Aligned Blog: Celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month

By Chabelis Byamana, Program Specialist, and Sonia A. Garcia, Ph.D., Scientific Diversity Program Manager, Office of Equity & Inclusion

Happy Hispanic Heritage Month!

Each year, we celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month from September 15th to October 15th, to honor and celebrate the histories, cultures and contributions of “American citizens whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America.” Over the past few weeks, we spent some time learning about the contributions of Latinx scientists here at the Center for Cancer Research (CCR) and beyond, and we’re excited for you to learn alongside us.  

Hispanic scientists throughout the United States and the world have made instrumental contributions to biomedical science. Here are two that stood out to us:   

Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa, M.D., (b. 1968) 

Dr. Quiñones-Hinojosa is a world-renowned neurosurgeon and researcher who specializes in brain tumors. Originally from Mexicali, Baja California, Mexico, Dr. Quiñones-Hinojosa was just nineteen years old when he came to the United States. According to a CNN profile, he worked as a migrant farmer until he enrolled in university, graduating from the University of California at Berkeley when he was 23. Dr. Quiñones-Hinojosa went on to attend Harvard Medical School and began his career at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine where he led the Brain Tumor Stem Cell Laboratory and published extensively on the role of stem cells in brain tumors and their potential impact in fighting brain cancer. Today, he is Chair of Neurosurgery at the Mayo Clinic in Florida, where works in the clinic and leads NIH-funded brain cancer research. Over the years, he has had many scientific accomplishments, including developing new software to help identify tumor areas with the greatest malignant potential and developing new and minimally invasive surgical procedures. 

Helen Rodríguez Trías, M.D., (1929—2001) 

Helen Rodríguez Trías was a pediatrician, educator and women's and children's rights activist. After studying medicine at the University of Puerto Rico and completing her residency at the University Hospital in San Juan, Dr. Rodríguez Trías established the first infant health clinic in Puerto Rico. Under her direction, the hospital's death rate for newborns decreased by 50 percent within three years. Throughout her career, Dr. Rodríguez Trías remained dedicated to women’s health and advocated for some of society's most marginalized groups. Dr. Rodríguez Trías was the first Latina to be elected president of the American Public Health Association and was awarded the Presidential Citizens Medal in 2001 in honor of her contributions to medicine and human welfare, especially on behalf of women, children, the poor and people living with HIV.  

Here at CCR, we have some incredible Hispanic scientists, and we asked two to speak with us about their cultural backgrounds, its impact on their careers and some of their proudest accomplishments.  

Marta Penas-Prado, M.D., M.Sc., is a Senior Clinician in the Neuro-Oncology Branch: 

How has your cultural background influenced your career in research?  

Marta Penas Prado, M.D., M.Sc

The Galician emphasis on family and support has driven me to prioritize compassionate care and patient well-being, ensuring that each individual’s journey is both medically and emotionally supported. 

I was born and raised in Galicia, Spain. My Galician heritage, originating from a land of emigrants, has deeply influenced my decision to pursue a career in neuro-oncology far away from my homeland. This background has fostered a sense of curiosity, a desire to explore new horizons and a strong sense of resilience, motivating me to tackle the challenges of finding innovative solutions for complex rare central nervous system (CNS) tumors with tenacity and dedication, and instilling the belief that my work can make a meaningful impact at a global scale. 

What is a success of yours we can celebrate?

I have contributed to raising awareness about the critical clinical and research needs specific to adult patients battling medulloblastoma, advocating for greater attention and resources in this underserved area. Through my efforts, I have fostered a deeper understanding of the unique challenges faced by adult medulloblastoma patients and the imperative for tailored treatments and support.


Are there any Hispanic scientists that you looked up to, mentored you, or have been instrumental to your career thus far?   

My neurology residency mentor in Madrid, Dr. Juan Ruiz, now retired, had a decisive influence in shaping my future career. He was an expert in neurological complications of cancer and the best clinician I’ve ever met. A formal neuro-oncology training does not exist in Spain, but two incredibly talented neurologists, Dr. Francesc Graus and Dr. Josep Dalmau, served as an inspiration to me as they had completed their neuro-oncology training in the US. Finally, I had the privilege of collaborating with Dr. Juan Fueyo and Dr. Candelaria Gómez Manzano, neuro-oncology investigators who have conducted pioneering research on the use of oncolytic viruses as a treatment for glioblastoma. 

What impact or legacy do you hope to leave on the biomedical and/or cancer research field?

