NIAMS Scientists – Diverse Backgrounds, Shared Goals

September 20, 2012

A Conversation with Dr. Rafael Casellas

Photo of Rafael Casellas
Rafael Casellas, Ph.D.

September is Hispanic Heritage Month. To celebrate Hispanic and Latino contributions to science, the NIAMS is highlighting the accomplishments of Dr. Rafael Casellas, a senior investigator and head of the Laboratory of Genomics and Immunity in the Intramural Research Program (IRP) of the NIAMS. He also serves as an adjunct investigator at the Center for Cancer Research of the National Cancer Institute. Dr. Casellas was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and lived in Geneva, Switzerland; Paris, France; and Helsinki, Finland, before coming to the United States. He received his Bachelor of Science in Chemistry from Brigham Young University in 1996, and a Ph.D. in Molecular Immunology from the Rockefeller University in 2002. From 2002 to 2003, he did postdoctoral training at the California Institute of Technology. In December 2003, Dr. Casellas moved to the NIAMS. In his interview, Dr. Casellas discusses the factors that influenced him to become a scientist, offers helpful advice for aspiring scientists, and describes the most rewarding and challenging aspects of his career.

What led to your interest in becoming a scientist?

My scientific influence came from my father, an archaeologist who spent time digging in South American Indian cemeteries and volcanoes looking for artifacts. I became attracted to biology in my last year of high school when I discovered Gregor Mendel, considered the father of genetics. By observing variations in plants, he discovered the rules of inheritance. I had always been attracted by these ideas, especially as they applied to the inheritance of human traits.

What is the focus of your research?

I study the molecular activation of B cells, which are lymphocytes, or white blood cells that develop from stem cells in the bone marrow. B cells make antibodies, or proteins, that recognize and destroy foreign pathogens, or invaders to the body, such as bacteria and viruses, to prevent them from causing an infection or harming the body. These antibodies are activated to bind to the surface of the invading bacteria or virus to neutralize or destroy it (also called the immune response). Antibodies are very specific and different in each person. That’s why people are immunized for the flu and specific diseases, so that their bodies will know which antibodies to make for those diseases. However, during the immune response, the genes are modified or changed, which can sometimes lead to problems, such as inflammation or abnormal cell growth.

What do you enjoy about your career?

Answering questions about science requires the latest technology. Dr. O’Shea [John O’Shea, M.D., Scientific Director of the NIAMS IRP] makes sure that we have access to this technology so we can answer questions and study new things to move research forward. It allows us to see deeper and deeper into cells so we can better understand tumor development and immunity in diseases, such as arthritis. We can explore new ground in biology and diseases and expand the boundaries of what we know.

I enjoy the idea that we can discover something new every day. We can study what other scientists are doing, and by combining technology, we can answer questions that have been around for a long time. When it comes to technology, as scientists, we get excited about what we do—we’re like a kid with a new toy. Technology allows us to do deeper analysis, visualize problems, and answer questions. I work Monday through Saturday and take Sundays off, and I am really excited to come back on Monday! The work I do is a passion more than a job, like Michelangelo when he painted the Sistine Chapel. He painted for hours, slept on the floor, then painted some more. He was passionate about what he was doing and he enjoyed it. He loved seeing people enjoy what he had created. As scientists, that’s what drives us—the passion for what we investigate.

What have been the most rewarding or fulfilling aspects of your career?

The most rewarding and fulfilling aspect of my work is the opportunity to learn. Scientists have a need to know more; to understand people and the world we live in; and to understand why diseases affect certain parts of the body. We ask questions about the universe we live in. It takes hard work and continual questioning of our work and the data we get. Publishing papers is great, but when we strike the right key and discover something we did not know—the act of finding answers—that is the most rewarding to me.

What have been the most challenging aspects of your career?

The most challenging aspect of what I do is that you have to search for answers for a very long time. You have to be patient, and it requires a lot of effort and perseverance. It can be discouraging when you only get a partial answer to a question, or an experiment does not work. It makes you want to drop it all and move on to something new. But you need to persevere and keep working on the answer. It takes a lot of commitment, and even though you are tired, you go back and do it again. Sometimes combining the efforts of many to work together as an enterprise on a common cause leads to answers.

What activities do you enjoy outside of work?

I spend time with my four sons, ages 9, 11, 16 and 18. The oldest is studying biology at the University of Maryland. He has worked at the NIH and may want to study medicine because he is attracted to the work I do. I am involved in my kids’ Boy Scout activities, such as camping. I also am a Mormon, and I go to different churches in the area to help train bishops and provide assistance.

What advice would you offer to people from communities of color who wish to pursue a career in science?

The great thing about the United States is that you can come here as a foreigner, and not be judged by your culture or background, but by your efforts. If you are willing to put in the effort to learn and excel at something, you will be recognized. This speaks a lot about why I came to this country. I knew I wanted to pursue science, and that the doors would be more open to me in the United States than in Europe or South America. At the NIAMS, an effort is made for people with different backgrounds to have access to the same training and opportunities, such as the summer program for high school and college students. This is important because some kids are not born in a house with people who have M.D.s or who have gone to a university, so there is no one for them to model themselves after. By coming to the NIH, they can aspire to follow the examples of the scientists here.