Chapter 06: Fellowship Research and the Move to MD Anderson

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Chapter 06: Fellowship Research and the Move to MD Anderson

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To begin this segment, Dr. Rodriguez sketches her research while a Fellow at the University of Arizona Cancer Center. She recalls that is was an exciting time in cancer research, given the availability of DNA analysis and new techniques in molecular biology. Dr. Rodriguez says she knew she wanted to be in a research environment. Her mentors in Arizona eventually connected her with colleagues at MD Anderson. Dr. Rodriguez recalls that when she came to MD Anderson in 1986, the institution was undergoing a reorganization that made times difficult in the Division of Cancer Medicine. She explains that the turbulence made it difficult for a junior faculty member to settle in, as her mentors kept changing. Over the course of her first four years, Dr. Rodriguez says she realized she would not be successful as a researcher and explains the importance of having an anchor point in the institution as a basis for becoming a truly independent researcher. Next, Dr. Rodriguez talks about her mentor, Dr. Fernando Cabanillas, who was passionate about advancing the treatment of lymphoma. Dr. Rodriguez explains that she designed studies and tested drug combinations within Dr. Cabanillas’ laboratory.

Identifier

RodriguezA_01_20150220_C06

Publication Date

2-20-2015

Publisher

The Making Cancer History® Voices Oral History Collection, The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center

City

Houston, Texas

Topics Covered

The Researcher; The Researcher; Joining MD Anderson; MD Anderson History; Mentoring; Understanding the Institution

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.

Disciplines

History of Science, Technology, and Medicine | Oncology | Oral History

Transcript

Tacey A. Rosolowski, PhD:

So tell me about the research that you undertook when you were at Arizona.

Alma Rodriguez, MD:

Well, at this time, was—this was an exciting time in the evolution of cancer research in that molecular biology techniques were being introduced. The whole field of analysis of DNA, to the level of unique genes that you could run on a certain—not as whole chromosomes, but rather as analyzing unique patterns of the gene distributions; whether some were over-expressed or under-expressed, and so on. That was happening at that time. So I learned how to do some of those DNA analyses technologies, PCR [polymerase chain reaction] analyses were just coming on. You know, that’s the famous technique that analyses paternity as well as in criminal cases identifies (laughs) whether the criminal’s DNA is in the victim, etc.

Tacey A. Rosolowski, PhD:

And what does PCR stand for?

Alma Rodriguez, MD:

What does it stand for now? I have forgotten, I did it for so many years.

Tacey A. Rosolowski, PhD:

Oh, I can look it up, it’s all right.

Alma Rodriguez, MD:

Polymerase chain reaction—

Tacey A. Rosolowski, PhD:

Oh, OK.

Alma Rodriguez, MD:

—technique.

Tacey A. Rosolowski, PhD:

Yeah, I just—I had never heard “PCR analysis” before.

Alma Rodriguez, MD:

So anyway, so that was very exciting. So I was doing that level of analytic work with tumor samples in myeloma, specifically, recognizing—and one of the analyses that we did at that time was also looking for viruses in the cells. So it was all very exciting work.

Tacey A. Rosolowski, PhD:

Yeah.

Alma Rodriguez, MD:

And so I knew at that time I would want to stay and continue to work in an environment that was still linked to research, that delivered cancer care, but also was linked to research. And it so happened at the end of my fellowship that my mentors at the University of Arizona had been contacted by somebody from MD Anderson, I don’t know who it was exactly, saying we’re looking for people in the Department of Lymphoma/Myeloma.

Tacey A. Rosolowski, PhD:

Wow.

Alma Rodriguez, MD:

They knew Dr. Durie and Salmon, because they were known as myeloma researchers, so they contacted them and said, are there any fellows in your program who are looking for jobs? We have openings. So—

Tacey A. Rosolowski, PhD:

Wow.

Alma Rodriguez, MD:

That’s how I ended up here.

Tacey A. Rosolowski, PhD:

Wow. That’s an amazing story! I’m sure people who are looking for jobs now think of that and go, “Wow!” It ain’t like that now. (laughs)

Alma Rodriguez, MD:

Yes.

Tacey A. Rosolowski, PhD:

So tell me about coming here. You know, how did the interview process go? I mean, how were you recruited? Did you make an application just cold? How did that all work?

Alma Rodriguez, MD:

I think I came for one interview.

Tacey A. Rosolowski, PhD:

Uh-huh?

Alma Rodriguez, MD:

It wasn’t traumatic, I mean, I was certain I wanted to come here. I—honestly, I don’t remember the interview very well.

Tacey A. Rosolowski, PhD:

I can just imagine.

Alma Rodriguez, MD:

All I know is I had a job.

Tacey A. Rosolowski, PhD:

Yeah, great!

Alma Rodriguez, MD:

And I moved here.

Tacey A. Rosolowski, PhD:

So you came and—you came in 1986.

Alma Rodriguez, MD:

Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Tacey A. Rosolowski, PhD:

Yeah. So tell me about the department at the time. You know, who were the people who were there who were really significant for you? And what was the climate like?

Alma Rodriguez, MD:

Well, it was a difficult time for the entire Cancer Medicine group. I’m trying to remember all the exact organization, you know. Obviously, I was a lowly faculty member. I wasn’t in the governing structure of the department, all I knew is that there were changes happening. It actually—Lymphoma/Myeloma was not a department, it was a section. It was a section of a department of hematology, if I recall. And hematology was yet another part of the larger group that was called Cancer Medicine [Division of]. And there was a transition happening at the level of leadership, and there were several transitions, really, that I went through before it all settled, which then made it very, very difficult—you know, for a junior faculty member starting out without a defined grant, you know, as a junior faculty member, you’re not bringing in big grants, right? You’re going to start to work under someone’s mentorship so that you can build your research portfolio and then get your own grants. But because of the continuous movement of leadership, actually my mentors kept changing year to year. And at some point, I think it was into my fourth year or so, I realized that I wasn’t going to be successful, that I wasn’t going to be successful in the lab, simply because I did not have a solid anchor for the work that I was doing. And I wanted to have an anchored perspective in my career. The chair of the—or, the chief of the section at that time was Dr. Fernando Cabanillas. We were later made into a department, and he became the chair of the department. He was very influential in my work. I mean, he really was truly my mentor.

Tacey A. Rosolowski, PhD:

What did you get from him?

Alma Rodriguez, MD:

Well, he was very passionate about moving forward the treatment of lymphomas. He was convinced we could cure lymphomas. And at the time that he had trained as a fellow here at MD Anderson, actually most lymphomas, with the exception of maybe Hodgkin’s lymphoma, most other lymphomas were not curable. And he was a participant in the seminal early work that showed the first curative regimen for large cell lymphoma. And he was very committed to the development of new chemotherapy protocols and regimens that could lead to cure.

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Chapter 06: Fellowship Research and the Move to MD Anderson

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