Five Questions With… Wilfredo Garcia-Beltran

Date: October 20, 2022 By: Emily Makowski

National Hispanic Heritage Month is September 15–October 15. This month commemorates the history, achievements, and contributions of Hispanic people from or connected with Spanish-speaking regions, including those whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, and much of the Caribbean and Central and South America.

During this month we spoke with Wilfredo Garcia-Beltran, MD, PhD, a clinician-scientist fellow at the Ragon Institute and an attending physician in transfusion medicine and clinical pathology at Massachusetts General Hospital.

What was your path to the Ragon like?

I actually came to the Ragon a long time ago, I’ve worn many hats, and I’ve been very fortunate to have had the opportunity to see the Ragon in its many roles. I started my MD-PhD at Harvard/MIT in 2010. I did several rotations at different labs around the Boston area until I came across the Ragon Institute. I did a rotation in 2011 in the laboratory of Marcus Altfeld, who is now in Germany [at the Leibniz Institute for Experimental Virology], and I just loved the Ragon – very international, very interdisciplinary, very collegial among the labs. I loved that experience and the common goal of understanding HIV, human infectious diseases, and the immune system, so I joined the lab as a graduate student.

It was a wonderful experience. I loved it so much that even though my PhD mentor left for Germany, I continued working with collaborators here at the Ragon. Eventually I started residency at MGH, and as a resident in pathology continued on a collaborative basis with Alex Balazs’s lab and Mary Carrington’s lab. We did a lot of work on natural killer (NK) cells—my favorite cells—and COVID-19, and then the opportunity of becoming a Ragon Early Independence Fellow under the clinician-scientist track arose, so I applied. It was a national search and there were a lot of amazing candidates, and I was fortunate to be chosen to continue as a clinician-scientist fellow at the Ragon.

What was your graduate research on, and how has your research trajectory evolved since then?

My research as a graduate student was understanding the role of natural killer (NK) cells in HIV, very in line with the Ragon Institute’s goal of curing and treating HIV. As the Ragon expanded its mission to understand the immune system to cure all sorts of human diseases, my research transitioned into developing a humanized mouse model, mice with human-like immune systems. And I continued my work with NK cell biology in the line of using NK cells to treat conditions like chronic viral infections as well as cancer. Then COVID happened and I switched to understanding COVID-19 immune responses from the perspective of antibodies.

I’ve since transitioned back to NK cells. My current research as a Ragon Institute fellow is on the role of NK cells in recognizing and killing SARS-CoV-2 infected cells, and the role of NK cells in recognizing and killing cancer cells of all types – solid cancers like breast cancer and lung cancer, liquid cancers like B cell lymphomas and leukemias – and engineering NK cells to make them better cancer-killing cells. This involves generating CAR-NK cells, a parallel to CAR-T cell therapy, so that we can have a more universal, “off the shelf” therapy for cancers of all types.

Let’s talk about your heritage. Where are you from, and when did you come to the US?

I was born and raised in Puerto Rico. I majored in chemistry at the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras campus. While I was in college, I heard about a lot of opportunities in mainland U.S. to pursue research careers in science and medicine. I did summer internships in the University of Rochester in New York as well as MIT in 2009, and those were life-changing experiences. It was so eye-opening to know about the existence of MD-PhD careers. I thought you had to just be a doctor if you wanted to do science, and that’s a mentality that some still have in Puerto Rico. When I did internships out here, I realized there are so many doors that are waiting to be walked through. That made me committed toward the end of college to go on to pursue an MD-PhD degree.

I was very fortunate to have people, particularly at MIT, championing for me and orienting me. I made some big mistakes at first; I only applied to 7 MD-PhD programs – which I thought was a lot – and others applied to 30-60. I was a little naïve. Also, during my application process, there were certain sections I didn’t know I had to expand upon. I just kind of did my personal statement as well as I could, and fortunately I had a good enough academic record and research experiences and got interviews.

