Decoding the Female Lung: Patricia Silveyra Researches How Air Quality Affects Us

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Breaking BarriersUnsung Women's Project

Welcome back to the third installment of our newest blog series: the Unsung Women’s Project! We’ll be highlighting amazing women in STEM, sharing the stories of all of the incredible, meaningful things women have done in their STEM careers that haven’t gotten the recognition they deserve.

Dr. Patricia Silveyra is an Associate Professor and Director of the Biobehavioral Lab at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC-CH) School of Nursing. Her research program on sex specific mechanisms of lung inflammation is funded by NHLBI by K01 and R03 awards. Dr. Silveyra received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Molecular Biology and Biotechnology, and her PhD in Biochemistry, from the University of Buenos Aires, in Argentina, where she grew up. She came to the United States as a postdoctoral fellow in 2008 after being selected for an Ambassadorial Scholarship by The Rotary Foundation. She joined the faculty at Penn State College of Medicine as Assistant Professor in 2013 and was promoted to Associate Professor in 2018, prior to moving to UNC-CH. At Penn State, she served as member of the Diversity Council, and interim Director of Diversity and Inclusion in Education. Dr. Silveyra has received numerous awards for her research, her mentoring of students, and efforts to promote diversity in science. She is an advocate for underrepresented minority trainees, and she serves in various national organizations and committees, including the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine “New Voices” program.

Could you describe in your own words what your job is, and what you do on a daily basis?

I am an associate professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. My job is to conduct research, and the other part of my job is to be the director of a facility that assists other researchers conducting research. My particular research interest and where I devote most of my time is to study the mechanisms behind why we have differences in lung disease between men and women. There are diseases such as asthma and COPD that now we see more women suffering from. In the particular case of asthma, if you look in childhood, you see that more boys than girls have asthma, and then after puberty, it just changes, and it’s almost twice as many women versus men that are diagnosed with asthma and having asthma symptoms. It also becomes a much worse illness– the asthma that they have is much more severe. They get more symptoms, they visit the ER more, and they use inhalers more, which tells us that there is something that is not the same between men and women with this disease.

The issue is, of course, that we still treat everybody the same, even though there is such a difference in the sexes with these diseases. So in my lab, we want to understand the immune system of the male and the female lung, and what is different, and how the hormones that we start producing and cycling after puberty actually affect the lung. The lung expresses receptors that receive signals from the sex hormones– so we know that they are there, but we don’t know what happens inside of the cell, so that’s basically what I research. I’ve blocked the receptors, I touch the receptor, I stimulate the receptor… and then I go and see what genes are responding, because a hormone such as estrogen can go and activate gene transcription. It’s a step by step process that we do to figure out what is different between these female and male cells, so that hopefully in the future we can provide better treatment for both men and women that is developed to respond to the way their bodies actually work.

How did your childhood and academic experiences prepare you for what you do now?

I grew up in Argentina, and my mother was a school teacher and my dad was a police officer, so there wasn’t a lot of exposure to science as a career from them. However, my mom had a lot of books, so there was always some sort of encyclopedia in the house that I was interested in– anything related to science and physiology. I really liked reading anything about exercise. I’m a runner, so anything related to the human body and how it functions always interested me. But I never thought I would be a scientist until high school.

I had to do one of those projects where you contact experts and interview them. At the time, I was halfway through high school, and that was when they cloned the sheep. I was 16 or so, and I remember being so excited about that. My high school wasn’t very oriented to the biological sciences, though– it was more oriented towards math and economics. I had to reach out to experts that were in my city, though– and this was before email and Google and all of that were really popularized, there was some Internet but not too much– and I found a professor to talk to. I knocked on his door and he gave me all these books, and I got to see a real lab for the first time, which was the first time I really realized that someone’s job is just to do field research, which was so cool to me. Having that kind of mentoring really opened up that opportunity for me, and I started thinking that I wanted to be a scientist.

Then, I went to college in Argentina. In Argentina, we don’t have Bachelor’s degrees, you sign up for a long career! You basically get your Bachelor’s and Master’s at once, which we call a Licenciatura, so I did that, and I loved it. I did Biological Science, but I liked anything science, so I was initially more interested in plant biology, and then chemistry, and then I started getting really interested in the human body. I ended with a Molecular Biology concentration, but I studied a little bit of everything. After that, I signed up to do my PhD also in Argentina.

