Med School-Inspired Grad Student Pursues Doctorate In West Virginia

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Long before he earned his master’s in Biological Sciences at Dominican University of California and continued to work at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging, Enrique Carrera ’22 MS knew he wanted to be a doctor.

He was four years old and had hearing loss.

“Waking up from surgery and being able to hear again was amazing. That got me interested in medical science: what is possible and how it can be used to improve the lives of others,” says Enrique who this fall has entered the MD/PhD program at West Virginia University. “That’s been the background of my passion and the path I’ve chosen to pursue.”

That path for Enrique, a graduate of De La Salle High School, started with a biochemistry degree at St. Mary’s College prior to him coming to Dominican, drawn by the prospect of doing research at the Buck Institute, which has a science partnership with Dominican. Except Enrique was unaware that Dominican had a partnership until one of his new classmates at Dominican, Melia Granath-Panelo ’21 MS, now a PhD student in the Kajimura lab at Harvard University, alerted him.

“I would be doing research at one of the leading aging institutes that focuses on increasing one’s quality of life. It tied in well with my interests,” Enrique says.  "I aimed to enhance my personal growth as an individual, while simultaneously expanding my scientific knowledge and skills through the learning opportunities at Buck.”

Enrique’s first point of contact at Dominican was Dr. Meredith Protas, associate professor and MS Biological Sciences director in the Natural Sciences and Mathematics department in the School of Health and Natural Sciences. She guided Enrique through a process that aligned with the higher education and career goals he had personally written on a whiteboard in his bedroom.

“After talking with Meredith, she was able to help me understand the logistics of the program, its timeline, and specifically where it would help my strengths as an individual and prepare me for my medical aspirations,” Enrique says.

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic was peaking about the time Enrique was arriving on campus. His Dominican experience started with online classes and restricted in person lab hours in the Kapahi Lab at Buck Institute.

“You want meaningful interactions with everyone, and the labs really help to build my foothold in the program. That helped me adapt and transition,” Enrique says. “Everything finally opened up at Dominican which was great. My experience was amazing as I got to work within the fields of dietary restriction and aging, learning new scientific techniques and collaborating with new models that I had never used before and develop skills I can take anywhere.”

In the Kapahi Lab, Enrique met Dr. Kenneth Wilson ’14 MS, a postdoctoral researcher at the Buck Institute who graduated from Dominican in 2014 with his MS in Biological Sciences. Dr. Wilson became Enrique’s mentor.

Though Enrique was focusing his research on the intracellular trafficking in neurodegeneration using the Drosophila Melanogaster Fly model, Dr. Wilson broadened Enrique’s vision of research, encouraging him to look at publishing and communicating his findings in the future. Dr. Wilson, for example, had a review published in Science Direct entitled “Evaluating the Beneficial Effects of Dietary Restrictions: A Framework for Precision Nutrigeroscience.”

“He was instrumental in teaching me all the other career development options,” Enrique says. “I learned to not just to understand the science, but also how to convey it to others … not just only walking into the lab every day but being able to take it everywhere and talk with anyone even though they don’t really know what I do.”

After his second year at the Buck Institute, Enrique started researching medical schools, scanning the country for a MD/PhD program that would line up with his research interests and career ambitions. He found West Virginia University to be the best fit.

“I enjoyed the structure of their curriculum and appreciate how they prioritize teaching that is relevant to their community,” says Enrique, who moved to Morgantown this past summer. “Also, their research had everything I wanted to pursue in terms of neurodegeneration.”

Ideally Enrique wants to combine his love for research with his passion for medicine in his quest to become a physician. He is still searching for the right field to land.

“At the moment I’m leaning toward neurology but I’m keeping an open mind,” he says.

In the end Enrique plans to rely on his Dominican experience and his Buck Institute connection to get him through West Virginia.

“I learned how to quickly assimilate myself within a lab culture, to identify and develop projects and push them toward completion at the Buck,” Enrique says. “Being able to have more experience in creating timelines and thinking critically about the direction of my research. Those are the critical skills that Dominican taught me about research in general but specifically to what I will apply at West Virginia.”

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