Pulling Back the Curtain: Maria “Ken” Figueroa, MD

Maria “Ken” Figueroa, MD
Associate Professor of Human Genetics, Co-Leader of the Cancer Epigenetics Research Program, and Assistant Director for Translational Research at the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center in Miami, Florida

Here, Maria “Ken” Figueroa, MD, talks about her childhood in Argentina, medical inspiration from the TV show M*A*S*H, and her passion for research.

Before we delve into your career, we first have to ask how you got your nickname.

My given name is Maria Eugenia, but I was never called that. For some reason, my mother and godmother (who had daughters named Maria Eugenia within a month of each other) agreed that the correct nickname for a girl by that name is Marikena. Don’t ask me why! I don’t know any other Maria Eugenia who goes by that nickname. I only knew of two other Marikenas – one was a famous tango singer who was older than my parents. When I was little, after I introduced myself to adults, I would have to say, “Yes, like Marikena Monti” (the tango singer), because nobody understood my nickname.

Then, in school, my classmates shortened the nickname even more: to Mariken, then to Kena or Ken. I preferred Ken to Kena because it was easier for my classmates in my English-speaking school to pronounce. When I moved to the U.K. at 16, Kena would become Kenya and all sorts of things. It’s memorable – how many female Kens do you know?

Where did you spend your childhood?

I was born and raised in Buenos Aires, Argentina. It was a typical middle-class Argentinian upbringing: I had two happily married parents (who are still married today), two older sisters, and a younger brother. We attended an English private school run by Irish nuns, so we are all bilingual. My mother is an English teacher, so I learned to sing nursery rhymes in English before I sang them in Spanish.

When I was 16, I earned a scholarship to attend Atlantic College in South Wales, one of a group of international schools called the United World Colleges (UWCs). These schools were founded during the Cold War out of the idea that, if you don’t increase dialogue and interaction between nations and cultures, then we will never reach peace in the world. Atlantic College was the first UWC, followed by Pearson College in Canada. In his Nobel Lecture, Canadian Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, the school’s namesake, delivered one of the most inspirational quotes guiding the colleges’ philosophy: “How can there be peace without people understanding each other, and how can this be if they don’t know each other?”

I attended this international school in South Wales during the last two years of my high school education. The school was located in St. Donat’s Castle, a medieval castle built in the 13th century on 150 acres of land. It was like attending Hogwarts! It was a critical time in my life that shaped who I became. I’m still friends with my Atlantic College classmates today.

Unlike in the U.S., students in Argentina go straight into career training after high school. So, after graduation I returned to Argentina for medical school.

Dr. Figueroa and her husband in Andalucia, Spain, in 2018.

What was your first job?

My father had a strict policy that we focus on our studies. He was not a wealthy man and didn’t have many possessions, but he felt like the most important thing he could leave us was a good education. As long as we passed our exams every year, he didn’t want us to work.

He paid for everything while we were in school until we graduated and were able to start our own careers – for me, that was 7 years in medical school. So, I never held a job until I was admitted to my internal medicine residency.

When did you know you wanted to go into medicine? Did you ever have another career in mind?

When I was younger, I assumed that, because my dad was a lawyer, I would have to be one, too. I even envisioned myself walking into the courtroom, wearing a tailored suit and carrying a black briefcase.

But ever since I could put it into words, I loved science. One of my early recollections is buying the Spanish version of Scientific American with my pocket money. I knew I wanted to do something related to science, and I wanted to do something that was patient-centered. Medicine was the answer.

At first, I thought I wanted to be a surgeon, mostly because of the television show M*A*S*H. I remember watching an episode when I was 11 or 12, in which Alan Alda’s character, Hawkeye Pierce, is in the operating room and his patient is crashing, and he has a dialogue with death. He says something along the lines of, “This one’s mine, you’re not going to take him. I’m going to fight you for him.” He was so impassioned in his fight to save this guy’s life, and I remember thinking, That’s what I want to do.

Once I went into medical school, I quickly realized that I enjoyed the detective work of internal medicine and nonsurgical specialties more than surgery. I slowly gravitated to hematology during medical school, but I truly embraced hematology during my internal medicine residency.

Was that decision inspired by any of your mentors during residency?

