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November 2017 GWIS Lead

Thursday, November 23, 2017   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Allison Shultz
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November 2017
GWIS LEAD is a GWIS periodical profiling women leaders in science.  Subscribe
Jitka Virag: Finding Support for Different Career Stages and Roles

Dr. Virag describes her fascination with science, specifically the heart, when she was growing up:

My mother was a nurse and my father was an engineer, so science was emphasized when I was growing up. I used to look through my mom's textbooks and was surprised when I saw that the heart wasn't shaped like the hearts we draw as kids. That initiated my fascination with it and, as I grew, I knew I loved science. When I was an undergrad, I did an honors degree in a plant physiology lab. The people I encountered in that environment and the way they encouraged me was instrumental. After that, I knew that academia was the right fit for the way I liked to think and learn, and I wanted to teach others to do the same.

After graduating from the Queen's University in Canada with Honors gaining a bachelor’s degree in Biology, Dr. Virag obtained her PhD in Physiology from Louisiana State University Medical Center under the supervision of Dr. Kathleen H. McDonough; her dissertation was titled Mechanisms of Sepsis-Induced Dysfunction and Protection from Ischemia/Reperfusion Injury. She then pursued post-doctoral training at the University of Washington working on Murine Myocardial Infarct Repair with Dr. Charles E. Murry. Following her post-doctoral work, she joined NASA working at the Universities Space Research Association, Division of Space Life Sciences, Cardiovascular Laboratory as a research assistant to study the effects of microgravity on the heart. Dr. Virag joined the faculty at the Brody School of Medicine in North Carolina as an assistant professor in 2006; from November 2015 to November 2016, she served as the Interim Chief Diversity Officer.

How would you describe your research?

Your heart beats over 100,000 times each day; that's over 1,200 gallons of blood. When there is damage to a part of the heart, it can't fix itself, and the rest of the organ can't function normally. I study myocardial infarction. Heart attacks and heart failure are a huge sociologic and economic burden worldwide, and there is no cure. About eight years ago, we discovered that the heart expresses several members of a family of receptor tyrosine kinases called ephrinA ligands and EphA receptors. These are interesting proteins in that both the ligand and the receptor are membrane-bound; when cells that express them interact and the proteins bind, bidirectional signaling occurs. I became interested in them when I learned that they were discovered to be involved during development and tumorigenesis. Until now, no one had looked to see if they were expressed in the heart and if so, what they were doing. My research program is focused on investigating the role of EphrinA1/EphA-Rs in attenuating acute and chronic myocardial infarct injury.

Dr Virag supplied us with a link to a JOVE video demonstrating her surgical technique to induce myocardial infarction in her mouse model. 

How does your research impact the average person?

I am studying how the heart works normally and how it responds to stress and injury so we can understand how to prevent damage. The decline in the quality of life that occurs as heart failure progresses is not only a burden on society because of time away from work and the amount of money it costs; it also prevents people from being able to enjoy their lives, take care of their families, and be physically active. The possibility that we could shift the paradigm in the belief that ischemic injury is irreversible could have profound effects on quality of life and longevity.

You mention a paradigm shift—why do you think this is necessary? Are there things about cardiac physiology that you believe are misunderstood?

Science and technology are advancing so rapidly that we now have tools to look at things we couldn't see before. It was widely accepted that there is no way to salvage injured myocardium, but now we are finding that there is a window of reversibility, and if we can exploit that, we can prevent damage that leads to heart failure.

What is your favorite part about what you do?

There is so much we don't know about how our bodies work. I love learning about what we know and working with others to try to figure out how to find out what we don't know. It is a great challenge and a privilege to work with other thinkers who like to solve problems.

This is what a scientist looks like: Dr. Jitka Virag
Watch this video to see how Dr. Virag's research seeks to understand how to prevent damage that leads to heart attacks and resulting heart failure.

In October 2007, Dr. Virag was hit by a car while riding her bike to work. This accident left her with a T-4 complete spinal cord injury. She spent three months undergoing rehabilitation after her accident at the Shepherd Center, a medical center for spinal cord and brain injury rehabilitation in Atlanta. 

