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Staff Spotlight: Mirta Mihovilovic, PhD

Friday, August 12, 2016

This week’s Spotlight interview shines on Senior Scientist Mirta Mihovilovic, PhD. Mihovilovic talks to us about the advances in neurology and university-wide changes she has seen in her more than three decades at Duke, her second-degree black belt in Shotokan Karate, and publishing her father’s novel about a family immigrating to Chile during the dawn of the early 20th century.

How long have you been at Duke? How long have you been with Duke Neurology?
I have been working at the Duke University Medical Center since September 1st 1984. My professional interests overlapped with those of Dr. Allen D. Roses, who was Chief of the division of Neurology. At that time, he gave me the opportunity to accommodate my interest on nicotinic acetyl choline receptors to ongoing work at the division’s Research Laboratory.

For the 32 years that I have been associated with Duke Neurology, I have witnessed multiple scientific breakthroughs at the division, now Department, of Neurology. The most striking, in the early 90’s, was the report that, depending on genotype, the APOE gene which codes for apolipoprotein E, a lipid carrier protein, influences the age of onset for Alzheimer’s disease (AD). It is fair to say that APOE led the way to today’s TOMMorrow study, named after the TOMM40 gene which, depending on genotype, affects the development of AD.

What are your responsibilities within the Department? What does a typical day for you look like?
At work I wear two interchangeable hats: I am a Senior Scientist currently involved in Tom 40 research investigating the influence that AD-associated TOMM40 polymorphisms may have upon mitochondrial function. I work most closely with William Kirby Gottschalk, PhD as well as with Ornit Chiba-Falek and Michael Lutz. I am also the Laboratory Manager and as such I make sure that the laboratory’s day-to-day operation runs smoothly.

For the most part I translate ideas into working hypothesis and test them, making sure that experimental measurements are, to the best of my abilities, unbiased. I pay particular attention to data collection, data analyses and above all, methodological limitations, which at this time of increasing automation, if not properly understood, could be disastrous.

I spend a large part of my time at the bench and as a result I get to interact with undergraduate students. Now, close to retirement, I feel the urgency, to pass on to them the basic principles of scientific method.

How did you get interested in Biochemistry?
While in eleventh grade I became aware of a new professional career established by the Universidad de Chile. The curriculum was designed to create professionals able to develop and manage Clinical, Industrial and Food Science Laboratories. The career had and still has a strong foundation on chemistry, physical-chemistry, biochemistry and pathological chemistry; it gave me the basic foundation which still dictates how I approach my scientific work and it branded me for life as a “Biochemist.”

As a scientist, much of your work experience, deals with experimental testing and the use of both proven and new technologies. How has your scientific research experience changed since you started working at Duke? What changes do you see coming over the next decade?

At this point in time when chip technology, miniaturization and robotics are revolutionizing all aspects of our lives it will be hard to answer this question in a few sentences. Most certainly laboratory work will depend more and more in remotely controlled automation. Changes can also be unpredictable; the well-known polymerase chain reaction (PCR) comes to mind: The concept of PCR and the experimental demonstration of its feasibility were reported in the sixties but, it was only with the discovery of a thermo stable DNA polymerase in the eighties, that PCR was recognized as a mayor scientific breakthrough. Most certainly, it never crossed my mind that life close to a steaming Yellowstone vent would give us the first thermo-stable DNA polymerase and have such an influence on our daily lives.

What has changed the most about Duke since you came here?
One of the major changes obvious to me is the development of infrastructure that facilitates electronic connectivity and access to an ever increasing number of on-campus and off-campus databases, scientific and administrative sites, libraries, etc. At the same time every so often I am confronted with issues that arise from the disconnect that exist between “Duke Administration” and outsourcing companies; gone are the days when we were notified in advance of ALL interruptions of basic services that could affect the workflow of a research laboratory. Oftentimes in the quest for streamlining essential services we end up missing the most basic level of communication.

My Duke professional experience does not extend to the clinic but as a patient who has greatly benefited from the medical advances implemented at Duke (I am alive today because of them), I have also witnessed the implementation of policies that may not necessarily be in the best interest of the Duke community at large.

You’re originally from Chile. How long has it been since you’ve lived there? What do you miss most about living in that country?
The truth is that I am living in the U.S. today because there was a military coup in Chile on Tuesday, September 11th, 1973. After more than 40 years in the U.S. I am pretty much a hybrid, and I consider Chapel Hill my “second hometown.”

Among other accomplishments, you have a second-degree black belt. What martial art did you study, and how did you get interested in this skill?
A close friend introduced me to karate. I am a member-for-life of SKA (Shotokan Karate of America), a traditional Japanese martial art non-profit organization with presence in Asia, America and Europe .The study and practice of this martial art has influenced the way I approach life; through its practice I have acquired a network of friends, a second family, if you will.

What other passions or hobbies do you have outside of the Department?
Another major interest of mine concerns the design of public spaces accessible to all members of our communities. Ten years ago, I became acutely aware of the many public accessibility issues confronting the handicapped and senior citizens in Durham and Chapel Hill; I felt I had to do something about it and I started my service as a member of the Transportation Advisory Board for the Town of Chapel Hill. Currently I am a member of its Transportation and Connectivity Advisory Board where I have been active in the elaboration of guidelines for “best architectural design of public spaces.”

And because I am proud of my roots, in 2009 I had to become a publisher to see my father’s novel Desde Lejos Para Siempre in its English translation: From Afar Forever, the story of immigrants, making it to the Chilean Patagonia at the turn of the Twentieth Century. A dear friend, Elisabeth Jezierski, an Austrian-born Durham resident, translated this work. You can read more about the book here.

I also relax tending my plants and digging my hands into good soil. I keep at it although, more often than not, I am reminded that my neighborhood was, and still is, deer territory. I do enjoy nature and a good walk; traveling and a good book; friends and a good party.