As a youth Pablo Alarcon dreamed of becoming an astronaut.
But as a teenager, he read Richard Preston’s 1994 non-fictional thriller, The Hot Zone, and decided that a career in medicine might be his true calling.
Preston’s work is based on a true story that took place in the 1980s following an outbreak of the Ebola virus in monkeys in a laboratory located in Reston, Virginia. The book also provided background on other infectious disease-linked outbreaks in Africa and how these occurrences put human populations at risk.
"It made me very interested in medicine and I thought this is really cool,” says Alarcon, a first-year medical student in the UC College of Medicine’s Medical Scientist Training Program. "This was something I could really see myself doing.”
Alarcon, 21, of West Chester, also had a role model closer to home. His father was a physician working for a mining company in their native Peru. Alarcon’s family moved to the United States when he was six and he grew up in the Tristate, graduating from Lakota West High School. Alarcon is also an Eagle Scout.
Straight out of high school, Alarcon began interning in a laboratory at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center as part of the Biomedical Research Internship for Minority Students
(BRMIS). His mentor was Julio Aliberti, PhD, a former Cincinnati Children’s researcher and UC pediatrics faculty member, who is now at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD. Over the course of two summer, he worked on various projects, ranging from the effects of Lipoxin on nematodes and cerebral malaria to IL-15 significance in development of dendritic cells in the gut.
He also spent two years as an undergraduate at The Ohio State University in the laboratory of Abhay Satoskar, MD, PhD. The laboratory’s research included the study of leishmaniasis, a parasitic disease transmitted by sandflies that attacks internal organs and can be fatal if left untreated. Alarcon was interested in leishmaniasis because of its impact on tropical communities, including his native Peru.
These research experiences, along with a visit to the Centers for Disease and Prevention in Atlanta, convinced Alarcon that he wanted a career in medicine that addressed public health concerns and allowed him to play a role in unlocking medical discovery to combat disease. Alarcon is working toward a medical degree and a PhD as part of the Medical Scientist Training Program
Alarcon says he feels pretty ‘Americanized’ but remains very proud of his Peruvian roots. He says access to health care, while not perfect in the United States is still much better than in many developing nations. It’s a fact brought home with a family tragedy.
"I had an aunt and she had a son who was two weeks old and he got very ill,” says Alarcon. "She lived in the jungle of Peru far from Lima. The doctors prescribed the medication but it wasn’t available there. In fact, it wasn’t available in Peru at all. The only place you could get it was in the states.
"So she called my dad and said asked there was any way I can get to it. He said, sure I will figure it out, but during the time it took to figure it out, customs and stuff, unfortunately the boy, my cousin, passed away. I never knew him.”
"Health and inequality has stuck with me,” says Alarcon. "I could see myself marrying my passion for infectious disease with a desire to ease health inequalities.”
Alarcon’s experience at Cincinnati Children’s and access to the College of Medicine as an undergrad convinced him to eventually become a Bearcat. He was impressed by the facilities at Children’s and the collaborative nature he encountered with medical students and faculty in the College of Medicine.
"Cincinnati Children’s is an incredible institution,” says Alarcon, who also has an interest in pediatrics as well as infectious diseases. "Also, just coming to UC talking to all the faculty, everyone in the College of Medicine just seems so genuine in helping each other out. The students went out of the way to get to know us. They set down and ate meals with us and they took us out. It was a collaborative environment.
"That just seems like the best way to do science and medicine, through collaboration, and that is what convinced me this is the way I want to go,” says Alarcon.
Tim Le Cras, PhD, associate director for admissions in the Medical Scientist Training Program, says Alarcon was one of 10 students admitted to the program which offers a full-tuition scholarship, generous stipend and health insurance for MD/PhD students generally referred to as ‘physician-scientists.’
"When Pablo interviewed for our highly competitive MD/PhD dual degree program, he impressed us immensely,” says Le Cras, also an associate professor of pediatrics at UC and researcher at Cincinnati Children’s. "His academic credentials were stellar. In his interview Pablo was very articulate, poised and confident.”
"Our MD/PhD program puts great emphasis on recruiting outstanding students who have a strong potential to develop into physician-scientists leaders who will have a very major impact on their patients and medicine,” says Le Cras.