How did your accident affect how you have had to do things?

Disability makes daily life a challenge. Everything takes more time and effort. In most aspects of life there are accommodations made for the disabled. My institution has really supported me in this. It took much longer for me to become established than it would have, and so I am fortunate that Brody has done so much to help me reach this level. Nevertheless, research is an intellectual environment, and while there are physical adjustments to the work environment that permit me to do my research, the expectations for research, teaching, and service are the same. My mobility challenges and family life (two kids ages 11 and 14) make it difficult for me to travel, so attending conferences is limiting; this is restrictive to networking. Fortunately, manuscript and grant reviewing is done remotely. Communication is essential in research, so forming alliances with people I can work with who know my strengths and limitations is very important. I think perseverance has been my strong suit.

Were there any resources that you found particularly helpful as you were determining how to overcome your disability?

North Carolina Division of Vocational Rehabilitation Services (Health and Human Services) – They provide assistive technology to support functional capabilities necessary for employment. They were able to acquire a standing chair for me that I can use for lecturing behind a podium.
Disability support services at ECU – The director, Elizabeth Johnston, made my laboratory accessible and modified parking and curb accessibility to facilitate my entry and exit from the facility. Just recently, she also put a request through for financial assistance for my lab to cover technical support salary.

An article highlighting Dr. Virag's recovery was written in 2014 by the staff at the Shepherd Center and can be accessed here.

This month's GWIS Empower issue contains links to a number of resources and articles full of advice for scientists with disabilities. GWIS Members who missed the publication can access it at

Dr. Virag attending a poster session as part of the Summer Biomedical Research Program at the Brody School of Medicine. The program allows undergrads to spend a summer doing research and getting familiar with medical school requirements including mock interviews. The student to the far left is Brinda Sarathy.

What do you think most contributed to your career development?

Learning how to learn and being curious are natural. Having family, friends, and access to resources that support and enable continued growth are critical. Failing and learning from that experience to not only not make the same mistake again but also how to use that information to improve or grow is so important. Mentors that will support that can be tough to find; not every supervisor has patience for mistakes. There is no replacement for hard work, persistence, and motivation. Having this disposition in conjunction with the support I received during the training for my PhD and postdoc gave the right balance. Lastly, communication is essential. Being able to express your ideas and garner support from colleagues to build a network is necessary to thrive in this environment.

It is also necessary to have funding to be considered as a viable candidate when moving from tenure-track into a tenured position. It took me a number of years and given my special circumstances, I was very fortunate to have acquired external funding before my package went in for consideration.

Do you have any suggestions for those looking to find support at various different career stages?

Networking with funded people who will help you write grants and give constructive feedback, investigating alternative sources of funding (foundations; outside of NIH) can often help you get established so you can provide evidence of productivity that will cast a favorable light on applications and use the feedback you are given by reviewers to strengthen your proposals. Networking at conferences has been restrictive to me, so I focus on internet resources such as ResearchGate and LinkedIn as well as making sure to get one-on-one time with people who come to visit my institution.

What would you consider a good strategy to follow and avoid some of the common pitfalls associated with a career in research?

Independence and perseverance are key to avoiding the various pitfalls associated with career development, but one does need to listen to the advice of seasoned investigators. Find a good mentor—someone that thinks like you and has similar values.

Looking back on your career trajectory, would you have done anything differently?

Yes. I would have said no to some things (service, teaching) that detracted from the time and effort needed to develop my research program earlier in my career. While I enjoy participating and greatly appreciate the value of these things in terms of supporting the institution and its missions, the value we are measured by is our success in publishing and grant writing/acquisition, and those things take a great deal of time and focus.

Do you have any last pieces of advice for young women scientists?

Keep your mind open to learning new things that may be unexpected, be resilient and undeterred by naysayers, and be brave about letting the data lead you in new directions.

Members of the Virag lab; from left to right they are Heather Estes, Evan Vlahos, Justin Parks,  K’Shylah Whitehurst, and Chris Chase.
Contributed by Gurjot Kaur.
Video by Kayleen Schreiber and Maria Adonay.
Copy Editing by Rozzy Finn.

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