Meet Dr. Carlos M. Guardia

Pride is a month dedicated to celebrating LGBTQ+ lives, history, and culture. Pride is a global event that is celebrated every June. Countries and cities celebrate Pride Month differently: parades, concerts, workshops, and exhibitions. To commemorate Pride month this year, Diana Monsivais (SSR’s Diversity Committee) sat down with Dr. Carlos M. Guardia who leads the Placental Cell Biology Group at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS).

Dr. Carlos M. Guardia

Please write a short paragraph describing your research program.

The goal of our research group is to elucidate the molecular mechanisms that control autophagy response during placental development in homeostasis and disease. Our research plan is focused on generating a comprehensive understanding of placental-specific autophagy processes and the connection with the secretory pathway during placental development and function. It is our aim to understand pregnancy outcomes from women living in communities where environmental health disparities are persistent by focusing on the development of the first organ of the baby: the fascinating placenta.

1. What is your current position, and what does it entail?

As a new tenure-track investigator at NIH, I’m in charge of setting up our research program and laboratory while training the next generation of researchers. We are committed 100% on research so we spend all our efforts on high risk/high reward and collaborative efforts, where we implement different levels of approaches to answer our questions about the fundamental biology of the placenta. From the structure and function of proteins to more mechanistic in vitro and in vivo studies, using our in-house animal models as well as human cells and tissue provided by our collaborators at ECU, NCSU and UNC, we would like to further contribute to the placental research in the RTP area and NIH.

2. Can you talk a little bit about yourself? Where are you from? What first attracted you to the world of science? And how did you get to be in your current position?

I was born and raised in Buenos Aires, Argentina. I received my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Chemistry, and my Ph.D. in Structural Biology from the University of Buenos Aires. Then, I decided to pursue my next academic training at the NIH Intramural Research Program at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) under the supervision of Dr. Juan Bonifacino, an expert in intracellular trafficking and cell biology. At the end of my training, I decided to take a risk and switch fields and bring some of that cell biology experience to a new arena for me and that’s when I got the opportunity to join the Reproductive and Developmental Biology Laboratory (RDBL) at the National Institute of Environmental Health Science (NIEHS), Durham (NC) as an Earl Stadtman tenure-track investigator to establish the Placental Cell Biology Group.

As a child, I was raised in a humble middle-class household where science was not a topic of conversation. Due to their lack of opportunity after high school, my parents did not have the chance to continue their education, and my sister decided to study International Business in college. They still had to deal with a very curious kid, whose only hobbies were reading through encyclopedias, playing outside, and doing experiments with things from the kitchen and laundry room. I was first made aware of my interest in science during high school when teachers who were extremely supportive and observant saw ‘something’ in me and nurtured my curiosity until graduation. It was a great experience to be a member of the Chemistry Olympic club and compete in several national and international competitions, bringing home some medals that made my parents very proud of me. When I reached college, I knew it was a no-brainer: I wanted to become a scientist and do research for the rest of my life. So I guess I’m living my dream!

I am part of the Stadtman Tenure Track investigators, a group of early career researchers selected from an NIH-wide search every year. While I was wrapping up my postdoctoral training, I started preparing my academic job application package. I knew it would take a lot of effort to apply to many places and try it more than once before my training funding expired, because we all know how competitive this market is. In that sense, COVID’s pandemic ‘helped’ me slow down and focus on putting a competitive package together. Since I wanted to stay at NIH, I applied to the Stadtman search and an open targeted search from NICHD, but I also had some invitations to other places that eventually didn’t work out or I didn’t pursue because I really liked the atmosphere at RDBL at NIEHS. All of my branch colleagues are experts in reproduction, and they all believe in my research program and the potential to bring some new tools and approaches to the placenta field, so I immediately felt welcome and supported.

3. Can you tell us about your recent work related to mentorship for early-career scientists? How does the program work and what was motivation for developing it?

In my role as a new group leader, transitioning from a postdoc to an independent researcher wasn’t an easy process. Particularly during the initial steps when you need to develop a novel, exciting, and elaborated job package to apply to different institutions with different requirements and deadlines. Depending on your network, resources, examples, and qualified feedback can make the task seem overwhelming at times, and if you don’t have one, you might feel as if you’re alone with a gigantic task that could open or close doors without warning. These packages may require feedback from broad scientific expertise because search committees are very diverse, so you have to appeal not only to colleagues in your field, but also to colleagues from other fields. The problem is that if you have a small network, it’s difficult to find people who will look at your material and give you constructive feedback. I became very interested in the Reviewing Program that Dr. Grogan had started and took over as a postdoc when she got her own independent position as part of the FuturePI Slack community (https://futurepislack.wordpress.com/). A major objective of the program is to provide postdocs and early career researchers with the chance to provide and receive substantive feedback on faculty applications, as well as opportunities for networking and mentoring during the job application process, as well as significant peer support.

