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Pursuing His Passion

Einstein Student Follows His Heart to M.D.-Ph.D.

On Wednesday, May 29, Jesus Jimenez's mother joined countless other parents in Avery Fisher Hall to watch their children receive their Einstein degrees. For Ms. Jimenez, witnessing her second eldest son collect his M.D. and Ph.D. degrees was especially sweet, given the tremendous challenges she overcame to support her five children on her own so that they could pursue dreams that often seemed unobtainable.

 Dr. Jimenez celebrates his achievement with his mother, Maria, and infant daughter, Fabiola
Dr. Jimenez celebrates his achievement with his mother, Maria, and infant daughter, Fabiola
For Jesus, that meant becoming a doctor.

"This is a dream come true," said the first-generation Mexican-American whose parents separated when he was in high school. "My mom worked two jobs to provide for us. And, though I was interested in medicine, when I graduated from high school 13 years ago, I never imagined becoming an M.D.-Ph.D. could be possible."

It was during high school that the Southern California native first took an interest in medicine. He joined the organization Health Occupation Students of America through which he shadowed doctors and researched the profession extensively.

"I learned the difference a doctor can make in a person's life and it led to my desire to help those in distress," he said. 

While Mr. Jimenez wanted to be a doctor, when he considered his options following high school, the idea of actually becoming one seemed a mere pipedream. In addition, he was torn by the desire to help his family.

"Making a career choice was difficult," he said.  "On one hand, I could go to trade school and immediately make a living to help my family. On the other, I could attend a four-year university to pursue my dream of becoming a doctor."

Ultimately, he attended the University of California San Diego (UCSD), earning a bachelor's degree in molecular biology, supporting himself through loans, scholarships and part-time work to remove some of the financial burden from his mother. He also found time for volunteering at hospitals and community clinics while working on research projects in the laboratory of Dr. H. Kirk Hammond, arranged through UCSD's Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship.

The research involved gene therapy – studying the over-expression of a protein in the heart with the goal of improving end-stage heart failure. While it was exciting to think his work as a doctor might one day save patients' lives, working with Dr. Hammond proved to be Mr. Jimenez's most rewarding experience. "Dr. Hammond embodied the ideal mentor," he said. "His passion for science made the greatest impact on my decision to pursue a career as a physician-scientist."

Upon graduation from UCSD, Mr. Jimenez chose to attend Einstein because of the school's strong leadership, its diverse student body and surrounding patient population, and the support the institution provides its Medical Scientist Training Program. "Being able to work with a diverse, socioeconomically disadvantaged patient population was one of the major reasons I chose Einstein over other institutions," he said. "It reminded me each day of why I want to help people."

While the decision was rewarding, the move to the Bronx also proved difficult. Mr. Jimenez was apart from his then-fiancé (and high school sweetheart), Luz Maria Henriquez, who was attending law school in Northern California. He also was often homesick, missing his immediate family in Southern California. 

Jesus with Fabiola, at graduation, after being hooded by Dr. Myles Akabas
Jesus with Fabiola, at graduation, after being hooded by Dr. Myles Akabas
"Being 3,000 miles away from my entire support circle was extremely tough," he said. "I spent a lot of my time off flying back and forth to see them, all while studying in airports and on the plane."

Following his mother's example, Mr. Jimenez found the fortitude to persevere. And meeting his Ph.D. mentor Dr. Jil Tardiff took him to the next level. "Dr. Tardiff was instrumental in getting me to where I am today," he said. "She cemented the passion for science that Dr. Hammond had instilled in me."

Dr. Tardiff guided Mr. Jimenez during his thesis work, for which he studied a cardiac disease known as familial hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. She also taught him how to run a lab, how to approach scientific problems, and how to live life as a physician-scientist.

Her help led to one of his proudest moments: his thesis defense. "Defending my thesis dissertation meant I could think critically about a scientific problem, formulate a question, develop a hypothesis and execute a plan in the laboratory to address the problem," he explained. 

He now hopes to follow in both his mentors' footsteps as a cardiologist. "Their mentorship and exposure to the field made continuing cardiovascular research as a cardiologist a no-brainer," he said of his decision to apply to residency positions with an internal medicine research track.

Another influence was the attending internists with whom he worked alongside at Einstein. "They demonstrated a bedside manner that I immediately wanted to emulate," he recalled.

He continued, "You quickly see that each patient has a unique story and, while some of the medical problems can be treated similarly, there are social and cultural circumstances that can provide additional avenues from which you can learn." 

Opportunities to learn will continue in St. Louis, at Barnes-Jewish Hospital at Washington University, where Mr. Jimenez will participate in the hospital's Internal Medicine Physician-Scientist Training Program. "The program has a long track record of producing physician-scientists who have become leaders in their fields," he said. "If all goes according to plan, I will be an R01-funded physician-scientist splitting time between running my own lab and seeing patients as a cardiology attending."

He added, "The eight years I've spent at Einstein have been very special. I am eternally grateful to my family, friends, mentors, and especially my wife [Luz, whom he married in 2007 and with whom he now has an infant daughter, Fabiola] for the support in helping me to achieve my dream."

Posted on: Friday, May 31, 2013