First-Generation Success Story: Dr. Victor Garcia, C’07

Victor Garcia, Ph.D. C’07

Assistant Professor of Pharmacology at New York Medical College

  • Never give up.
  • Don’t get discouraged.
  • Focus on your successes.
  • Keep going.

 “Never give up, for that is just the place and time that the tide will turn.” ―Harriet Beecher Stowe

 I sat down with Drew alum Dr. Victor Garcia, to find out about his life and how his journey to success was informed by being the first in his family to attend college. Dr. Garcia has had many accomplishments since graduating Drew in 2007, but one of his most impressive career achievements is his discovery of the 20-HETE Receptor. Elevations in 20-HETE have been linked to high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer, and kidney disease.  Scientists had been searching for the 20-HETE receptor since the discovery of 20-HETE by Dr. Schwartzman, the current head of the Department of Pharmacology at NYMC, almost 35 years. Alongside the help from his colleagues and collaborators, Dr Garcia, uncovered GPR75 as the 20-HETE receptor.  He hopes that his work will assist in the generation and development of drugs to block the receptor and its actions.  Dr. Garcia is also a talented stencil graffiti artist who goes by the name PaperMonster. He has always had a strong work ethic but he is also grateful for the mentors that have helped him along the way.  He believes in paying it forward and now wants to provide guidance and mentorship to others, especially students interested in biology or pharmacology. His advice to First-Generation students: Do not be discouraged if you believe you are not meeting the expectations of other people, be your own person, do not let rejection or failures stop you from achieving your dream.  Keep going, work hard, focus on any success you achieve, and know that you can and will bounce back from any setback.

Where were you born and raised?

My parents and I were born in Ponce, Puerto Rico.  We moved to Newark, NJ when I was in 7 years old.

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 Do you have siblings?  What are they doing today?

I have a younger sister who works at a clinic.

Did your parents encourage you to go to college?  If so, how did they encourage you?

Yes, they encouraged me. The whole idea behind that encouragement was that without an education you could not get anywhere in life.

Where did you go to high school? 

When I was in middle school, I was recruited by The Wight Foundation, an organization that provides underrepresented minorities from Newark with quality educational opportunities at an out-of-state boarding school.  Students with good grades and test scores have to go through standardized tests, rounds of interviews and must attend summer school as part of a process that takes 2 years from 6th to 8th grade.  I was one of 18 students chosen out over 500 that applied to attend Westtown School, a Quaker boarding school in Pennsylvania.   It was a great experience.  It was all about hands-on learning, a sense of community, and living a life of integrity.

What brought you to Drew University? 

At first I did not think about going to college. I did not have any reference points so I considered going to an IT school. Someone at the Wight Foundation recommended Drew University.  When I came to campus I loved that it looked and felt like Westtown and had a strong biology department.  I sat in on a class and really enjoyed it. I immediately felt comfortable and knew it was the right choice for me.

Did you know what you wanted to major in when you first came here?

I was turned on to Biology in Westtown because my classes were hands-on outdoor based classes exploring the ecology of our campus acres of land. I knew when I came to Drew I wanted to continue my study of biology.  I majored in Biology and Spanish Literature.

What were your greatest challenges as an undergrad?

My biggest challenges were keeping up with organic chemistry, and other courses that were pre-med focused.  I thought I wanted to go to med school because at the time I did not know all of the opportunities available for research and that I could be fully immersed in academia with a Ph.D. degree.  Initially I thought I might work for a pharmaceutical company.  Later I knew I had to get my master’s and more advanced degrees in order to obtain a job with true potential to contribute to a company and its research goals.  Shortly after getting my Masters,  New York Medical College invited me to be part of their Ph.D. program and it changed my life.

What surprised you the most about college?

There were no surprises because I had already studied at a high school boarding school which was similar and structured very much like a college.

Were you conscious that you were a First Gen student?

Yes, especially since I was part of the EOS program starting with their summer session.

Were your parents able to pay for your college or did you depend on scholarships, grants and student loans?

A combination of scholarships and student loans.

Did you find yourself socializing with other First Gens?

Yes, because that was my cohort in the EOS program. I felt a sense of community.

Did you have a mentor(s) as an undergrad?

Yes, Prof. Tammy Windfelder in the Biology Department was and continues to be an incredible mentor. She has been vital to almost every academic decision that I have made across my career.

How was your experience in grad school?

I attended the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ) (now part of Rutgers University).  It was  mostly night courses, so there was not a strong sense of community.

Did you know you were going to pursue a Ph.D?

Yes, I went to Yale University for my post-doctoral training. You need these layers of training to amplify what you know and how you work but then I was recruited back to do research for New York Medical College.

When did you become interested in pharmacology?