One of my mentors was a hematologist named Carlos Fondevila, MD. I was inspired by his work ethic, how he took care of patients, and that he took the time to explain the specialty to me. So, I elected to rotate in a hematology center and that was it – there was no going back. I was in love with the specialty.

I enjoyed that there was plenty of room for research in hematology. In Argentina, there are no physician-scientists, so I was stuck on the clinical side of hematology, with a passion for research but no way of pursuing it. The person who eventually drew me in the direction of basic science was Ari Melnick, MD. In 2003, Ari spoke at the Sociedad Argentina de Hematología (SAH) conference – the Argentinean equivalent of the American Society of Hematology annual meeting. After his talk, I spoke with him about my desire to do research and he said, “We always have a lot of projects in the lab and we’re always looking for talented people.”

We eventually had a more formal interview and he took a huge leap of faith in hiring me – an MD with minimal lab experience. It was a life-changing opportunity. Without his faith in me, I would still be back in Argentina seeing patients, which I enjoyed, but was not my true passion. Ari helped me become a scientist. He taught me how to think critically, read graphs, and even how to navigate politics and stay humble. He taught me how to keep going after failures, and to aim for more when you’re doing well.

In addition to a love of science and hematology, he also instilled in me a love of mentoring. I have an open-door policy with my mentees, just as Ari had with us. I want them to know I’m there to support them during difficult times and to celebrate their successes.

What is the best advice you ever received? What advice would you pass on to early-career hematologists/oncologists?

When I left the nest of Ari’s lab, I started my first independent position at the University of Michigan. I’d been recruited by Jay Hess, MD, PhD, who is now Dean of Indiana University and Medical School.

Like any scientist just starting at a new lab, all I could think was When am I going to get my first R01 grant? Why haven’t I gotten it yet? Jay gave me some reassuring advice: Don’t panic. Focus on high-quality science and everything else will fall into place.

It’s the same piece of advice I give the junior faculty I mentor now. In these hard times, they’re all worried about where their next grant is going to come from, or maybe they’re several years in and still haven’t gotten that big R01. I tell them, “You’re doing good, quality science, so the grants will come. Don’t let the system distract you. Stay the course and focus on the science.”

What are the best and worst parts of a typical day for you?

The worst is easy – administrative work. I love being a part of our growing cancer center, but it’s hard to enjoy the administrative burden that takes me away from research or my leadership role at Sylvester.

The best part of my day is when I get to sit down with my postdocs and students to brainstorm and review data. Even if they are bad data, meaning the results were not what we expected and tear down our hypotheses, it’s still fun. One of my requests when I start a new job is a huge whiteboard; I love drawing hypotheses and going back and forth with my talented trainees.

I tell [the junior faculty I mentor], “You’re doing good, quality science, so the grants will come. Don’t let the system distract you. Stay the course and focus on the science.”

Tell us about your life outside of medicine. What do you do in your off-hours?

My free time is split between the things I like to do and the things I must do. For example, I try to run frequently, but if you ask me if I’m a runner, I would say no.

My husband and I both love to travel. We usually go somewhere in the U.S. or Europe, rent a car, and plan some road trips. Spending time with friends and family is important to me, too. With the ongoing pandemic, I miss being able to see my friends and family. I can’t wait to get together with them and just give them a big hug.

Do you have any family living in Argentina?

Yes – my parents and siblings are all in Argentina. My sisters and brother have blessed me with seven nieces and nephews, and, with three more on my husband’s side, I have a total of 10 nieces and nephews back in Argentina whom I love to death.

What is one thing most people don’t know about you?

I bet you have never heard this one before: I was part of Her Majesty’s Coast Guard when I lived in the U.K. Community service was an important component of Atlantic College, so all students were enrolled in a service project, such as volunteering in a hospital or working on a recycling program. There also were three emergency services or rescue services that students could sign up for, one of which was the Coast Guard.

As student volunteers, we officially helped the Coast Guard. We were responsible for a stretch of the Welsh coast, which was mainly cliffs. People would frequently get cut off by the tide after walking down to an access point. An air raid alarm would sound when a rescue was needed, and, if we were on call, we dropped whatever we were doing (even if it was in the middle of English class) and run down to the seafront, get in our gear, climb down the cliffs, and rescue someone.

Dr. Figueroa in France’s Loire Valley.
Dr. Figueroa outside The Eagle pub in Cambridge, England, where Watson and Crick announced their discovery of the DNA double helix.