Over there, you sign up for the lab first, and then you join the program– which is a completely different system from the U.S.! The lab I joined was an endocrinology lab where they studied hormones in the brain, which is called neuroendocrinology. My project was actually to look into how the hormones that the brain produces help control appetite. I worked with rats, and I would count how much they would eat, and what genes were being expressed, and receptors in the brain, and how much the sex hormones were regulating the expression of these receptors. So, I got all this background there on how hormones control expression of genes.

At this lab, I interacted with people from all over the world, because when you do science in the third world, you really rely on collaboration for many things. You don’t have that many resources; or, at least, they’re never at the level of what I have access to here in the United States. For example, in Argentina, I would often have to email people abroad to get reagents, or maybe ask them to read a paper and help with the English. I learned that in many labs, there were people from all over the world, and I always liked that– being connected to people from other countries. Up until I was almost 20, I never even got on an airplane, so I was very linked to Argentina. Whenever there was someone in our lab from another country, though, I was always their friend. I was so interested in meeting people from all of these different cultures who were also interested in science.

I think becoming a scientist was a great choice for me because it’s the perfect environment to connected with the world. No matter where you are, your research really does connect you.

Where did you go after your PhD?

After I got my PhD, I applied for a scholarship to go do a postdoc abroad. I got a fellowship from Rotary International to promote international exchange. It wasn’t specifically for science, but it allowed me to travel to the U.S. and to work in a lab. I initially wanted to work in a diabetes lab, because of my experience with hormones, but there were some issues with the process and I ended up in the lung physiology lab. I hadn’t seen a lung in years, since my initial years in college, and it was great because I learned so much from them– everything respiratory– and they learned from me everything about hormones.

They invited me to stay there, so I kept renewing my visa and staying year after year, until I finally decided to apply for a green card and a faculty position. When you do that, you have to establish what you’re going to be researching. This is one of the most critical steps in this career because it gets a little difficult to navigate sometimes. For me, I had all this background working with hormones, receptors, and genes, and now I had all this new knowledge on the respiratory system… so it just made sense that I would now be the person to study the effect of hormones on the respiratory system! Now it all comes together! The perfect transition…

I’ve been a faculty member for five years at Penn State University, and I was recently recruited to come here to UNC, where in addition to the work I do in cells and in mice, I am going to conduct clinical research in women.

How do you learn?

Well, in science, you really learn by failing! You learn by trying, and failing, and trying again, and failing again… and so on. In science, you only learn by rejecting your hypothesis, right? You have a plan, and you’re trying to prove it wrong so that you can move onto the next idea. So, I’ve had a lot of failures in that sense, but failures in science are just opportunities to really learn something. You try to plan as well as you can, but you always want to be working on something that you don’t know the answer to and that is challenging, because taking those risks and being proven wrong is the only way for you to actually learn something really significant. Then, you can pass that on and teach yourself and your students something new.

Other than going to the lab when you were in high school, do you have any other stories from your childhood where you realized that science might be something you would be interested in?

Really, the labs overall were what got me interested in science as a career. Other than visiting for my project where I had to talk to an expert, I saw a flyer at high school for students to do an afterschool project. It was one of my biology teachers who was a grad student, and I joined that team with some other students. I got a chance to learn from that team and their prior research– because they had mentors and parents probably who had been to college for this sort of thing or who encouraged them. I also learned what I really needed to do to make this my career, and what options were available to me. It’s funny, one of the kids that was in that group actually works here now as a professor! It’s really crazy how after all of these years we’ve ended up in the same place. When you don’t have role models in your family for science or you don’t know a lot of people with experience, the people you’re close to don’t know how to give you advice, unless you intentionally surround yourself with people who you can learn from.

Really, I was lucky! When I went to that lab when that grad student teacher was there, and I got to see everything that I was learning in the books sort of come to life… It was kind of like, “Oh, this is it, this is how they figured all of this out!” You see all the pictures of cells and things, and you think, “Well, how do they know this?” It’s all told to us, and we repeat it in our exams, but being able to see how they actually got to that– to see the science actually materialize– really got me interested in continuing in this field.

