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In View: People in Transplantation

Josefina Alberú, MD

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doi: 10.1097/TP.0000000000003778
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You were born in Havana, Cuba, and moved to Mexico where you attended Medical School. Can you share some details of your early upbringing?

JA: In 1962, our entire family including my parents and 7 children moved to Mexico. All my siblings attended colleges and received postgraduate degrees in several public and private institutions and universities around the country. My father was an industrial entrepreneur in oil and alcohol manufacturing companies. We followed the dreams of our ancestors, always supported by our mother’s unflagging enthusiasm to see us happy in our very diverse professional activities. It was the comfort of our close family ties that made the adaptation to our life in a different environment easy and enjoyable for me and my siblings with our inspiring parents instilling security and confidence.

You graduated from Universidad Autónoma de Guadalajara, Mexico, with highest honors. What were specific challenges for female medical students at the time? What made you excel?

JA: Studying has always been close to my heart and a genuine desire that kindled my spirit. For me, learning has been a life-driving force and the honors were a mere byproduct rather than the goal. My main motivation to study medicine was to help others.

I have been fortunate to attend medical school in the late 60s and early 70s, in an academic environment with national and international professors and fellow students, eager and committed to professional training of excellence. I don’t recall any particular questioning, preferential, or biased treatments linked to gender. I felt that the academic leadership strongly supported and put regulations in place that prevented gender discrimination.

You started your residency in medicine and then switched to surgery followed by a kidney transplant fellowship at the Instituto Nacional de Ciencias Médicas y Nutrición Salvador Zubirán. What motivated your interest to go into surgery and transplantation?

JA: Before I began my internal medicine residency, I spent a year researching surgical and immunological features of host- and graft-driven immune responses in experimental small bowel transplants under the supervision of my mentor, Dr Federico Chávez-Peón. The Instituto Nacional de Ciencias Médicas y Nutrición Salvador Zubirán (INCMNSZ) is my alma mater, my second home, and the home of my professional family. Here, I have been able to fully develop my life-long professional activities as a surgeon and scientist. I have only been partly absent for a 10-year period from INCMNSZ when devoting time to raise my 3 very loved children.

Surgery has always been my main reason and motivation to study medicine. Today, I have no doubt that my main incentive to focus on kidney transplant surgery was to observe the amazing recovery of patient’s quality of life after receiving a graft.

You headed the Transplantation Department at the Instituto Nacional de Ciencias Médicas y Nutrición Salvador Zubirán from 1995 to 2012. What were your achievements and challenges?

JA: The main challenge throughout those very happy years was to maintain the achievements of those who had been in charge before me. Increasing the number of live and deceased donor transplant procedures was an obvious goal to meet the increasing demand of an ever-growing number of waitlisted patients. I was responsible for all surgical logistics, in addition to supervising the Histocompatibility Laboratory. Work was centered around clinics, transplant-, vascular- and peritoneal access surgery, coordinating rounds with other providers, teaching fellows, and of course, always trying to fit in any research projects. Mario Vilatobá, MD, an excellent surgeon who trained at the INCMNSZ and at the University of Birmingham, Alabama, was critical in initiating the liver transplant program and growing the renal transplant program. We finally were 2 surgeons in the program!

You have been a strong advocate for young physicians and surgeons with interest in transplantation throughout your career. What are the specific ingredients of your mentorship style?

JA: The INCMNSZ, a public institution par excellence, has most certainly provided the best standards of patient care and teaching in many areas of internal medicine, surgery, and research for the past 75 years. I take particular pride in having had the opportunity to train numerous residents in kidney transplant surgery.

The best strategy to mentor a student lies in fully understanding their individual potential. There is, in my opinion, no unique or single training “style.” The best way to teach is by example. Excellence in mentoring includes most sensitive and thoughtful support of students, listening, and reinforcing their self-confidence at all times. Mentoring is by no means a unidirectional process, as we as mentors learn so much from our mentees and gain inspiration.

Our country desperately needs transplant surgeons throughout all 32 federal states to meet the healthcare needs of patients requiring a transplant.

Ethical practices have certainly become central to our efforts during the last years. Providing mentees with the skills to achieve their goals continues to be key to mentoring, as I see it. Emotional support is critical and will provide them with the confidence they need to achieve their goals.

You have been active in Women in Transplantation committees, in TTS, and the American Society of Transplantation. What is your specific advice to women in our field? How can we increase and support Women in Transplantation?

JA: Certainly, participation in both committees provided me with the opportunity to experience the great quality of wonderful women scientists from all over the world and their brilliant ideas to promote and share their vision with the next generations through mentoring.

I truly believe that the best advice you can give to women in transplantation is to “keep going and do not hesitate if you love the field of transplantation."

You have been a founding member of the Mexican Society of Transplantation and President of this Society in 2018. What were specific challenges and achievements during your tenure?

JA: Getting a multidisciplinary representation, productive and active participation of all of those involved in transplantation (surgeons, physicians, organ procurement organizations, nurses, and scientists) into the Society was the main goal. Organizing a lively and active annual meeting with exciting and novel clinical and research presentations and publications in both the Revista Mexicana de Trasplantes and in international journals was an additional accomplishment.

You have been a clinician-scientist throughout your career. What is the scientific contribution/publication you are most proud of?

JA: Studies on transplant immunological have always been at the center of my interest. As a matter of fact, I am currently collaborating on a clinical cellular immunotherapy project utilizing regulatory, allospecific T cells generated in vitro, for kidney and liver transplant recipients, with a group of Basic Science researchers at the BioMedical Department (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México) headed by Dr Gloria Soldevila, PhD, with funds from the National Council on Science and Technology.

You continue teaching but may also have some more time to follow interests outside of transplantation? Can you share some of those?

JA: Yes, I continue teaching at the Instituto Tecnológico de Monterrey, Campus Ciudad de México, in the School of Medicine. Returning to the classroom is fantastic although classes are still virtual, but I have the opportunity to enjoy teaching students in their early careers.

Enjoy life, my family, my friends, open spaces, good books, and good conversations have always been my “other interests in life.”

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