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Vol. LXIV, No. 23
November 9, 2012
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‘Options Are Very Wide for You’
At Hispanic Heritage Program, Cintrón Encourages a Life in Science

On the front page...

Dr. Nitza Cintrón

Dr. Nitza Cintrón

Dr. Nitza Cintrón’s quest for scientific truths began when she was a little girl, growing up in the small district of Santurce in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Eat your vegetables, her mother told her, because they’re good for you. They make you healthy and keep you strong. That made young Nitza wonder. Just how do vegetables work in the body?

“I really wanted to know what made things work—not all things, but living things,” Cintrón said recently at NIH’s 2012 Hispanic Heritage Month observance, explaining her 34-year science career.

“I had no clue how to go about pursuing this vision I had that I was going to be a mad scientist somewhere,” she continued, describing her upbringing by a mom and dad who never received schooling themselves beyond high school and 8th grade, respectively. “I didn’t come from a family of scientists…but what my parents did give me and my two sisters was the sense that education was really, really important—not so much because they didn’t have it, but because they knew that the future was going to be that of choices if we had an education.”

Continued...

Cintrón addressed the entire Masur Auditorium audience, but she spoke specifically to the two dozen or so young people visiting from Wheaton High School’s Bioscience Academy, a program adopted by NIAMS’s Career Development and Outreach Branch and invited to NIH for a Clinical Center tour.

“I was very lucky—much like you all here today—that people got interested in what I was trying to do,” Cintrón told the students, pointing out the benefit of mentors and professors who were encouraging.

At a lunch briefing, students from Wheaton High School network with NIH’ers. NIDCR deputy director Dr. Isabel Garcia introduces the guest speaker.

At a lunch briefing, students from Wheaton High School network with NIH’ers.

NIDCR deputy director Dr. Isabel Garcia introduces the guest speaker.

Despite apparent hurdles—limited financial resources, for example, and the fact that Puerto Rico had no biochemistry department on the island—by 1978, Cintrón realized the dream of young Nitza: She was a bona fide scientist, at NASA Johnson Space Center no less, where she would spend 26 years leading astronauts through their training and directing their medical treatments while they were in space. She had earned an undergraduate degree at Universidad de Puerto Rico and a Ph.D.—in biochemistry and molecular biology—at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine under an NIH predoctoral training grant.

NIMH’s Dr. Carlos Zarate gives opening remarks

NIMH’s Dr. Carlos Zarate gives opening remarks.

Her remarkable story didn’t end there, however. As NIDCR deputy director Dr. Isabel Garcia had hinted when she introduced the keynote speaker, Cintrón proved throughout her life to be “someone who was very hardworking, studious and courageous, but also… someone who didn’t hesitate to change career paths, particularly later in her life.”

In 1991, NASA offered Cintrón a fellowship to study for an M.D. degree at the University of Texas Medical Branch. She took it, although she’d never wanted to be a physician. For the last several years she has served as an associate professor of internal medicine and medical director of the Harborside Medical Group at UTMB. She also practices there as a primary care physician.

“Being in an academic center, I also work very closely with the residents and students in our school of medicine,” she said. “We are there to teach them not only the medical knowledge and clinical skills they’ll need to be really strong physicians, but also importantly and more difficult nowadays with all the technology we have, is to show them the professionalism, the respect and the compassion that is so much needed in delivery of health care to our patients.”

Young people visiting from Wheaton High School’s Bioscience Academy—a program adopted by NIAMS’s Career Development and Outreach Branch—pose for a photo with program participants.

Young people visiting from Wheaton High School’s Bioscience Academy—a program adopted by NIAMS’s Career Development and Outreach Branch—pose for a photo with program participants.

Photos: Ernie Branson

As the young people sat rapt, Cintrón used the balance of her lecture to discuss health care in space and on Earth.

“A lot is similar and a lot is challenging when you go into this environment,” she said, explaining how her own career took off in unexpected and rewarding directions. “What I’m going to show you is a very basic awareness that science and math and a host of other careers can be applied to so many areas. [Science] abounds. Don’t limit yourself. The options are very, very wide for you.”

NIH principal deputy director Dr. Lawrence Tabak, in welcoming remarks, had warned the audience—particularly the young guests of honor—that the observance had an ulterior motive: to fascinate them into pursuing science careers themselves.

“I was very lucky that people got interested in what I was trying to do,” Cintrón told the students.

“I was very lucky that people got interested in what I was trying to do,” Cintrón told the students.

“It’s so important to cultivate and nourish a diverse scientific workforce,” he said. “Different people will approach a scientific problem in different ways. We’re all looking for new information, for new revelations, for any and all clues about health, disease and the various stages of life, but the more different vantage points we get to look at those problems, the more varied perspectives we get to tackle the issues, the better and richer will be our body of knowledge and understanding.”

The program, themed “Diversity United, Building America’s Future Today,” was sponsored by the NIH Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity Management and the Hispanic employment
committee.


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