What’s your superpower, or something that you generally think you’ve been really good at in your career?

I think my superpower is being able to connect people. I open doors whenever I’m interacting with people in different environments. I’m always trying to help people advance, and I always think of someone else who might benefit from me facilitating a connection when I meet someone new. I think it goes back to my own experiences in Argentina, and how just because someone mentioned college to me, I went! So it seems like the natural progression for me to try to push people towards where they’re going, if I can be any help. I’ve been told I’m a good mentor, and I really value that.

I saw your article on sex-specific mechanisms of ozone-induced lung inflammation– what do you think the implications of your findings are, given the consistent deterioration of air quality? How do you think doctors should use this information?

My findings showed that air pollution impacts men and women differently, by activating distinct mechanisms of inflammation in the male and female lung. The implications are that sex should be considered when evaluating air quality standards, or when designing therapeutics to treat lung disease. What is safe or effective for men may not be necessary the case for women.

As a follow-up to that– I would love for you to discuss a little bit more what you think the most important/significant findings of your research have been so far.

In my opinion, the most significant findings of my work so far have been that hormones can actually control what happens in our lungs. For example, when we exposed female mice to air pollution at different stages of the estrous cycle (the equivalent of the menstrual cycle in women), we found different inflammatory responses. We also found different effects in lung immunity when animals where treated with estrogens. This is especially important since many adult women suffering from lung disease have reported symptoms that only occur or worsen during specific “times of the month”, either prior of getting their periods or during ovulation. I believe my research will help designing better strategies to help women with lung disease manage their symptoms.

Who were your inspirations growing up?

I don’t think it was really a particular person that I was following, but I did admire certain people. I was always really inspired by people who fight for things– who work really consistently and just push hard to achieve their goals. One of those people for me is my grandmother. She had probably the most difficult life, so every time I had a problem, I would think of her, and how she worked through all of these extremely challenging things and she still managed to be okay and to just persevere, and then I would feel like my problems were surmountable. In terms of people I didn’t know, the people I really admired usually were athletes– these runners that I would see on TV or in sports that would really just push their bodies to the limit and still be able to keep going. There’s always the ones where they’ve already won all these medals and things, but they still keep training so hard and pushing themselves, and that was always really inspiring to me– people who were totally uninterested in giving up.

Is there anyone who inspires me today, professionally or otherwise?

I used to think that for someone to inspire me professionally they had to be more senior than I am, or to have accomplished more, but really, the people who inspire me most on a daily basis are my students more than people who are ahead of me. I think it’s because I see the passion in what they are studying and because I relate to being in that position– where you’re studying and everything is so interesting and awesome. That inspires me to be a better professor and mentor to them, because I really want them to get to where they want to be. The generation behind me probably inspires me a lot more than my own because they are the future and I want to make sure that they have all the tools possible to really be successful.

What is the biggest lesson that you’ve learned in your career?

Probably that connections really do matter. To be a good scientist, you have to be a good communicator, and the more that you network, the better the outcomes of anything. For me this was really challenging because I am shy, and I didn’t speak English very well, so I would usually avoid talking to people. When I started pushing out of my comfort zone and taking the leap to try to connect with more people, it really started to open up doors for me– I said yes to taking this interview, right? After I started connecting and networking, everything got better. My science, my career… all improved just by learning to be a better communicator. It’s incredible how much other people can actually help you, and learning to communicate can help you in ways you wouldn’t even know. I thought, “You have to be a good student to be a good scientist, and go to the library all day long,” and that’s true to an extent, you do have to study a lot! But you shouldn’t underestimate the power of connections.

What have been some of the challenges that you’ve had, either in your career or on a personal level?

I guess sometimes they’re intertwined. There have been several types of challenges I’ve had to overcome, some were internal, and some were outside my power to change. As far as internal challenges, I had to learn to really believe in myself. I used to think, “I don’t look like a scientist. I don’t think like a scientist. Everyone’s smarter to me and I didn’t grow up in a first-world country or go to the best college.” So I had to learn to not get distracted by that voice, and to just concentrate on my science. If you do your research in a systematic and ethical way, you still contribute to the field.

