Leveraging curiosity and diversity to elevate research: A Q&A with Dr. Alex Soto-Avellaneda

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.

Alex Soto-Avellaneda, Ph.D.

Alex Soto-Avellaneda, Ph.D., is an Inspire Fellow in the lab of VAI’s Michael Henderson, Ph.D., where he explores his passion for neuroscience while researching Parkinson’s disease. His current project is investigating how Helicobacter pylori, a bacterium associated with stomach cancer, might be involved in the development of Parkinson’s. In between microscopy work and staining stomach tissue, he volunteered his time to share his thoughts on VAI, the Inspire Fellowship and the importance of diversity in research.

Was there a moment where you realized you wanted to study neuroscience and Parkinson’s disease?

AS: My original plan was to go to medical school and be a doctor, but I found I didn’t really fit in with a lot of the medical students. They were interested in results and getting good grades and I found myself to be very interested in the underlying science beneath everything. I went through the traditional path of working in the lab as an undergrad, but I knew I wanted to go to grad school and tackle deeper research. Unfortunately, I didn’t get in right away, and became a little discouraged. Being from Las Vegas, I spent a few years tackling the many opportunities in the restaurant industry in that region — but I was miserable. Working through that difficult time and planning for the future made me realize that I belonged in science and I needed to work toward a Ph.D.

What drew you to Van Andel Institute?

AS: When I was a graduate student, the very first conference that I went to was Grand Challenges in Parkinson’s Disease. I presented a poster, and the institute left a lasting impression on me. It was very fortuitous because I received an invitation to apply for Postdoc Preview when I was near the end of my graduate career. It was the perfect opportunity to meet new contacts in the field and find a lab I was interested in for my next step. Luckily, Dr. Henderson extended an opportunity to interview for a position.

How does the Inspire Fellowship empower your research?

AS: On a base level, it provides my salary to the lab, freeing up more funds for us to tackle different projects. For me, it’s a support network: I get to rely on other Inspire Fellows and the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs. Being new to the area, I get to engage those resources personally and professionally, and I’m excited to see more people come to the fellowship so we can grow that support network into more benefits for everyone.

What does diversity mean to you?

AS: On a professional level, groups that are more diverse tend to have more success. Having people from different backgrounds and different ways of thinking helps create more robust ideas. On a personal level, and being from Hispanic descent, it’s always been a little difficult fitting in with predominantly white communities. Having more people that understand where you come from, understand your background and your history, it makes you feel more welcome and more able to contribute to the community. I’m thinking about starting a family with my wife, and I want my kids exposed to my culture, and that’s hard if you’re somewhere where that diversity is not available, but I think I found a good place here.

What keeps you inspired to tackle research every day?

AS: Curiosity. I’ll have experiments, and they’re not always going to be breakthroughs, but they will teach us something new every single time. I come to the lab every day and I do those experiments because I know I’ll get to know just a little more about what I’m studying.

What are your plans beyond your postdoctoral fellowship?

AS: That’s tricky, but I can say that I am trying to push myself toward becoming an independent senior scientist. I have an interest in the pharmaceutical industry, and maybe even working at a science institute like VAI where I have the freedom to collaborate with other people in the pharmaceutical industry. My core interests are in drug development and discovery, so wherever I go, I want to follow that passion.

Learn more about the Inspire Fellowship here.