Because rare CNS tumors affect a small number of patients, they receive less attention compared to more common cancers. I want to draw attention to their many unmet needs, grant them access to cutting-edge research, and plant the seeds for collaboration among researchers, clinicians and institutions, nationally and internationally, to pool resources, knowledge and data for a more comprehensive understanding of rare CNS tumors. My hope is to advance the field of precision medicine to tailor treatments based on the unique genetic or molecular profiles of individual patients, leading to approved therapies specifically for rare CNS tumors, optimizing treatment while minimizing side effects and expanding the evidence base for managing these conditions. 

Andres M. Lebensohn, Ph.D., is a Stadtman Investigator in the Laboratory of Cellular and Molecular Biology:  

How has your cultural background influenced your career in research?

Andres M. Lebensohn, Ph.D.

Throughout my career, I have kept the same mentality: embracing multiculturalism and the conviction that if I dedicate myself, I can achieve anything I set my mind to. I also bring my South American upbringing to bear on my professional interactions and mentoring style. 

I was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and I went to neighborhood Argentine schools growing up. When I was 15, I entered Lincoln High School – an American school in Buenos Aires – and immersed myself in a truly multicultural environment. Students came from all over the world and were going to top universities everywhere. It was tremendously enriching and fun to make friends from all over. Most importantly, being in that environment gave me the feeling that if I studied hard and dedicated myself, I could aspire to pursue any career, anywhere I wanted. Thanks to this mentality, I applied and was accepted to the University of California at Berkeley, where I studied Molecular and Cell Biology. I did an honors research project in the lab of Dr. Daniel Koshland Jr., a prominent biochemist and inspiring mentor, which jumpstarted my career in research.

What is a success of yours we can celebrate?  

Some of my scientific successes in signal transduction research have been: the biochemical reconstitution of actin assembly controlled by the WAVE protein complex, which is a master regulator of cell motility; discovering that stem cell growth factors called R-spondins can strongly potentiate WNT signaling through heparan sulfate proteoglycans (glycosylated cell-surface receptors) during development and tissue homeostasis; using powerful genetic screens in haploid human cells to identify several new regulatory mechanisms in WNT signaling that could be relevant to cancer. However, perhaps my greatest success so far has been to bring together a diverse, motivated, and tight-knit group of talented trainees with whom I really enjoy designing experiments and discussing exciting results every day. I am especially proud of my first few post-bacs, who have successfully moved on to prestigious Ph.D., M.D., and M.D./Ph.D. programs after spending a couple of years in my lab. Recently I also spearheaded the establishment of the HU-CCR Cancer Track, a graduate partnership program between Howard University and CCR that I hope will help bring more graduate students from underrepresented groups to CCR labs. 

Are there any Hispanic scientists that you looked up to, mentored you, or have been instrumental to your career thus far?   

My high school chemistry teacher in Buenos Aires, Dr. Naum Mittelman, or just “Doc” as he liked to be called, was the first person to instill in me a true appreciation for the intrinsic beauty of the physical sciences. He was a charismatic and dedicated teacher whose passion for science and love of teaching left a deep impression in aspiring young scientists like me – and as I later found out, many others (he had been the chemistry professor of Dr. Cesar Milstein and a close colleague of Dr. Luis Federico Leloir, two Argentine chemists who went on to become Nobel Laureates). More recently, I have been inspired by renowned Hispanic scientists I have interacted with at the NIH, including cell biologist Dr. Juan Bonifacino. I have also enjoyed working closely with other Hispanic PIs in the Laboratory of Cellular and Molecular Biology, including Dr. Ramiro Iglesias-Bartolome and Dr. Paul Randazzo. 

What impact or legacy do you hope to leave on the biomedical and/or cancer research field? 

As my Ph.D. advisor Dr. Marc Kirschner once wrote, “One may be able to recognize good science as it happens, but significant science can only be viewed in the rearview mirror. To pretend otherwise distorts science.” My goal is to solve the wonderful puzzles that signaling pathways present to us by doing good science. I have found that this often involves taking unpredictable paths to answer the most interesting questions. Fortunately, since cell signaling is essential for the normal development and homeostasis of most of our tissues and organs, almost everything we learn is also likely to illuminate how mutations and dysregulation of cell signaling contribute to cancer. I hope that by ‘following my nose’ and tackling these important questions, I will one day look in the rearview mirror and see that our discoveries have helped advance the basic understanding of cell signaling, and perhaps contributed to the development of new cancer treatments.  

Aligned is a blog written by the Center for Cancer Research's Office of Equity and Inclusion discussing diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility and highlighting various ways we can all be more involved in creating a more diverse scientific workforce. Learn more about CCR's commitment to inclusion.

Posted on Tue, 09/26/2023