Then, there were some external challenges as well– I had some issues navigating the process of becoming a faculty member. I didn’t have many mentors to assist me with things, so I made mistakes along the way because I really just didn’t know what I was doing and didn’t have anyone to ask. Also, being an immigrant is a challenge, because there are programs specifically created to help you progress in your career, but then I wouldn’t be eligible, or there were opportunities to go and network but then to be eligible for those, you would have to submit a video, and I still couldn’t speak English very well, so there were problems like that, too. I still learned, and I’m still where I am, but sometimes there are things like that as an immigrant that are just out of your control.

What are some steps that you think people can take to be better allies to underrepresented populations in science?

We need more programs that help underrepresented individuals join science careers, but more importantly, stay and succeed in science careers. In this aspect, role models and mentors can make a big difference. People in positions of power should encourage these programs that emphasize mentoring and retention strategies.

What people in general can do to be better allies is to learn more about URM scientists and actively challenge potentially unconsciously biased ideas. Think “what does a scientist looks like?” or “how many women or URM scientists can I name?”. Then learn more about scientists that do not fit the traditional stereotype. Learn about their work and impact in society (you can also follow them on twitter!) You will find a lot of great people doing amazing science!

What do you consider to be some of your greatest career successes, or some of the things you’re most proud of?

Every time one of my students gets an award, or does something they didn’t think they were capable of is something I am so proud of. I have students who join my lab who want to go to medical school, for example, which in this country is very difficult. I know a lot of students who are convinced that they are not cut out for medical school, and to convince them otherwise– that they are capable– and to be a mentor to them to help them increase their chances for medical school is something that I love to do. I’ve sent six students to medical school already, which is so exciting to me. I also have a grad student who just recently won an international award in China, which I was really proud of. When my students succeed, it tells me I am doing a good job as a professor, and that’s a big success to me. I have gotten a lot of awards myself, but nothing really compares to the feeling of your students getting into this or that school or being recognized for their science.

What does success mean to you?

Being able to influence a person’s career development or being able to influence my field are ways that I measure success. So getting my students into college or helping them get their science recognized is a form of success to me, but success is also being able to contribute to research that changes the way that we treat patients, or that gets other scientists to think about something differently. Really getting to see the power and influence of my research and my work is so amazing.

What’s something that keeps you up at night?

Mainly, that we don’t male and female treatments for lung disease! But also that the demographics of people in this country don’t match the demographics of the scientists that we have here. If we have all of these people from different backgrounds and different cultures, why aren’t they the leaders, too? Why aren’t they the ones doing the research and contributing to this field? The interest is there, but they aren’t the ones filling these positions. It’s a really complicated issue and we have a long way to go– because it’s such a multifactorial issue. Part of it is poverty, and part of it is lack of access to good education… it’s a whole host of things that are holding people back, but also some of it is just that women and people of color don’t feel identified with these sorts of positions. And it’s so important for them to see people in science that look like them, or have an accent like them, and sometimes I will go on talks to students and they will say like, “Wow, this just made my day to see someone who looks like me or talks like me doing this job.” That’s the power of these identities being represented; it makes everything feel a little bit more possible.

If you had three more hours in a day, how would you spend them?

I guess I would visit more elementary schools or high schools– I would do more outreach around science, and trying to inspire these younger populations, and particularly the younger underrepresented populations, to get interested in science see that as a real career possibility for themselves. Right now, I do what I can, but my research does take up most of my time.

What’s something that you currently geek out about?

I am really into fitness programs! I’m a personal trainer, and I try different fitness strategies on myself. I actually time them with my menstrual cycle, to do different sorts of workouts at different times of the month when my hormones are at different levels, to try to maximize performance. I’m interested in the level of energy and I believe that the expression of genes that are required for your physiological functions and building muscle, whatever your goals are, are certainly tied to hormones. So if you can actually monitor that somehow and plan for success, you can get better results. I love sports and I’m a runner, so I try to learn as much as I can about whether your can combine your female biology with sports, fitness, and nutrition. I would love to actually develop this into a program for women if I had the time! Maybe that’s another thing I would do if I had an extra three hours in a day. I’d love to help women figure out how to work out most efficiently for their bodies.