Constanza Cortes

Dr. Constanza Cortes, Group Leader, Brain Aging Physiology Lab, University of Alabama, Birmingham

Tell us about your research

We work in an inter-sectional field between exercise, aging, and neurodegenerative diseases. We use mouse models to investigate how exercises are good for the brain and how we can use it to discover new therapeutics to prevent neurodegeneration. We collaborate with labs that use human samples, as well. Specifically, we get human datasets and samples from Molecular Transducers of Physical Activity Consortium (MoTrPAC) a NIH common fund initiative.

What were your challenges of being a NewPI and how you overcame them?

I became a NewPI in October 2019 and few months in, we went in to quarantine. The biggest challenge was navigating the COVID world. What does it mean to train someone when they are five feet away versus online mode of training? How do we hire people? How does one connect with students in the virtual mode? By the end of it we got pretty good at dealing with these challenges. We learnt to navigate the complexities. Currently, the challenge is the cost of consumables. For some, the cost has tripled. It has made me as a NewPI, resilient and adapt incredibly well. Despite the pandemic and some of my lab members getting COVID, students in my lab have been successful, we wrote lots of grants, published reviews, guest edited a special issue. We are looking forward to what comes next!

How have you been coping with the pandemic in terms of mentoring and research?

I had hired three undergrads and two staff before the shutdown. We transitioned to the virtual mode soon and it was difficult for all of us. Communicating and engaging with the team was a learning curve, and the students were fantastic, we all got together and wrote a review. Hardest part was the transition back after the shutdown. Adjusting the classes in person, research in person, learn about the techniques they had been reading about in the papers. Factoring in the commute in our schedules also played a role in getting adjusted back. It has been interesting to watch the two batches of students blossom in different ways.

As a NewPI, what’s your superpower?

I would say Empathy! Apart from being a NewPI, I am a woman and latina, which is not common in the deep south. Before the shutdown, students not from my lab and not in my classes would come to me and speak with me, as they saw themselves in me. My struggles in navigating COVID world helped me connect with my students, who were also going through the same emotional stress.

In this academic rollercoaster ride, words of motivation for others?

Find your community. In this job, the lows are very low and highs are very high. The only way emotionally stable and healthy is to have a community around you, who can hear you and understand each other.

What is the one piece of advice you would give to your past self, on the day 1 of this job?

  1. Be kind to yourself. Give yourself the time and space to grow and learn.
  2. Be open to change, even if it is scary. Embrace it!

Bonus Question

What’s the coolest factoid about immunology that I never knew I needed to hear/know?

Vampires were right! There is something in your blood that makes you old. If you take young blood and put in to aged mouse, the mouse gets younger. What is even cooler is if you exercise a mouse and takes its blood and put in to a sedentary mouse, the brain of the latter thinks it is exercising. If we identify what these factors are, a big goal of my lab is to develop therapeutics that would give benefits of exercise to patients suffering from immobility, Alzheimer, paraplegic and related illnesses. 

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