The Ph.D. program at New York Medical College is an integrated program and allows you to rotate to three different mentors based on your interests: physiology, biochemistry and pharmacology were mine.  You meet with your mentor to see if you fit into a particular system and research project. Dr. Schwartzman was a great mentor who advised me that I could publish and characterize something new and exciting in the field of hypertension and eicosanoids. There was an opportunity for discovery and that really got me excited about doing resrarch.  Turns out researchers were looking for a receptor for 35 years and I found it very quickly with some phenomenal pharmacological tools that we developed.  It is a receptor important in controlling blood pressure, diabetes and cancer. Thus far we have published several manuscripts about 20-HETE and GPR75 and how they are involved in the control of blood pressure. The receptor was uncovered in 2013 and published it in 2017.  It takes a while since you have to convince reviewers and the scientific community that what you are observing  is real and has undergone rigorous testing.  It took close to 4 years to get a manuscript accepted on this discovery alone. This was the reason I got recruited back to further characterize what the relationship between 20-HETE and the receptor as to where, and how it they interact and influences these various pathologies. If I look back at my career I feel like an outlier.  I’m one of 500 kids picked to go to a boarding school and I have in a short period of time discovered a receptor and been a part of a patent on close to 20 different drugs, targeting that receptor.  I am also the youngest faculty member in my school as an assistant professor doing research.   Ultimately the work we do going forward will help us characterize the relationship between 20-HETE and the receptor and will help the development of new drugs to block the harmful actions associated with the receptor.

What do you believe is the secret or recipe for your success?

I do not give up when I fail. I just keep going and I learn from that failure. I believe that even if I do poorly, I can bounce back. This has served me well.

How did you learn resiliency?

You have to face rejection and it hurts but if you go through it long enough you become desensitized and nothing can bother you.  Focus and cherish your small successes here and there.  We fail in the lab every day and no experiment is perfect.  You have to trust your gut and move along and have faith you will get where you’re supposed to be.

What do you think is the most important characteristic of a successful person?

A strong work ethic and surrounding yourself with people that support you like family and friends.

What advise could you give First-Generation students who are just starting college?

Don’t be discouraged if you don’t meet the expectations of other people.  Be realistic.  Be your own person and lead your own true path.

Some fun questions:

Do you have any hobbies or special interests you would like to share?

I have always gravitated towards art. I taught myself stencil graffiti art and asked if I could do an independent study on art when I was an undergraduate at Drew.  I did an international seminar called “A Tale of Two Cities” to London and Paris with Professors Marie Pascale Pieretti and Wendy Kolmar.   We spent a couple of weeks in each city.  My project for was to explore and write about street art in these cities.  I took photos of street art, learned about stencil art graffiti, compared street art in both cities, and met and conversed with architect Bleck le Rat,  one of the most famous street artists in Europe (he influenced Banksy.) I came back from this trip and started to paint aggressively.  Four of my murals were showcased in the Commons and two murals were in the Space (in the building before the Ehinger Center).  One of my murals remains in the library and one giant wood painting can be found in the EOS office.   I was invited by companies in NYC to do ads and I did one for Take5 candy. I create stencil graffiti art under the name PaperMonster  and you can find my work online.

I also collect sneakers (Nike Dunks.)  At one point I owned 25 pairs.

What profession other than yours would you like to attempt?

Full time artist.

If you could travel to anywhere in the world tomorrow where would it be?

I spent two weeks with my wife on our Honeymoon in the Maldives.  I would love to go back. We had to travel to Shanghai and had to take 2 to 3 planes to get to this small island which was paradise and it was worth it.

Favorite time of year and why?

Summer because I can spray paint outdoors.

Is there anything else about you, you would like to share?

I actually met my wife at Drew.  We were in all the same types of classes and I  was her Bio Lab partner. We were friends for 4 years while at Drew.  We went to China together on a public health related shortTrec.  After graduation, we re-connected. She was living in Boston and I had a scientific meeting up there. We got together to catch up and talk about life and shortly after that a whirlwind of exciting events took place where we started living together, got engaged, got married all within less than a year.  We actually got married in Mead Hall and come here every year to take a picture in front of the Mead Hall Steps. We now have two boys, ages 3 and 10 months and we bring them to visit Drew’s campus.

 

Yasmin Acosta coordinates the Arts, Communications, & Languages Career Community and the First- Generation Identity/Affinity Community. She also manages the Peer Career Coaching Program, counsels and advises students on career, job, and internship plans, critiques resumes, cover letters, CVs, and personal statements, and presents career development workshops.  Prior to this position Yasmin was the Program Coordinator for Drew University’s Center for Holocaust/Genocide Study. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English and Psychology from Rutgers University, a Master’s degree in Arts & Letters (Literary Studies) from Drew University, and is pursuing a Master of Education also at Drew.

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