[ Winter 2015 ]
Anthony Covarrubias, PhD ’15, grew up in a working-class neighborhood in South Los Angeles. While celebrities in sports cars whizzed to the beach just a few miles away, Covarrubias’s neighbors waited in long lines at the local health clinic for low-quality care they couldn’t afford. Although his parents worked hard to make ends meet, access to health care and health benefits was not always available. Acutely aware of this disparity from a young age, Covarrubias decided to get an education and help correct the injustice.
For this Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health doctoral student, now in his final year in the Biological Sciences program, the quest to cure metabolic diseases is personal. He’s seen family members and neighbors suffer from diabetes and recently learned of a graduate from his high school who died young from atherosclerosis. Finding a cure for conditions that disproportionately shorten the lives of the poor and people of color won’t be easy, but Covarrubias is in it for the long haul.
“Science teaches you to be patient and persevere,” he says. “Sometimes experiments don’t work out. Sometimes we give it our best effort and it’s still not enough. But that’s what I have signed up for.”
Convinced of the power of science
Covarrubias brings a conviction in the power of science to explain the world and make it a better place, as well as an acute awareness of how the pathways in life—as well as in biology—can change.
On a typical day he pulls out a bottle of blue liquid and portions it into a plastic tray indented like an egg carton. In the tray are macrophages—crucial immune system cells. He slides it into a gene sequencing machine and leans in close to the monitor, brow furrowed. Maybe this time the bar graphs filling the screen will unlock the mysteries of his lab-grown samples—and point the way to a cure for diabetes.
Macrophages are frontline troops in the war against infections, surrounding and digesting bacteria and other cellular invaders and secreting chemicals that launch the process of inflammation. In many overweight and obese people, however, macrophages set off a state of chronic inflammation that can usher in a host of metabolic woes, such as diabetes and atherosclerosis.
Yet just as macrophages trigger inflammation, they also can shut it down. And locating the switch that determines whether the cells’ inflammatory or anti-inflammatory pathway is activated could have lifesaving consequences for millions of people.
That’s what Covarrubias hopes to find and learn how to control. “The best part of being a molecular biologist is that we can think of crazy ideas and actually try them,” he says. “Every now and then, one of them works—and that’s what drives me.” One of his most important findings, which linked a protein in a genetically engineered mouse to macrophage activation, was published this past November in Nature Communications.
Lessons from Skid Row
Covarrubias’s family wasn’t poor, but he grew up surrounded by poverty and saw clearly from a young age the ways it can stunt the health and potential of those it touches. Many of his friends dropped out of high school, got hooked on drugs, and joined gangs.
Visiting Los Angeles’s Skid Row as a high school volunteer, he was drawn to talk to the people who call the five-block district of makeshift shelters home. “A lot of them were just like you and me, at one time,” he says. “They had jobs and families who cared about them. But then something happened, like a divorce, a death, or onset of mental illness, which made them lose control of their lives. With some assistance, many of them could get back on track.”
His focus returned to Skid Row as an undergraduate researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), assisting in the data analysis of a health care intervention for drug addicts in the neighborhood. Though he had once considered becoming a doctor to help improve health in his community, the experience introduced him to public health as an avenue for using his passion for science to help improve people’s lives. Here was a way to delve into the causes of disease at their most fundamental level.
Support and healthy competition
UCLA was also an eye-opener in other ways. Even coming from a respected Catholic high school, Covarrubias was behind his more privileged college classmates—including his film-major roommate—in science classes. But he persevered, and eventually formed a study group with other students of color who helped each other succeed. “We realized that together, we had so much more brain power,” he says. The group became a source both of support and of healthy competition. “We always tried to outdo each other,” says Covarrubias. “You’d see your friend get a 97, so you wanted to get a 98.”
At Harvard Chan, Covarrubias helped launch a similar support group for students in his program. The Biological Sciences data club meets regularly to talk about highs and lows of members’ individual research efforts in a social, pressure-free environment. “You could be working in the lab next door to another student and see them every day, but still have no clue what they are doing,” says Covarrubias.
His recent findings on the link between metabolism and macrophage activation have opened a new research direction in the lab of Tiffany Horng, his adviser. “It would not have been possible without him,” says Horng, assistant professor of genetics and complex diseases, adding that her lab has also benefited from Covarrubias’ “infectious enthusiasm.”
In Horng, Covarrubias has a mentor who won’t settle for less than the best. He tries to be as encouraging with the students he’s mentored over the years, including those in the Biological Sciences in Public Health Summer Research Program for minority undergraduates.
Covarrubias hopes to someday lead an academic research lab. He’s undaunted by statistics on the glut of graduates competing for dwindling tenure-track positions. “I’m not scared by numbers that say only 30 percent of us will get academic jobs,” he says. “Compared to where I started out, those are really good odds.”
— Amy Roeder is assistant editor of Harvard Public Health
Photo: Kent Dayton/ Harvard Chan