The logistics of the Program are straightforward. We announce it through FuturePI’s Slack channel, participants sign up, and our program officers organize weekly review groups based on criteria discussed in our recent open-access publication (https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rspb.2023.0124). You can find templates and materials to start similar programs at your own institutions or branches, if you wish. Upon receiving contact information for their group, individual review groups are instructed to send whatever documents they wish to be reviewed that day and to provide feedback on each other’s documents by the end of the week. Because the program runs weekly and the reviewing groups change every week, each time you participate you’ll get fresh feedback from an entirely different set of eyes.  

We also highlight the results of a survey we launched after the Program ran for a couple of years. Based on the survey results, the Program benefits from the participants’ shared and unique characteristics and experiences both as a way to improve job application materials and as an important peer mentoring and support system. Also, the participants found the program to be very positive and highly recommended it to others during their job search. It is especially important to provide this support to individuals who are from underrepresented groups like women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ groups, since the search for a faculty position can be particularly stressful and frustrating. Achieving diversity and inclusion in STEM and academia by increasing opportunities for professional development, community building, and networking are essential to improving the retention of underrepresented minorities. In addition to providing early researchers with that space after they reach the top of their career training, this Program also provides them with opportunities to find a new job.

4. What obstacles do LGBTQ+ members commonly encounter in their career trajectory?

According to a recent survey, 7% of adults in the U.S. identify as LGBTQIA+, and this number will continue to grow as more open and progressive generations become a greater proportion of the U.S. adult population. While progress has been made in promoting diversity and inclusion, LGBTQIA+ members still face numerous barriers in their lives, including professional career challenges. Barriers of this type include:

  • Discrimination: People who face discrimination or prejudice at work have fewer opportunities for hire, promotion, and retention, and deal with hostile work environments. In addition, many jurisdictions lack legal protection against this type of discrimination, leaving LGBTQIA+ people very vulnerable.
  • Lack of role models: There are some places that don’t have good or visible role models that can mentor others who share similar identities and experiences. In such cases, networking opportunities may decrease, which is crucial to building relationships and getting access to the right career stage at the right time.
  • Mental health: The need to hide one’s identity or deal with unconscious and direct bias creates mental tolls for individuals navigating a career path, which is already stressful and requires the use of our entire mental potential for the science, not to make everyone comfortable around you because you are the ‘different’ one.
  • Intersectionality: LGBTQIA+ people who belong to multiple marginalized groups and identities face the sum of general and specific challenges, making them the most vulnerable group facing multiple career roadblocks.

5. What words of inspiration and caution would you like to share with the future generation of LGBTQ+ scientists?

Despite these hurdles, I believe the future of science is bright and that the scientific community is working hard to make it a better place for everyone. This does not come for free, however. It’s always a lot to do, to correct, to protect, and to create. My advice to the next generation of LGBTQIA+ scientists is to:

1) Believe in yourself. It doesn’t matter what mannerisms or outfits you wear or how you look, if your scientific knowledge is strong, you can’t be silenced.

2) Embrace your authentic character. You are a rare and precious gem! Your experiences are what make you unique, so you will be able to bring something to the table that no one else can; hold on to that feeling whenever in doubt.

3) Take care of yourself. Look for people and environments that can recharge you, in which you do not have to explain yourself, so that you can reconnect with your goals in life and science; there are many ways to be a scientist that can fulfill you, so don’t stay stuck in a position where you’re the only one putting in extra work to change a culture.

4) Educate and be a role model for others. Being ‘out’ may expose you to discrimination but can also serve as a beacon of hope to those struggling beyond their lab or office work; take part in your workplace and advocate for policies that foster the cultural change you desire.

6. How can professional scientific societies create a more inclusive environment to better support LGBTQ+ scientists?

As a place of encounter, scientific societies provide a venue for people to come together, exchange ideas, celebrate each other, and innovate for the benefit of the field. As a result, they play an important role in setting standards and being a role model not only for their members, but also for other fields that have similar or adjacent interests. If we care about our LGBTQIA+ members and their science, then the societies where they are enrolled should always foster an inclusive environment, share resources and support, accelerate targeted networking and mentoring activities, collaborate with other LGBTQIA+ organizations, identify needs and try to develop initiatives to meet them, openly recognize and celebrate LGBTQIA+ contributions to the field (awards, grants, fellowships), and engage in policy advocacy to promote LGTBQIA+ friendly legislation that may protect or expand the rights of those working in more vulnerable topics, places and institutions. Basically, a Society that provides the support some members may not have at home, school, or work. They may be making the next great discovery that will make us all proud to be a part of such a society.

Links referenced by Dr. Guardia:

https://www.niehs.nih.gov/research/atniehs/labs/rdbl/pi/placental-cell/index.cfm
https://www.niehs.nih.gov/research/atniehs/labs/rdbl/index.cfm
https://irp.nih.gov/careers/trans-nih-scientific-recruitments/stadtman-tenure-track-investigators
https://futurepislack.wordpress.com
https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rspb.2023.0124
https://news.gallup.com/poll/389792/lgbt-identification-ticks-up.aspx

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