By James Ponder

Gabriel Linares, a former participant in the summer research program offered to local high school students by the Center for Health Disparities and Molecular Medicine (CHDMM) at the LLU School of Medicine, will soon be heading to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for a post-doctoral fellowship.

The story of his pilgrimage from San Gorgonio High School to the NIH underscores the value of the summer research program in helping motivated Inland Empire students transform their interest in science into productive careers in biomedical research, medicine, and related fields.

Although he had two distinct interests growing up—politics and science— Gabriel says the turning point occurred when his grandfather suffered a stroke.

"I remember going to the hospital to visit my grandfather and observing the treatments he received for his condition," Mr. Linares shares. "Unfortunately, he passed away about eight months later, but that spiked my interest in wanting to learn about medicine."

Gabriel’s parents saw an advertisement in the San Bernardino County Sun newspaper inviting local high school students to get involved in the summer research program at the CHDMM. Unfortunately, Gabriel was only a sophomore in high school at the time, and students had to be at least a junior to apply.

"So they saved the ad for me," he says of his parents, Robert & Lillian Linares, a planner for the County of Riverside and school librarian, respectively. "I applied to the program the next year."

After attending a meeting in which prospective participants and their parents were apprised of the program’s objectives and introduced to the faculty and staff, Gabriel went home hoping his application would be accepted. A few days later, he received good news: he had been selected to attend the program in the summer of 1997. He could hardly have been happier had he won the lottery.

"Marino De Leon was my mentor," he says of the CHDMM director. "When I was in his lab that summer, we were studying an epidermal, fatty acid-binding protein called DA11, and at its role in nerve regeneration."

Gabriel was impressed by the fact that Dr. De Leon—who holds a PhD in neurobiology and also directs the initiative for maximizing student diversity at Loma Linda University—did not patronize the young scholars, but instead allowed them to conduct biomedical research at a very high level.

For his part, Dr. De Leon remembers Gabriel as a very dedicated researcher.

"Gabriel was an outstanding student from the start," he observes. "I met him when he was in high school and he’s been very consistent ever since, not only in his grades and academic performance, but also in his interpersonal relationships with other students and the faculty and staff. He took an interest in the other students, and mentored many of them in the program."

Gabriel returned to the summer research program at the CHDMM in 1998. "That second summer, we continued working in the same area of research," he recalls.

After graduating from San Gorgonio High School in San Bernardino and completing two summers of research at LLU, Gabriel was accepted into the University of California at Davis. During the summer of 2002, he returned to LLU for an undergraduate research project under the tutelage of Michael Lilly, MD, professor of microbiology and molecular genetics. "My project consisted of characterizing S18 human ribosomal protein as an autoantigen in prostate cancer patients," he recalls. He earned a Bachelor of Science degree in neurobiology, physiology, and behavior from UC Davis in 2003.

Currently, Gabriel is back at Loma Linda University finishing the requirements for a PhD degree in physiology. He’s conducting his research in the laboratory of Subburaman Mohan, PhD, director of the musculoskeletal disease center at the Jerry L. Pettis Memorial VA Medical Center in Loma Linda, and research professor in the departments of biochemistry and physiology at LLUSM.

The NIH isn’t the only organization to appreciate the value of Gabriel’s work recently. He won the outstanding abstract award at the 92nd annual meeting of the Endocrine Society in San Diego this June. He also received the young investigator award at the 32nd annual research conference of the American Society for Bone and Mineral Research, which was held last week in Toronto.

After he graduates with his PhD from LLU in the spring of 2011, Mr. Linares will move to Bethesda, Maryland, where he will devote the next three to five years to his NIH fellowship. During that time, he will work in a molecular neurobiology lab within the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) at the NIH. "The main theme of the lab’s work is focused on understanding the molecular mechanisms underpinning neurodegeneration and neuroprotection.

"For my long-term goal, I’d like to become a professor at a university, develop my own research program, and teach as well," he adds. The experience of watching his grandfather succumb to a stroke influenced his choice of subject. "My research focus will be in the area of neuroscience; probably stroke, Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s."

When he’s not bent over a microscope or textbook, Gabriel is involved in some form of athletics.

"I like to exercise and play sports," he shares. "My favorites are basketball, running, and hiking on different trails. I also enjoy the martial arts. I am a first degree black belt in tang soo do karate."

Not surprisingly, Gabriel has a few pointers for high school students interested in a career in science.

"Keep an open mind," he advises. "Try to get involved in a research lab where you can gain first-hand experience. Don’t be afraid to ask a lot of questions; one of the signs of an intelligent person is the ability to ask questions. Study hard, keep your grades up, but try to be a well-rounded person in all aspects of your life, including extracurricular. And apply to the program here at LLU.

"This is an excellent program," he concludes. "Dr. Marino De Leon, Dr. Carlos Casiano, and Dr. Daisy De Leon have done an outstanding job in training the next generation of biomedical research scientists!"

Dr. De Leon says Gabriel’s achievements place him in a very rarified atmosphere reserved for only the highest levels of science scholarship.

"An NIH post-doctoral fellowship is a coveted, highly competitive award," Dr. De Leon asserts. "They only grant them to a handful of highly promising young scientists nationwide. We are very proud of Gabriel Linares!"