Can you give us a brief description of yourself and your lab’s research interests?
I am an assistant professor in the Department of Physiology and Anatomy at the University of North Texas Health Science Center (UNTHSC) in Fort Worth, Texas. The goal of my research program is to delineate mechanisms underlying maternal cardiovascular dysfunction in pregnancy complications and identify therapeutic targets that can be safely administered to reduce maternal mortality and morbidity during pregnancy and postpartum. One of the objectives of current research in my lab is to identify pathogenic triggers of preeclampsia and design interventions to prevent or counteract their actions. Preeclampsia is a severe hypertensive disorder, which occurs only during pregnancy, and has high rates of maternal mortality and morbidity. Among various inflammatory factors, circulating mitochondrial DNA is increased in pregnancies with preeclampsia. Our studies concentrate on the role of circulating mitochondrial DNA fragments in the development of maternal vascular dysfunction and hypertension, two main features of pregnancies with preeclampsia. We ask the questions: a) how and why mitochondrial DNA fragments end up in the maternal blood, b) how extracellular mitochondrial DNA causes maternal vascular dysfunction, and c) how pharmacological treatments to reduce the release and actions of circulating mitochondrial DNA could benefit pregnancies with preeclampsia. A second objective of my research program is to delineate mechanisms regulating uterine blood flow adaptations during pregnancy. These adaptations include reversible structural and functional changes in the vascular network of the uterine vascular system to accommodate an increase in the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to the growing fetus. These adaptations are required for normal fetal growth and development and when the uterine vascular system fails to adapt, pregnancy complications arise. Our studies have been focused on understanding the interaction between the uterine arteries and the adipose tissue surrounding them and how this interaction facilitates pregnancy-associated changes in the uterine vascular system. To address our research questions, we use a combination of cell and tissue culture techniques, animal models, as well as translational approaches. Interdisciplinary collaboration is the cornerstone of my research program and what I love most in science because it brings us out of our comfort zone, allows us to ask big questions, and to use diverse and novel approaches to address them.
How did you first get involved in science?
As for most of us, my first formal exposure to science was in middle school and high school. I loved science courses, but I had no opportunity to be involved in research. After I finished my undergraduate in Athens, Greece, I came to the US to visit one of my best friends who was doing her PhD in Exercise Physiology at Syracuse University, Syracuse, NY. My stay in the US was quite long and gave me the opportunity to observe my friend’s research in the laboratory, meet other scientists, and get excited about the scientific process. Before I returned to Greece, I had decided to apply for the MS program in Exercise Science at Syracuse University. I got accepted into the program and this opportunity was the beginning of an exciting journey from human applied cardiovascular physiology (MS and PhD at Syracuse University) and basic science vascular biology and physiology (postdoctoral fellowship at Augusta University) to the development of my own research program in maternal vascular physiology of pregnancy. “Outside of your comfort zone is where the magic happens”. I do not know who the author of this quote is, but it has been my motivation and guide throughout my scientific career.
What is your advice for early career researchers?
It is important that you set a destination before you plan the journey. For example, knowing who you want to be and what you want to do in ten years from now may sound daunting and stressful but as soon as you determine this, it will be easy to focus on specific areas of research training and education, on certain opportunities that arise, and on building a network of mentors and colleagues that will support you to be successful. Also, do not afraid to be wrong or make a mistake. The scientific process is rigorous but relies on predictions we make about unknown phenomena. It is unrealistic to expect that you will always predict correctly, or you will make no errors in the process of proving your prediction. Finally, take a moment to reflect and thank those who have supported you in your journey. Nobody can succeed on their own. Every grant and paper my lab submits and publishes relies on my own work but also on the work of my trainees and research staff and on the work of my collaborators and of those colleagues who take the time to listen to us, read our work and provide feedback.
As a strong advocate and active ally promoting inclusion and diversity in STEM, can you elaborate on some of the key approaches that you find important (e.g. for labs/PIs/universities/students) towards this direction?
My research focuses on maternal cardiovascular health and mortality. In order to maximize the impact of our work, we need to understand the underlying physiological mechanisms, but we also have to learn why maternal mortality rates are greater in certain populations compared to others. Having a diverse and inclusive research team is of paramount importance in this direction. As the leader of this research group, I strongly believe that I cannot establish an inclusive and diverse environment unless I first acknowledge and address my own biases. This work has no end, it becomes part of one’s lifestyle and daily practice, it is uncomfortable and laborious. Then one has to develop a strategy to increase diversity and to promote inclusion. For example, hiring individuals from diverse backgrounds is not enough and may not be effective unless these individuals are included in decision-making positions. Inclusion and diversity in STEM cannot and will not be achieved unless we are all committed to becoming uncomfortable and take action.
Which are the key characteristics in a good mentor-mentee relationship?
Based on my experience, respect for each other’s time, space, and goals along with trust and honesty are the key characteristics in a good mentor-mentee relationship. I believe in the value of multiple mentors and I always encourage my trainees to form Career Mentoring Committees with individuals from our and other institutions. It is unrealistic and arrogant to think that I can mentor my trainees in all aspects of their training and career progress. I also think that the best mentors are those that have no conflict of interest with their mentees.
Interviewed by Chara Koutsioumpa, PhD candidate, Harvard Medical School