NIAMS Scientists Ė Diverse Backgrounds, Shared Goals

September 15, 2015

A Conversation with NIAMS Scientist Dr. Mariana Kaplan

Photo of Dr. Mariana Kaplan
Mariana Kaplan, M.D.

Mariana Kaplan, M.D., a rheumatologist by training, joined the NIAMS in September 2013 as Chief of the NIAMS Systemic Autoimmunity Branch to head a new research program focusing on adult rheumatic diseases. She is researching systemic autoimmunity, particularly systemic lupus erythematosus, and the immune systemís role in disease development and associated organ damage. Dr. Kaplan graduated summa cum laude from the National Autonomous University of Mexico School of Medicine in 1992. Following the completion of her residency in internal medicine, she accepted a rheumatology fellowship at the University of Michigan, and was ultimately promoted to Professor of Internal Medicine in the Division of Rheumatology, Department of Internal Medicine. In this interview, Dr. Kaplan shares her career journey and offers advice for future scientists.

Where did you grow up?

My family is originally from Argentina, but I grew up in Chile, Argentina and Mexico. Most of my formative years as a child were spent in Mexico City. As a teenager, I traveled with my family to France and went to school there for several months.

What or who influenced you to pursue a career in science and research?

My parents, both social scientists working in academia, were a defining influence in my career choice. They always encouraged freedom of thought and imagination, along with having a critical spirit and rational rigor. Growing up I was very interested in the arts and humanities. During high school, I became fascinated with biology, particularly on aspects related to human health and behavior, and I decided to become a physician and a researcher. I became interested in autoimmunity very early on during my medical studies.

What motivated you to come to the NIAMS?

I think that NIH in general and NIAMS in particular provide a unique niche for translating scientific discoveries into treatments that may modify the natural history of the diseases we study. The possibility to collaborate with so many outstanding scientists, the amazing combined expertise, and the access to technological advances provide unique opportunities for translational research.

What is the focus of your research? What is your area of expertise?

My interest is in systemic autoimmunity, particularly systemic lupus erythematosus. I am trying to advance the understanding of what factors promote initiation and perpetuation of this disease, and the development of organ damage. Specifically, I want to understand how innate immune responses—myeloid cells in particular—contribute to the development of autoimmune responses and why patients with autoimmune diseases develop premature vascular disease.

What do you enjoy most about your career?

I enjoy the thrill of new discoveries, finding answers, and constantly learning new things. As a translational researcher, Iím motivated by knowing that my discoveries may potentially have significant impact in the lives of people affected by the diseases we study. I love establishing interesting collaborations and mentoring other scientists and students.

What have been the most challenging aspects of your career?

To be a successful physician scientist, you need to have patience and perseverance. It can take a long time to get answers and prove if your hypothesis is right or wrong.

What activities do you enjoy outside of work?

I love to travel and discover new places with my husband and two children. I enjoy playing the piano and listening to music, reading fiction, and exercising. I come from a family of several movie directors, so I have loved watching movies from a very young age.

Can you offer any advice for people who wish to pursue a career in science?

It is easy nowadays to become discouraged about pursuing a career in science given the multiple challenges that biomedical researchers currently face. My advice is not to become discouraged, to search for opportunities and, most importantly, to seek out mentors who can provide career development options and who can devote the time for adequate advice. Throughout my career, some of my mentors (scientists and non- scientists) provided me with the most useful lessons and advice to pursue my goals. It may be obvious, but it is also key to choose an area of research that really interests and excites you, while also being very mindful of a successful work/life balance. To me, those have been key aspects for success in a scientific career.

Why is it important for women and for people from diverse backgrounds to participate in research, both as investigators and as patients?

One very important reason is a true concern for equity and social justice. Because all people are impacted by research in some way, there should be equal opportunities to both participate in it and determine how it is conducted. We need to understand how genetic and biological factors (including ethnicity and sex/gender) and environmental aspects (including socioeconomic factors) promote health and disease and lead to variability in how diseases manifest and progress in different people. Diversity among scientists certainly encourages a diversity of ideas. It is imperative that we increase the pool of scientists who are qualified to address current needs in science and technology.