NIAMS Scientists Diverse Backgrounds, Shared Goals

September 21, 2010

Photo of Dr. Juan Rivera
Dr. Juan Rivera

A Conversation with Dr. Juan Rivera, NIAMS Deputy Scientific Director

September is Hispanic Heritage Month. In recognition of distinguished Hispanic scientists, we asked Dr. Juan Rivera, the new NIAMS Deputy Scientific Director, to reflect on his career and to offer advice to up-and-coming scientists. Dr. Rivera, an outstanding mast cell biologist with an NIH career spanning 35 years, will lead NIAMS in the generation of a new strategic plan for its Intramural Research Program. In addition, he will assist with the creation of the NIH Center for Regenerative Medicine.

Was there a defining moment in your life that led you toward a career in science?

Dr. Rivera: Science was not something I ever really thought of. When I was in high school, I was leaning toward a career in music. But since chemistry was a required school subject, I didn't have a choice but to take it. And that was the defining moment in my path toward science. I had an excellent chemistry and physics teacher who engendered and fostered my curiosity in the world around me. It was at the University of Maryland where I became very interested in immunology, and in my second year of college, I started working at the NIH through the Stay-in-School program, a program for people from disadvantaged backgrounds. That was a big help to me, and, in fact, I've been at the NIH ever since.

What is your area of expertise?

Dr. Rivera: As an immunologist, I am interested in how the human body regulates inflammation and what factors are responsible for the body's inability to shut down the inflammation, which leads to autoimmune and allergic diseases, among other diseases. It is the continued inflammation in these diseases that causes damage over time. I'm particularly interested in understanding why inflammation persists in certain individuals, and what are the specific factors that cause the persistent inflammation.

As the new NIAMS Deputy Scientific Director, what is your vision for the future of NIAMS and its Intramural Research Program?

Dr. Rivera: Recent scientific advances are propelling us into an era of unprecedented opportunities and discoveries. The unraveling of the human genome, the development of sequencing technologies that allow us to understand how genes are expressed and regulated, and the rapid advances in reprogramming of cells to become pluripotent stem cells these breakthroughs will change the way we prevent and treat diseases. The key is being able to translate these discoveries from the bench to the bedside.

I envision that NIAMS and the Intramural Research Program will be at the forefront in translating scientific discoveries into treatment as we seize the opportunities provided by these new advances. I also envision the Intramural Research Program as a nidus where scientists and clinicians come together to seek novel solutions towards understanding biological processes in health and disease, and where the knowledge gained is used to seek better treatments or cures for the diseases affecting our constituency and the public in general. I look forward to doing my part in leading the NIAMS Intramural Research Program in this new era of discovery and medicine.

Why is it important for Hispanics to participate in the research process, both as scientific investigators and as patients and the general public?

Dr. Rivera: As a child, I heard my mother use two tenets repeatedly: First, do unto others as you would have them do unto you; and second, in life, making a difference is all that matters. I realized later in life that these tenets really made a similar point. Making a difference requires that you put others before self. Your involvement is required to make a difference. Having Hispanics involved in the research process, regardless of the type of involvement, raises awareness of the health issues impacting our communities. Questions about the influence of genetics, ethnicity, or cultural differences on the health of our diverse community cannot be effectively addressed without the involvement of key stakeholders the Hispanic investigator who understands the ethnic and cultural differences in our community and its implications on our health issues, the Hispanic patient who serves as the study subject towards discovery of new treatments or towards determining what factors are important to disease in our communities, or the Hispanic public who advocates for better health in our communities. Importantly, we need to realize that the involvement of Hispanics in the research process also contributes beyond our communities. The information gained may well be relevant to others. By engaging in the research process, we not only make a difference in Hispanic health, but hopefully accelerate the treatment and cures for others as well.

What activities do you enjoy doing when you are not working?

Dr. Rivera: There are several activities that are a large part of my life outside of work. One is the sea; I love the ocean and enjoy nothing more than snorkeling and spending time in the water with my family. My favorite snorkeling site is in the Caribbean we visit Vieques Island, part of Puerto Rico, every year. I also am an aficionado of most music and I played drums in a band for several years. While I am no longer actively involved in the music scene, I love to go to concerts, small jazz or salsa clubs, and the blues clubs of Chicago, New Orleans, and Memphis. Finally, I love to travel, but, in particular, I enjoy finding opportunities to immerse myself in the culture, activities and lifestyle of the local residents. Several years ago, my wife and I were visiting the island of Santorini in Greece and found ourselves as the only customers in a local restaurant that was hosting a wedding. We learned that the local tradition was to offer the bride and groom a champagne toast when they were on the dance floor. We decided to offer them a toast and, by night's end, we became part of the wedding party. We danced, toasted, ate wedding cake and got to know the bride and groom, the inebriated uncle, the concerned parents, and the protective brother. It was a most memorable and enjoyable experience.

Can you offer any advice for people from communities of color who wish to pursue a career in science?

Dr. Rivera: I come from a humble background. My parents moved to the United States from Puerto Rico shortly after World War II. They came to seek a better life, and recognized along the way that an education was paramount. Because of their familial obligations, they could not pursue it themselves, but they made certain to instill the value of an education in the psyche of their offspring. I am indebted to them for that guidance and I was very fortunate to receive it. I embrace and cherish my humble beginnings because it has been an incentive to "carpe diem." My advice to those who wish to pursue careers in science is to maximize the opportunities presented, and discover opportunities where they may not be obvious. Science, in large part, is about recognizing and seizing opportunities, whether in career development or in the process of discovery. Seek mentors who are selfless, who view much of their success through your achievements and provide opportunities for career and scientific development. I myself have had the privilege of having extremely supportive mentors, from my high school science teacher to many outstanding scientists at NIAMS, namely Dr. Chaviva Isersky-Carter, who inspired me to stay in science, and Dr. Henry Metzger, NIAMS' former scientific director, who taught me the rigors of conducting science and gave me many opportunities to gain independence in my own research.

There are many in our communities who may not receive the guidance and support that I had from my family, and to you I say, don't give up. Find the right high school, college, university, or postdoctoral mentor and foster that relationship. It can be a fellow student, a teacher, a guidance counselor, and sometimes not only your laboratory chief, but also the scientist next door. Most importantly, don't fear self-doubt fear missing an opportunity or not taking the risk. The reward, which I am incredibly grateful to have received, is a life of learning, challenges and opportunities that make each day unique and provide a sense of accomplishing an important task that of improving public health.