How did a smart guy from Spain end up in Seattle doing genetic research on Parkinson’s disease — in South America? The path to Seattle for Ignacio (“Nacho”) Fernandez Mata illustrates the international nature of research on Parkinson’s disease.
When Mata started on his Ph.D. at his home in Oviedo, Asturias in Spain, there were two main research paths at his university: heart disease and neurogenetics. He was interested in the brain and chose to pursue a PhD in neurogenetics. His decision was likely helped by the fact there happened to be a large and active Parkinson’s Disease association in the province of Asturias. The association had a goal to fund research in PD, and created a scholarship for to fund young PD researchers. Mata met with them and had an “instant connection”. “What a cool thing to be involved with patients!” he recalls. The scholarship made news across Spain, because it was the first grant to be funded by patients to research their own disease. As part of his scholarship, he reported to the association every month, a particularly valuable service, since most Parkinson’s research is reported in English. Mata has been in the states for over 8 years, but still touches base with the Associacion Parkinson Asturias when he is back in Spain.
How did he end up in Seattle? “I always wanted to go to the US,” said Mata. His parents thought it was important he learn English and be comfortable with American culture, so as early as age 15, he traveled to the US and was at a YMCA camp for 4 summers. As a result, by the time Mata was earning his Ph.D., he was fluent in English and able to make the decision to finish his Ph.D. in the US. Mata had this surprising statement, “To be a successful researcher [in Spain], you have to leave your country…at least to learn.”
One of Mata’s American host families from his teenage days was in Florida, so he decided, while he was visiting them, to contact the Florida Mayo Clinic, a leader in PD research. How’s this for a tough job interview — the Mayo Clinic researchers asked Mata about his research and what he wanted to learn. He told them he had found two brothers in Spain who had gotten Parkinson’s in their early 20s. Mata wanted to learn new techniques to look at the family’s genetic mutations. The Mayo Clinic agreed to teach him, but only if he agreed to take the technique back to Spain. The result: Using this new technique, Mata found that both parents had a rare genetic homozygous mutation. The chances of two unrelated people both having this same mutation is so rare as to be impossible. When Mata went back to the family, he found that the parents actually were second cousins. His work ended up as a research paper and (eventually) resulted in a job offer at the Mayo Clinic.
So how did Mata end up in Seattle? After he earned his Ph.D, Mata considered post-doctoral fellowships in Oregon, Washington, and California. Seattle (home of the Pacific Northwest Udall Center for research on Parkinson’s) was Mata’s choice in 2006 — lucky us!
While he was still finishing his Ph.D. in Florida, Mata helped found LARGE-PD (“Latin American Research consortium on GEnetics of Parkinson’s Disease”), and today, this is his main research in Seattle. For more information about this genetic research project, see my separate posting.