Howard Garrison Advocacy Fellow

Dianicha Santana Nuñez

Dianicha Santana Nuñez is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Illinois Chicago.

Describe your interest in participating in the program.

Santana Nuñez: My motivation for participating in this program stems from the intersection between my scientific experiences and my involvement in advocacy. I bring an important combination of scientific expertise and a passion for creating changes in the scientific community and society. On this basis, I am interested in learning effective ways to use my scientific expertise to inform and shape policies that address pressing societal challenges. Through my graduate training, I have developed an interest in specific issues affecting the graduate student body and post-doctoral scientists. This interest has led me to seek different ways of working in advocacy through science policy at school and professional national societies. Early in my graduate training, I became involved in advocacy for the graduate student body at my university by being part of a student group that advocated for an increase in the graduate student stipend and approving a yearly student-organized one-day science symposium. I was selected to participate in the American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics (ASPET) Washington Fellows Program, where I learned how policy decisions are made in Washington D.C. and met with government representatives to advocate for biomedical research funding and the importance of animal research. Following the completion of the program, I wrote an Op-ed about issues in the distribution of government funding and the challenges that early career scientists have to overcome to succeed in academia.

Additionally, I have been a member of the ASPET Young Scientist Committee, where I have had the opportunity to write articles in a career corner blog interviewing scientists from different unrepresentative minority groups and their career paths. I also had the opportunity to organize a science communication session for current trainees where they presented their research to a non-scientific audience with the main goal of improving science communication skills. These experiences have reinforced my commitment and interest in science policy and current issues affecting the scientific workforce. As a society, I believe we need more research-based policymaking. With my background in biomedical science research, I am more interested in how science can influence regulatory policies and health research. My primary long-term goal is to use my background as a biomedical scientist to work on the intersection between science and regulatory policy. I believe that The Howard Garrison Advocacy Fellowship will give me the tools to accomplish my long-term and immediate goals. Through the program, I want to learn effective strategies on how to utilize evidence-based approaches to influence decision-making and working knowledge on federal agency processes by participating in the science policy and advocacy course. I will also learn effective strategies for advocating policy issues important for the current biomedical landscape by participating in the Communications and Advocacy Training and Science Policy Symposium. Furthermore, the fellowship will provide professional development, a deep understanding of the policymaking process, and networking opportunities, thus enhancing science policy career prospects within and outside academia.

How do you plan to use the knowledge and experience gained through your participation in the Howard Garrison Advocacy Program? 

Santana Nuñez: Participating in The Howard Garrison Advocacy Fellowship will provide me with a wide range of skills and experiences that can be applied in my future career roles. This fellowship training will help me become an advocate for evidence-based policymaking. Additionally, I plan to use this fellowship's science communication and outreach skills to communicate science policy issues better and learn how to navigate and lead meetings and presentations. I am confident I will use the written communication skills and experience gained in this fellowship to write policy memos or Op-eds in future science policy roles. One of my future career goals is to work in a government position at the federal level. Therefore, I expect to utilize working knowledge of federal agency processes provided by the fellowship to leverage a career in this area. I plan on using the active discussions with science policy and advocacy experts provided by the fellowship to gain clarity about career options and to talk about their experiences in their current jobs-- such as responsibilities, advantages, and challenges. Additionally, I would like to get feedback on how to become a better prospective candidate for jobs in science policy.

Using no more than 250 words, describe your research as you would to a non-scientist.

Santana Nuñez: My research focuses on studying important aspects of the cardiovascular system. The cardiovascular system includes the heart, blood vessels, and blood. These components play an important role in vascular health by supplying oxygen and nutrients to all organs and tissues. When vascular health is compromised, it can lead to diseases such as high blood pressure and coronary diseases. Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death globally and in the U.S. Therefore, understanding the causes that lead to cardiovascular diseases is important for the development of effective therapies. On this basis, my research focused on the blood vessels and how the cells in our blood vessels detect and respond to changes in the environment. Our cells respond to these changes through a special protein called Piezo1. 

Piezo1 acts like a sensor that helps our cells sense and respond to mechanical forces such as pressure or stretching. For example, when there is a change in blood pressure, Piezo1 sends signals to the cell, telling it what to do. Through my research, I have identified a specific way that cells respond to these changes using their cytosol and a calcium signaling mechanism. We have also discovered that this process is important for the blood vessel to expand and relax, which is an important element of vascular health. In summary, by studying Piezo1 signaling, we can better understand how it works and influences the cardiovascular system. This will help to develop therapies that can treat cardiovascular disease.

Briefly describe any past or present participation in additional career exploration activities, experiences, and/or programs.

Santana Nuñez: Throughout my graduate and postdoctoral training, I have participated in multiple career exploration activities to explore career paths in translational research and science policy, set specific goals, and meet professionals in the field. I participated in an ASCB Biotech Mini-Course, where I learned the business aspect of Biotech and how to use it along with my scientific research skills. I also participated in a job application training and career panel in this course. During my participation in the ASPET Washington Fellows Program, I attended a talk where we learned about different career trajectories, such as consulting and think tanks. I participated in the National Cancer Institute postdoc recruitment program, where I explored postdoc opportunities at the NCI. Last year, I was selected to participate in the ASPET Mentoring Network Program, where I was paired with a networking group led by a mentor from the industry. This mentoring group focused on careers in the pharmaceutical industry; we met monthly, taking turns interviewing the facilitator and taking meeting notes. Most recently, I participated in the Janssen Diversity Mentoring Program, where I was paired with a mentor from the company and met monthly to discuss career paths, resume building, and interview presentations. Earlier this year, I participated in the SANCNAS CareerConn event, where pharmaceutical companies recruited participants based on their resumes. I had the opportunity to meet with recruiters and scientists from three major pharmaceutical companies and was able to secure interviews for postdoctoral roles.

Dianicha Santana Nuñez is a member of American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics, a FASEB member society.