. Many of us are in this position and are learning from each other as we go along. I don’t like to complain though because I chose this career, and I love it.
That said, women who pursue research careers and want to become principal investigators need better support systems. The majority of people going to graduate school for biomedical research careers are women, but most PIs are men. We need a culture change to allow women to advance and have children. If you wait for the right time in this career to have children, you’ll never have them. Many women who have their own labs have stay-at-home husbands, husbands with flexible schedules or family members who take care of their children when they are young. Women can become successful scientists and mothers, but we’re still figuring out how to do it. I’d like to be involved in developing an infrastructure to help women advance in research careers without compromising their family as much.
Latinas are underrepresented in biomedical research, for sure. Perhaps culturally, research and science aren’t presented as career options for Latina girls. Growing up, I knew not many of my schoolmates were thinking about science research careers. I had no role models in that regard, which was hard. Having a role model would have been helpful when applying to college and grad school.
However, I believe it doesn’t matter what your background is. Either you want to excel or not.
See past New Chapter stories here.