I felt like my heritage really helped during interviews. Culturally, Latinos tend to carry their emotions on their sleeves, and common feedback I had was “You’re very enthusiastic, you’re very passionate and it shows.” I was just being myself. But I felt like that helped people know that I could show I had great passion for pursuing careers in both science and medicine. I was accepted into the Harvard/MIT MD-PhD Program and came to Boston.

From the academic perspective, it was amazing. But for about a year and a half I was in culture shock. In Puerto Rico I took the subway to the university, and almost every day you would strike up a conversation with the person sitting next to you. When I came here and took the subway to Harvard Medical School, everyone was looking down at their phones and I thought, “Did something bad happen? Was there like an attack on the train?” I remember that being a very shocking cultural shift. During those first couple years I think I went to Puerto Rico six times a year. I would beg my parents to buy me plane tickets to come home for the weekend.

When I first came to Boston in 2010, I had a very strong Spanish accent, and I felt that I was underestimated at times because of it. When I would ask questions in class, sometimes professors would simplify answers and I had to ask follow-up questions and felt dismissed at times, especially when I would struggle to find the right word in English. That stopped happening when my English improved and Spanish accent went away for the most part. Some of my other Hispanic colleagues have gone through much more overt discrimination, and I’m constantly trying to be very aware and change people’s minds about not making assumptions about anyone because of an accent or their cultural background. I am in a quite privileged position in that I’m not experiencing that discrimination as of late, but I remember some of it in the beginning. I think the Northeast is generally very open-minded, but there is work to do here and there.

Now I consider myself a bicultural person. I do a lot of code switching between when I go back home to be with Latino friends and family and when I’m here in the Northeast. There was a lot of cultural learning I had to do, and I feel like I’ve grown a lot as a person to know both cultures and be able to navigate between them. I think it takes a long time for people here to warm up and accept you into their social circles, but once that happened, I made a core group of the most faithful, lifelong friends.

Do you have favorite customs or traditions that you’ve tried to preserve here?

I love going out salsa dancing. I know all the places here like Havana Club and La Fábrica in Central Square, and I always try to encourage people to go with me. At Havana Club they give dancing lessons and there’s everything from beginners to experts. A lot of my friends know me for motivating them to join Latin dancing.

Around the holidays I always try to do Puerto Rican traditions. We do celebrate Thanksgiving in Puerto Rico, we call it El Día de Acción de Gracias, but we also jokingly call it El Día del Pavo, like Turkey Day. We didn’t directly have the whole Thanksgiving heritage in Puerto Rico, but we kind of adopted a form of it.  And Christmas season is just huge, we celebrate Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Years Eve, New Years Day, and Three Kings Day as if they were stand-alone holidays. Here in Boston, I like making coquito, which is like Puerto Rican eggnog, for my friends, and whenever we cook together, I’ll make Puerto Rican dishes like arroz con gandules [rice with pigeon peas] or cielito lindo [dip with ground beef, tomato, lettuce, cheese].

Any advice for Hispanic/Latino students who want to get into STEM?

Yes, find mentors you can really connect with and who you feel truly care about you (Hispanic mentors are definitely a plus)! It’s difficult to obtain relevant professional advice if there isn’t a personal connection to the person giving it to you so they know where you are coming from. Everyone has their own unique needs and desires and ways and personality, and having someone to connect with on that, and to then get professional advice on top of that, is so critical. That’s the number one thing. After that, I feel like the main thing is to believe in yourself. When I said I wanted to do an MD-PhD, people laughed at me in undergrad. Even some professors told me, no, that’s too hard. I made sure to surround myself with mentors from Puerto Rico and MIT that said “yes, you can, and here is how!” Never let anyone tell you that you can’t.

It’s really important to develop a support system. There is a sense that we are a minority, even within Latinos, for wanting to pursue science. So don’t feel alone in the feeling of feeling alone – you’re not. Find the other people who have pursued that track. There’s fewer of us, but we’re around. You’ll feel so justified and validated and know that yes, you can.

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