UF surgical resident receives unprecedented award

As the first surgical resident at the University of Florida to receive an individual postdoctoral fellowship award (F32), Alex Cuenca, M.D., is now one step closer toward pursuing his dream of becoming an academic surgeon.

In February, Cuenca, a fourth-year surgical resident, was notified he received a one-year $52,000 grant given by the National Institutes of Health under the Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award Program. He is currently in his second year of research in the Laboratory of Inflammation Biology and Surgical Science under the leadership of Lyle Moldawer, Ph.D., a professor and vice chairman of research in the UF department of surgery.

“This award will help establish a track record and show the NIH that I am motivated to become independently funded, which is the goal for most of us who are doing academic medicine,” he said. “It’s a step toward that goal.”

Moldawer said, “Receiving this award is recognition of Dr. Cuenca’s considerable talents, as well as his efforts to compete at the highest academic levels. Indirectly, it also signals that the Department of Surgery and the College of Medicine are committed to providing the support and infrastructure for talented individuals like Dr. Cuenca to be successful.”

The F series of grants is the highest award someone can obtain as a postdoctoral trainee, Cuenca said. Typically, the F32 grant is for people who have received their M.D. or Ph.D. and are not in a position to be on faculty at an institution because they are still completing their training programs.

Cuenca’s research goal is to better understand the signaling differences in a set of cell surface receptors, known as toll-like receptors, or TLRs, and how these differences impact neonatal and adult responses to infection. These TLRs are expressed on many different cell types in the immune system and are important for the recognition of bacteria or viruses. His other research project focuses on severe infection in cancer patients.

He said one reason he applied for the grant was to gain a better understanding of the NIH grant writing and submission process so that later on in his academic career he would not only improve his chances of being able to receive further funding, but also improve his “grantsmanship,” a critical skill needed to succeed in academic medicine. Cuenca and his research are currently funded by an institutional National Service Award (T32) awarded to the Department of Surgery to support training programs in burns and trauma.

“The biggest issue for doctors who want to stay in academics and do translational research is trying to find the time and energy to have both a clinical practice and an academic research career,” he said. “From talking with my clinical mentors, I gather that it is very difficult to split your focus between research and patient care. “

Working in the Laboratory of Inflammation Biology and Surgical Science has aided Cuenca in receiving the grant.

“Without Dr. Moldawer’s help, I wouldn’t have gotten the grant,” he said.

Cuenca added, “Dr. Moldawer has been integral in the mentorship of multiple surgical residents over the past 15-20 years. He trains us to develop better research questions, pushes us to constantly improve, and to never lose sight of the larger more important clinical picture.”

With research programs incorporated into surgical training, surgeons get a “better window into understanding clinical problems or disease,” he said. As is true with most clinicians doing research, translational research offers the opportunity that will hopefully allow Cuenca to go from a patient’s bedside to the laboratory bench and back to the bedside with answers.

Cuenca plans to return to his clinical responsibilities after finishing his research program and earning a Ph.D. in immunology. After graduating from the UF surgical residency program, he is considering a two-year fellowship in pediatric surgery or a one-year fellowship in trauma and acute care surgery.

His ideal goal after a fellowship includes going into academic clinical practice while also having a productive research laboratory focusing on immunology and inflammation.

“I love research,” he said. “I’ve always been under the impression in life that if an opportunity to do something I love presents itself, I should do it regardless of how difficult the road ahead may be.”