Advancing the Science

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March 19, 2020

Mentorship program a ‘guiding star’ for astrobiologist-turned-microbiome-researcher

By Caitlin Doran
Dr. Walther-Antonio poses in her lab
Marina Walther-Antonio, Ph.D.

Marina Walther-Antonio, Ph.D., came to Mayo Clinic to help start the Center for Individualized Medicine’s microbiome research program. In her previous job at NASA, she had worked with mathematicians, engineers, geologists, psychologists, and even political scientists to try to detect life in outer space. Mayo recruited her to look for “aliens”—bacteria and other organisms—living in the “extreme environments” inside human bodies.

Dr. Walther Antonio began a research fellowship at Mayo in 2012 and it wasn’t long before her advisers began encouraging her to apply to the KL2 Mentored Career Development Program.

The KL2 program, offered through the Mayo Clinic Center for Clinical and Translational Science (CCaTS), provides protected research time and intensive, mentored training under the guidance of a senior investigator.

“I didn’t realize how important the program was until after I applied and got it,” says Dr. Walther-Antonio. “I didn’t expect or anticipate the impact it would have on me and my career. Now, through the program, I see the whole system lifting me up. I really feel that I have institutional support behind me and a kind of family invested in me and the success of my research.”

Mayo Clinic Public Affairs recently sat down with Dr. Walther Antonio to ask her about her experience in the KL2 program and her future goals in research.

To really shake the ground you need diversity of thought and you need to be willing to take calculated risks. That’s where the big transformative power of science comes from.

- Marina Walther-Antonio, Ph.D.

Why did you apply to the KL2 program?

My fellowship advisers, particularly Dr. Virginia Miller, encouraged me to apply. KL2 is a great opportunity because it really protects a lot of time—75% protected time for three years—letting me take a breath and do more of the research I’m passionate about and not just write grants all day long.

What is your research project?

Blue gloved hand holds a microfluidic flatfrom

I’m working on figuring out the role of the microbiome in endometrial cancer. We’ve found a signature, kind of like a biomarker of the microbiome, associated with patients with the disease. We want to find out if this is just a biomarker or if there is a role the bacteria play in the causation or progression of the disease.  Our hypothesis is that a particular bacterium that is highly associated with the disease is infecting the cells and disrupting the cellular machinery, causing the cell to develop carcinogenic properties. If we’re right and the bacteria has a role in this process that gives us a target to help treat the disease. It would be easier to target the bacteria than to target the cancer, which is a part of the patient. And it would be less of a burden on the patient too.

There are other types of cancer that are closely associated with a bacteria or a virus: stomach cancer and helicobacter pylori; cervical cancer and human papillomavirus (HPV). We’re wondering if endometrial cancer works that way too.

The KL2 program recruits a diverse team of research scholars and emphasizes the importance of multidisciplinary team science. Why do you think that’s important?

My training is in astrobiology. It’s a world where, I often say, it’s not just that people think outside the box, is that they have no boxes. Because of that, it’s rare for there to be a question that nobody in the room can answer. Or maybe they know somebody who knows the answer. That breadth of contact and experience is a huge advantage.

I try to bring this kind of “no box” thinking to my medical research.  I always try to hire people who are not like me so I get that diversity of thought and experience at the table. For a simple problem, you can probably be more efficient with a specialized team. But for complex problems that involve, say, a paradigm shift, that’s difficult to do with a specialized team. If you all have the same kind of background and training, you have tunnel vision. To really shake the ground you need diversity of thought and you need to be willing to take calculated risks. That’s where the big transformative power of science comes from.

Has the KL2 program taught you anything unexpected?

I never anticipated I would enjoy, or gain so much from the classwork that is required. I looked at the list of courses and got excited. I’ve learned a lot and explored topics I would never have had time to learn about otherwise.

In particular, I’ve gotten really into bioethics and health equity. I took a class from Dr. Joyce Balls-Berry on diversity and I got a publication out of that, which was very well received. It asked the question: “are early screening biomarkers for endometrial cancer needed to reduce health disparities?”

In endometrial cancer, which is the focus of my KL2 research, there are disparities related to screening. Some people think there’s no need to develop a screening test because most cases tend to be found early when it’s relatively easy to treat. But that’s really only true of white women. Black women don’t tend to have the same symptoms as white women and, due to a variety of other systemic inequities, endometrial cancer tends not to be detected early, which leads to higher rates of advanced disease and higher rates of morbidity and mortality.

I’ve come to realize that a lot of the difficulties of implementing new medical approaches are not necessarily related to the science. It’s the system that’s not prepared for it. This knowledge is so powerful and it gives me a framework to think about how research should be designed to address systemic as well as scientific issues.

How have your mentors helped guide you in your development as a researcher?

I can’t even count the ways they’ve helped me. Heidi Nelson, Nicholas Chia, Scott Kauffmann, Bill Cliby, Virginia Miller, Robin Patel, Jim Maher, Andrea Mariani; the list goes on. They are always one phone call away, or one short walk away. I appreciate every minute of the time they dedicate to me, because I know how valuable and limited their time is. These are such important, accomplished scientists and they’re people I can reach out to any time; I know they’re there and they’ll do anything to help me.

It feels really good to have people on your side like that. My mentors have been absolutely critical to my development as a person as well as a scientist. They push me forward beyond the science and into leadership and career development opportunities as well. I would not even have applied for a KL2 scholarship if it wasn’t for them.

Would you like to become a research mentor to someone else?

Mentoring is something I truly enjoy. I always tell people that if you discover the cure to cancer and it dies with you in a coffin it doesn’t do anybody any good. It’s really important to share knowledge and to bring others along on for the journey. The more different those people are from you the better because that’s what leads to big transformations. The only way to move science along is to share it.

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Tags: Andrea Mariani, Bill Cliby, bioethics, Center for Clinical and Translational Science, Center for Individualized Medicine, cervical cancer, Education, endometrial cancer, health disparities, health equity, Heidi Nelson, human papillomavirus, Jim Maher, Joy Balls-Berry, KL2 Mentored Career Development Program, Marina Walther-Antonio, microbiome, Nicholas Chia, People, Robin Patel, Scott Kauffmann, stomach cancer, Virginia Miller

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