Patricia Casbas Hernandez

Hometown: Lorca (Murcia) , Spain
Universidad Complutense de Madrid (Madrid, Spain)

Molecular & Cellular Pathology graduate student Patricia Casbas-Hernandez’s first experience working in a research lab was also her first time living away from her home town of Lorca (Murica), Spain.  “It was a challenge at first.  There was a culture shock and adjusting took some time”.  As part of the TASSEP (Trans-Atlantic Science Student Exchange Program) Patricia completed her 5th year of undergraduate at UNC Chapel Hill.  While here, Patricia joined the lab of Dorothy Erie in the Chemistry department where she studied protein-DNA interactions using AFM.  “I was a biochemistry major in college, but there were no opportunities to do research.  So being in the lab at UNC was my first experience with research.  I didn’t even know how to use a pipette – it was pretty funny. “    Ultimately she did learn her way around the lab and found she wanted to learn more.  Patricia decided to apply to graduate school and she chose the UNC BBSP program.  “I liked it so much I decided to stay!”

For her graduate work Patricia wanted to do something very applied to human health so she joined Melissa Troester’s lab in the Gillings School of Global Public Health to study the interaction between breast cancers and the normal tissue adjacent to the tumor.  Patricia showed that obesity is associated with increases in inflammation in normal breast tissue that could impact breast cancer development or progression.   She has also studied the gene expression in tissues adjacent to breast tissues and has shown that the expression profile can predict clinical outcome for breast cancer patients.  Because of the clinical nature of her project, Patricia was accepted into the Translational Medicine Program and has enjoyed close collaboration with her clinical co-mentor Keith Amos, MD in the Surgical Oncology division of UNC Hospitals.  “We study the normal tissue adjacent to breast tissues and he provides the patient samples.  I have had the opportunity to help with the “Normal Breast Study” by attending oncology clinic to identify eligible patients, go over the consent process with them, and I even got to see one of the surgeries performed. ”  Patricia says that the chance to meet real people with cancer and talk to them about her work has been invaluable, but has also been the most challenging.  “We go in to these rooms where they’ve been all day seeing doctor after doctor and try to explain how cool our research is and how if they donate extra tissue they will be helping others, but not necessarily themselves.  It’s very hard.  Fortunately, most people are all for it since they know UNC is a research institution, especially women with breast cancer who want to help anyone with their disease.”  Because her research has implications for citizens of North Carolina, Patricia was selected for a prestigious 2012 NC Impact Award.  You can read more about her award at the Graduate School Impact Award Website.

One thing Patricia has learned from graduate school is that it’s not the number of hours in the lab that count the most, it’s what you accomplish when you are there.   “You are not necessarily more productive because you are in lab more hours” she says, “so you might as well accept that and put in fewer more productive hours and have a life outside of lab.”  Just last year Patricia joined a Carrboro based running club and she recently finished her first half marathon in Savannah, Georgia.  “Running can actually help with research.  It frees your mind.  Usually I think about things other than science, but sometimes the solution to a problem I’ve been running into will just pop into my head.”  Patricia also actively maintains a connection to home by keeping up with Spanish news, reading novels in Spanish and watching Spanish television series.  “Pretty much anything not lab related I try to do in Spanish if I can.”

Graduation is right around the corner for Patricia but she didn’t wait for it to get started on her next endeavor.   She’s already taken a few classes in the Gillings School of Public Health and hopes to start working on her Master’s in Public Health soon.  “I feel that in order to make the biggest impact you need to be able to understand basic biology as well as how your discoveries apply to real people.  So I want to get some training in epidemiology before I start my own lab.”   Patricia’s advice to new students is to make reading and critically analyzing papers a priority.  “If you don’t already know how to do this, embrace the courses that train you to because it’s key.   I’ve learned to like reading papers over the years and it has helped my research.  I have actually started to sit down in my free time to read through abstracts.  The moment it starts to be about you and your research it should be fun.”