Inspire Fellow spotlight: A lifelong focus on science, curiosity and diversity
September 13, 2022
Exceptional science benefits from exceptional diversity, and Van Andel Institute is committed to increasing representation in the biomedical research community through a variety of training programs. One such opportunity is the VAI Inspire Fellowship — a program built to support postdoctoral fellows who identify as members of underrepresented racial and ethnic groups as defined by the National Institutes of Health. The fellowship offers access to research training, a suite of state-of-the-art shared scientific resources, and professional development, all in the name of building a professional foundation from which Inspire Fellows can launch their independent research careers.
Otero, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral Inspire Fellow in the lab of VAI’s Darren Moore, Ph.D., where he investigates Parkinson’s disease with a focus on how brain cells take up information and then recycle or dispose of it. VAI Voice caught up with Dr. Otero to discuss his journey to becoming a scientist, what drew him to the Institute and the value of the Inspire Fellowship.
Was there a moment where you realized you wanted to study neuroscience?
AO: I’ve known I wanted to be a scientist since I was eight years old. I distinctly recall looking at my aunt’s puppy, who was the runt of the litter, and seeing he was quite aggressive. That interested me because his diminutive stature was paradoxical to his behavior. And it was this kind of curiosity where I wondered why the dog was acting this way versus how it’s supposed to behave. That event was the seeding point for the rest of my career.
What inspired you to stay focused on your research career since such an early age?
AO: It’s a mix of that curiosity that I’ve had since I was a kid and events that changed my perspective as I got older. My grandmother passed away a few years ago, and she struggled with Parkinson’s disease that progressed to Parkinson’s disease dementia. When that happened, I was broken. Research had been my life. My mother and father sacrificed a lot for me to be able to do my work, but because of that work I couldn’t be there for my grandmother when she passed. After dealing with the deepest grief, I was able to realize that I was exactly where I needed to be, and that situation is the whole point of our research: working so someone else does not lose their grandmother like I did.
What drew you to VAI?
AO: I got to meet VAI faculty at a Gordon Research Conference, and they made quite an impression on me. I had the privilege of conversing with them and even seeing Dr. Moore talk about some of his research, and the whole thing was remarkable. That stuck with me for a long time, and it inspired me to want to be a part of this team.
How does the Inspire Fellowship empower your research?
AO: The fellowship does quite a bit for me. First, it allows for a hands-on, almost private mentorship from VAI faculty. It’s a real boon —it’s hard to explain just how difficult it can be to have mentors in a postdoc stage. Further, it’s a real validation of my journey and my curiosity, it empowers me to do the research that can help address the bigger questions of disease progression.
What does diversity mean to you?
AO: I have a unique opportunity to help foster the foundation that will bring forth an esteemed and diverse group. The more people we have from diverse backgrounds, the more ideas we’ll get, and that’s exactly what we need. We need more ideas, bigger ideas, and that’s the best part of diversity, and I’m proud to be part of building that with the Inspire Fellowship.
What are your plans beyond your postdoctoral fellowship?
AO: It’s an interesting time in my life for that question — the other day I realized I have moved 23 times in my life, and I’m starting to feel a bit tired of moving. I’ve always looked ahead to the next opportunity but, now that I have a daughter, I’m trying to think more long term. I would like to have the opportunity to have my own lab somewhere, but I know I need further skillsets to get me there. VAI is helping me obtain those skillsets, so whether I end up moving a 24th time or finding somewhere more concrete, I know I’ll eventually be ready for what’s next.
Learn more about the Inspire Fellowship here.