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Ulises Gonzalez earns F99/K00, discusses the importance of independent action in academia

January 04, 2024 By: Emily Rech/MD Anderson UTHealth Houston Graduate School

Ulises Gonzalez earns F99/K00, discusses the importance of independent action in academia

Cuauhtemoc Ulises Gonzalez, a PhD candidate in the Molecular & Translational Biology program at the MD Anderson UTHealth Houston Graduate School, earned the prestigious NIH Blueprint F99/K00 DSPAN award earlier this year. Gonzalez conducts his research in the lab of Vasanthi Jayaraman, PhD, using electrophysiology and fluorescence techniques to investigate the structure-function of glutamate receptors when in the presence of endogenous protein interactions. His work aims to elucidate the changes in gating properties occurring on these channels at the single molecule level to understand their individual role in synapses.

During his time at the Graduate School, Gonzalez has been acknowledged with honors such as being named a Training Interdisciplinary Pharmacology Scientist (TIPS), Charlene Kopchick fellow, Yale Ciencia Academy fellow, and an ASPET Washington fellow. He has received the Antje Wuelfrath Gee and Harry Gee, Jr. Family Legacy scholarship as well as the second-place spot for the Spring 2023 Dean’s Research Scholarship award. The following Q&A highlights the process of applying to the F99/K00, experiences as a fellow in an array of career development programs, and Gonzalez’ perspective on practicing independence in academia.

What made you interested in applying to the NIH Blueprint F99/K00 DSPAN award?

The NIH Blueprint F99/K00 DSPAN award is known as a transition award that aims to give support to students during their last two years of PhD and four years of postdoctoral training. This award was attractive to me as it promotes additional training during my postdoc, and because it allows me to supply my own salary for my postdoc. This will hopefully incentivize labs to take time to train me in new techniques in structural biology. Some students may even use this as a bargaining chip to join more prestigious labs.

Can you explain a bit about the process for applying to an award of this magnitude?

The research proposal has two parts: the research plan for the remainder of your PhD, and the research trajectory for your postdoctoral phase. I initially started with the second aim of my candidacy proposal, but I drafted a newer version to cover the F99 phase. I especially focused on expanding upon the question with the aim of learning and using novel methodologies to give further insight into my future research goals. Another important section is your training plan and your mentor's training plan, which should overlap extensively. These two sections specifically were sent back and forth among my mentor and myself until it reached its final form.

What does it mean to you to have been chosen to participate in the Yale Ciencia Program?

Yale Ciencia is a program that makes me feel safe and supported. It is helping me learn the ropes to navigating a postdoctoral position. In the process of looking for a postdoc mentor, it has helped me recognize the values, personality, and management style that will best suit my needs. It is also helping me get a more accurate picture of what my future postdoc experience will look like.

What about the ASPET Washington fellowship?

That was another eye-opening experience. The ASPET Washington fellowship is for young scientists to learn what it’s like to be involved in advocacy and how to communicate with congress about the finer points of certain bills. I believe that scientists have the ability to stand up for better scientific solutions, and the program gave me an opportunity to meet with individuals who are already very active in their advocacy. It is important for me to be able to support healthcare education and science using my base in academia as I move throughout my career.

Did you receive any assistance with your applications for these opportunities?

For my funding awards, TIPS and F99/K00, I got help from my mentor, Dr. Jayaraman. I also obtained help from faculty who wrote me letters of recommendation and letters of support. I was given samples of F31s from lab mates and Raquel Salinas, PhD. Dr. Salinas did an amazing job helping me with my biosketch and writing the DCCPG along with Cherilynn Shadding, PhD. I also was able to reach out to an F99/K00 awardee who was kind enough to share her experience. As for the rest of my awards, I tried to obtain as minimal help as I could because I want to practice independence as much as possible. My significant other was the only one I asked to review my submissions for internal awards.

Where does this drive for independence come from?

It comes from the way my parents raised me. I am an immigrant myself, so that was just what was expected in my family. My father worked hard to teach me the value of independence from an early age. A good work ethic was instilled in me. I am especially proud of the applications that received very little oversight because I want to continue developing my ability to work independently and write grants in the future.

What do you expect to gain from participating in all these programs?

The major focus of these programs is career development. These scholarships and fellowships offer platforms for graduate students to find themselves and their passions, as well as help identify what students need to reach their ultimate goals. I feel like I have already begun to understand what kind of training and mentorship I require for my postdoc. I have also begun to realize that I want to make a difference with my research findings through advocacy. I wouldn’t have discovered these interests nearly as easily if I did not participate in these programs.

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