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"For me, coming to NIH has really been a dream come true."
Luz Maria Rodriguez-Fernandez
Surgeon and Cancer Researcher

A Dream Come True


SCIENCE HERO:
LUZ MARIA RODRIGUEZ-FERNANDEZ
by Nancy Touchette, Ph.D.

Luz Maria Rodriguez-Fernandez
For Luz Maria Rodriguez-Fernandez, coming to the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., to work as a cancer researcher represents the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. "Ever since I came to the United States, I heard about the NIH and always wanted to come here," she says. "For me, coming to the NIH has really been a dream come true."

That dream has been building for a long time. Rodriguez-Fernandez was born in the Dominican Republic. Her parents and her seven brothers and sisters migrated to the United States when she was 4 years old, but she remained in the Dominican Republic and was raised by her aunt and uncle, Juana Teresa and Carlos Sully.

Luz Maria Rodriguez-Fernandez, age 4
"I was a very curious child," Rodriguez-Fernandez says. "I always wanted an explanation for why things happen." For example, she recalls an incident when she was 5 years old. A dog of her acquaintance had a litter of puppies, and she found it odd that the mother dog had no tail but all the puppies had long tails. "I remember being curious about the genetics-how could the puppies look so different? It turned out that the mother's tail had been surgically removed."

She had other early impressions of the power of surgery. "I used to go around the countryside with my uncle, a physician, and help him out. I thought it was so neat how he could make a damaged hand into a normal hand through surgery. The mechanical aspects of addressing a disease fascinated me. For example, a hernia, or a bulge at the bellybutton, is fixed simply by closing the defect."

Rodriguez-Fernandez rejoined her family in Brooklyn when she was 13 years old. She went on to attend Wells College in Aurora, N.Y., where she majored in chemistry and biology. As a student, she also tended to her artistic side, studying studio art, art history, and pottery. She even managed to combine art and science.

"As a chemistry major, I was fascinated by the chemistry of pottery making," she says. "I was interested in finding out about the chemical composition of the clays, and I learned to make my own clays and glazes."

Art couldn't replace science and medicine as a career, however. After college, Rodriguez-Fernandez enrolled in graduate school at Bryn Mawr College, where she studied biochemistry and women's literature. She also did research on the electrophysiology of sodium channels, proteins that are very important in nerve-cell function.

Rodriguez at her high school graduation with her father.
After a year of graduate school, she decided that a medical career was really what she wanted, and she entered the Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1987. She graduated in 1991 and then attended the State University of New York at Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., for a 5-year general surgery residency. Afterward, she went on to a 4-year fellowship at Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, N.Y., where she trained as a cancer surgeon.

Cancer is a fearsome disease, but Rodriguez-Fernandez says she gets tremendous satisfaction from working closely with people who have it. "Cancer patients are very special," says Rodriguez-Fernandez. "They are incredibly strong, and I get strength from them."

But just working with patients wasn't quite enough, Rodriguez-Fernandez says. "I felt a need to understand better why some people develop the disease and other don't. I realized I could have more of an impact by helping to understand the disease process."

So, in the fall of 2000, Rodriguez-Fernandez fulfilled her early dream by coming to NIH to conduct cancer research. In her current work, she is trying to understand the genes that cause colon cancer, the third most common cancer in the world today. She studies patients with a condition known as hereditary nonfamilial polyposis syndrome. Patients with this disorder develop many small growths called polyps in the colon. Left untreated, the polyps will turn into colon cancer. Rodriguez-Fernandez is trying to pinpoint exactly which genes in the cells that line the colon change in activity as polyps become cancerous, so that doctors can treat the disease more successfully.

Between the lab and seeing patients, Rodriguez-Fernandez doesn't have much time left over. She still does some pottery-"it helps exercise my hands as a surgeon," she says-and she likes to go to the ballet and opera and spend time with her nieces and nephews.

"One of my nieces keeps asking me when I am going to get a real job," says Rodriguez-Fernandez with a laugh. "To her, a physician working in an office has a luxurious job. But for me, doing surgery and research and working in a hospital 12 hours a day is not only a real job, but my dream job, too."



Written by Nancy Touchette, Ph.D.
Last changed on: 3/27/2012 1:22:48 PM

The National Institute of Health Office of Science Education plans, develops, and coordinates a comprehensive science education program to strengthen and enhance efforts of the NIH to attract young people to biomedical and behavioral science careers and to improve science literacy.

National Institute of Health Office of Science Education LifeWorks Explore careers in health and medical science.

U.S. National Cancer Institute coordinates the National Cancer Program, which conducts and supports research, training, education and other programs with respect to the cause, diagnosis, prevention and treatment of cancer.

National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC) "Your Digestive System and How It Works"

 

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