Interviewed by Kimberly Lawson
Dr. Mario Guillermo Oyola recently participated as a trainee in the fourth cohort of the Southeast Training Hub (SETH) Grant Writing Coaching Group led by the National Research Mentoring Network (NRMN) Research Resources and Outreach Core (RROC) during the Research Centers in Minority Institutions (RCMI) Translational Science Conference in Washington, DC.
NRMN: Give us a brief introduction of yourself and your current profession?
MO: I am a native of Puerto Rico. My interest in neuroendocrinology stems from undergraduate research that I did in the laboratory of Dr. Nivea Perez-Acevedo at the University of Puerto Rico. I received my graduate degree from Baylor College of Medicine, where I studied under Dr. Shaila Mani and primarily worked on identifying the role of estrogen receptor beta in the stress response. Currently, I am a 3rd year postdoctoral fellow in Dr. Robert Handa’s lab at Colorado State University. I continue to study the brain-hormone interaction involved in the stress response, overactivity of which has been linked to detrimental health outcomes, including diabetes.
NRMN: How did you get involved with NRMN?
MO: So many of us researchers are constantly searching for ways to obtain funding, or exhibit “pathological grant-seeking behavior,” as dubbed by Dr. Rick McGee. It was during this search that I incidentally came across NRMN. I was specifically looking for ways to improve my grantsmanship skills and NRMN seemed to offer just that. Never having heard of the program before, I was initially skeptical, but my decision to apply was made after reading a number of positive online testimonies.
NRMN: What ignited your interest in endocrinology and research towards diabetes?
MO: My interest in endocrinology was magnified as I was pursuing my Ph.D. in one of the most renowned institutions for its study, having fostered two past presidents of the Endocrine Society: the Nobel Laureate, Roger Guillemin, and Bert O’Malley, under whose mentee I trained. I find it mesmerizing how tightly the brain and endocrine system function, with the brain recognizing the stimuli in an abrupt yet synchronized cascade of events and communicating via hormones with the rest of the body how to respond to it accordingly. Stress is a central topic insofar as its dysregulation plays a role in the onset of a number of diseases. While acute stress is necessary for survival, my study involves its prolonged activation and ways to diminish it to prevent disease onset and progression.
NRMN: Briefly describe your current research towards therapeutic diabetes intervention?
MO: My line of research studies the stress response, with a focus on elucidating the brain targets involved in orchestrating this complex pathway. The main outcome of the activation of the stress response is the production of glucocorticoids by the adrenal glands. During a stressful episode, glucocorticoids are essential for priming the body to respond to the situation. They do this by raising blood pressure to ensure adequate perfusion to limbs and vital organs, such as the heart, brain, as well as muscles, and release glucose stores from the liver to supply the brain and other tissues with energy. This response is designed to act in the short-term, and once the stressful episode ceases, these same glucocorticoids feedback to the brain and turn off this response. However, when the brain constantly perceives a physiologic stressor, this does not happen, and persistently high levels of glucocorticoids remain in the circulation, leading to hypertension, obesity, and insulin resistance, among other disease states. Interestingly, females have a more robust response to stressors, leading to higher glucocorticoid levels. Based on this finding, it is thought this discrepancy is driven by differing levels of sex hormones, like estrogen and testosterone. I chose to focus on estrogen and the two receptors by which it acts to discern whether one has the specific property of decreasing the stress response. Once this is elucidated, it will serve as a useful intervention, not only for treating chronic stress and prevent the onset of its sequelae, but also serve as a specific therapy for postmenopausal women in treating the mood instability associated with non-specific estrogen receptor activation.
NRMN: Tell us about your recent fellowship experience with FLARE (Future Leaders Advancing Research in Endocrinology)?
MO: FLARE has helped me in a wide variety of aspects not only during my scientific career, but also on a personal level. The FLARE program has several components, including workshops, travel awards, and internships. The workshop is perhaps the most valuable aspect of the program, as it is an opportunity for attendees to learn about the business of research and foster relationships with a network of other mentors, many with which I remain in contact to this day. I started in the program as an award recipient, and have since been invited back to serve as a workshop mentor. It was through this program that I was given the opportunity to shadow a scientist, with whom I developed a collaborative relationship, and who is now my postdoctoral mentor.
NRMN: What are your future plans in biomedical research?
MO: It is my short-term goal to use the skills acquired at the NRMN workshop to apply for a training award to continue my study of the brain circuitry involved in the regulation of the stress pathway. This award will pave the way for my independence as a scientist studying the effects of stress on metabolism and the role of diet in this relationship. Eventually, I would like to return to my roots and give back to the community, not only through my discoveries, but more importantly through science and health education.