Unveiling the Hidden Scientist Within

Unveiling the Hidden Scientist Within

Pilar Alcaide, PhD, Professor of Immunology at Tufts University School of Medicine, is the recipient of the FASEB Excellence in Science Mid-career Investigator Award. The award acknowledges her work in the areas of immunology, vascular biology, and cardiac physiology.

Can you briefly discuss your background, and what you do in your current role?

Alcaide: A native of Spain, I grew up in Madrid and attended the University Autonoma of Madrid to get my BS, MS, and PhD degrees. A Fulbright scholarship provided me with the opportunity to do postdoctoral training in vascular immunology at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston. Following this training and supported by a Pathway to Independence NIH K99/R00 award, I accepted a faculty position at Tufts University School of Medicine, where I launched my independent research program. 

In my current role as a recently promoted professor of Immunology, I am very proud of my role leading a research lab investigating the contribution of adaptive immune responses to cardiovascular pathophysiology. I mentor talented trainees in my laboratory at all career stage levels (undergraduates, PhD candidates, postdoctoral fellows, and research staff) on a daily basis and help them make new discoveries and accomplish their research and career goals. 

As director of the Immunology Graduate Program at Tufts, my role is to work toward excellence in graduate education in immunology, providing students with a solid curriculum and research experience and all the skills necessary to succeed as the next generation of immunologists. And in my role as assistant dean of faculty development, I provide guidance to foster faculty excellence in biomedical research through supporting career advancement and building mentoring relationships.

When did you decide to become a scientist? Were you inspired by someone (or something)?

Alcaide: I became interested in biology during my late teenage years. Suffering from an autoimmune disease since I was six years old, it was during a high school biology class when my curiosity clicked to link what I was learning about cells in the body—what made them work properly and what could go wrong when they did not, resulting in diseases, including the one I was suffering. My father was a chemist working in drug development and was always—and still is—an inspiration for me, always encouraging me and my siblings to be curious and find answers to questions. While he did not specifically encourage me to become a scientist, being curious is a huge part of being a scientist. When deciding a college major, I was torn between biology, chemistry, or sports sciences. At the time of my college decision, a new biochemistry major was created, so I went for it. Whether it was biology, sports, or chemistry, I always wanted to learn more. So even not knowing it until late high school or college, I feel I always had a hidden scientist in me. 

Your nomination includes the research you’ve conducted and published. What drew you to this field of research? What do you wish to achieve with your research?

Alcaide: From my first Cell Biology class, and from my own personal experience as someone dealing with an autoimmune disease from young age, I was fascinated by how the immune system worked—so good at protecting us from pathogens and so damaging when dysregulated by unknown causes. So, I chose immunology for my PhD research. Because immune cells circulate throughout the vasculature, I felt that learning more about the cardiovascular system was a logical next step for postdoctoral training. Integrating these two made sense to learn more about what triggers and sustains cardiovascular disease, and how it may be modulated to prevent and treat diseases that are a main cause of hospitalization and death worldwide. There is an immense potential for new discoveries in the immune-cardiovascular system intersection that will surely lead to novel therapeutics targeting cellular and molecular immune components unexpectedly found in the heart and the vasculature. Training people to understand this intersection will make achieving this goal tangible and successful.

What discovery are you most proud of and how did you feel when you made that discovery?

Alcaide: There are many discoveries I am proud of during my career that it would be hard to describe just one. If I must choose one, I will pick the moment in which Tania Nevers, my first postdoc, and I, both sitting at the same microscope facing each other, found T cells in myocardial histology sections from patients with non-ischemic heart failure. That moment, combined with the day the first cohort of wild type control and T cell deficient mice subjected to experimental heart failure were harvested, are highlights in my early career as a principal investigator—wild type mice subjected to experimental heart failure had enlarged cardiac draining lymph nodes, clear evidence that a strong adaptive immune response was taking place. This was corroborated by further analysis and the identification of T cell and dendritic cell expansion. And T cell deficient mice did not develop heart failure! That discovery was the beginning of many more that now position cardiac immune responses central to heart failure pathophysiology, and those initial findings in the lab were very exciting to experience as a team and provided new questions for us and others in the field that we are still attempting to get answers to.

The Excellence in Science Award also celebrates your contributions to the broader scientific community (such as leadership in professional organizations, university service and leadership, and public outreach). What have you most enjoyed/found the most meaningful about such service? 

Alcaide: Dedicating my time to service within my institution and at professional societies in the broader community has made a significant impact in my career in many ways. What I have enjoyed the most is the continued learning experiences in different committees with different roles and the opportunity to meet and learn from diverse people, having the opportunity to be part of these committees that have created a comfort zone larger than what I would have ever imagined my comfort zone ever was. 

What has been most meaningful in some cases is to see how my voice and ideas, together with those from others in the group, can be heard and lead to the improvement of policies, guidelines, and routines. In other cases, I have enjoyed learning strategies from others that I could apply at the workplace. In all cases, I have established meaningful connections with the broader community. 

Professional societies provide a feeling of belonging, central to career and personal growth, resources, and peer groups to learn from and teach to. Being able to receive and give advice, to gain leadership skills and think broader, beyond my daily routine has been both enjoyable and meaningful. This applies across the spectrum of service at the institutional level as well as in professional societies. I cannot be more proud of this service, and thankful for the immense support received.  

What does it mean to you to receive the Excellence in Science Award?

Alcaide: Receiving this award means a lot to me—a privilege to be recognized by my peers; a feeling of gratitude to my trainees and my mentors over the years, for their hard work, dedication, and everything they have taught me; and a responsibility to be a role model for the next generation of scientists. I am really honored and thankful to those who supported my nomination and dedicated their time to make this award possible.

What advice would you give to young women entering this field?

Alcaide: I encourage every young scientist to follow their passion, be curious to explore what a career in research may be and to enjoy it. While women are great multitaskers, we are also more likely to doubt on ourselves when things do not work as planned, or when we are overwhelmed with several responsibilities, especially if those include taking care of children in addition to pursuing a research career. My advice is to share and not face the challenges alone when they show up; and when things do not go as expected, to not be too harsh on themselves and remember what brought them to do this in the first place. This helps to keep the motivation and the curiosity always there. 

I will tell them to not forget that science is supposed to be fun and rewarding. It provides the opportunity to be constantly creative and gives us permission to try new things that may not work, which is unique. And I will advise them to be courageous to present and discuss their science with others and to leave their comfort zone from time to time. This helps you grow, makes your science better, and creates a support network of colleagues that navigate similar situations. 

Lastly, to accomplish this, I will encourage them to be part of professional societies, which provide a support system with many of the above ingredients to meet career and personal goals.