Next Generation is a Brigham Clinical & Research News column penned by students, residents, fellows and postdocs. If you are a Brigham trainee interested in contributing a column, email us. This month’s column is written by Isabel H. Gonzalez-Bocco, MD, a postdoctoral research fellow in the  Division of Infectious Disease.

Isabel H. Gonzalez-Bocco

I have never forgotten where I came from, nor did my mentor, the late Francisco Marty, MD. We both called Caracas, Venezuela, our hometown – it’s where we grew up and trained to become physicians — and it’s a community we vowed to support no matter where our careers in health care brought us.

Caracas, the capital of Venezuela, is regarded as a special place for numerous reasons, including its scenic beauty, the warmth of its people, and the consistent 70-degree weather throughout the year. Sadly, that reputation is currently overshadowed by its economic, political and social instability. In 2016, I was starting my third year of medical school when a “humanitarian health crisis” was declared in my country. The leading hospitals in Caracas lacked the resources to draw samples and the lab materials to process them. The only hospitals in the area had a limited and unstable supply of medicines and personnel shortages. Our patients required a resourceful physician and a strong support system to overcome a hospital admission. Getting ahead of complications and finding practical solutions to sterilize “disposable medical materials” for reuse was part of our everyday work. I knew that diagnosing a patient came with an economic burden that could push a patient to choose between a meal or medicine.

As physicians, we aim to help those suffering, but working in a fractured health care system was incredibly difficult and frustrating. These feelings motivated me to work with several non-profits, with whom I organized events to collect medical supplies and checkups for people in neglected communities. While this felt much better than everyday practice at the hospital, the idea of a temporary solution to help people made me feel like we were placing a band-aid on a hemorrhage. I noticed many of the acute diseases we were diagnosing were preventable if only these communities had the basis of a stronger education program.

In 2019, I co-founded the non-profit organization E-VEN Project (Education Venezuela) with three of my colleagues from medical school. We aim to encourage social, cultural and economic development in remote communities of Venezuela with high tourism index using English to reduce the communication barrier with tourists. Since we started, we have developed two, demographically-adapted syllabi for two communities; trained more than 90 volunteers on children’s psychology, group management, tourism and sustainability; and we currently have more than 350 students ranging in age from 7–60. We are motivated by reducing education inequities and increasing economic independence because we firmly believe that where you were born should not limit your opportunities in life. Moreover, we have invested our time and effort in education as it builds the foundation for individual and community growth.

Advancing Health Equity

Gonzalez-Bocco and Franciso Marty

After getting the non-profit off the ground, I wanted to focus next on improving my education before pursuing a residency program. Knowing of Dr. Marty, I contacted him about the possibility of working as a research fellow on his team. Dr. Marty, who worked in the Division of Infectious Diseases at the Brigham, led several new investigational drugs clinical trials in invasive fungal infections, COVID-19, and more for the immunocompromised population.

It was inspiring to work with Dr. Marty for many reasons, including his academic rigor, detailed physical examination, clinical descriptions and creativity in developing research questions. But what really set him apart was his kindness — or how I described it — that Venezuelan warmth.

During my first few months in Boston, I remember asking Dr. Marty where he got the energy from to simultaneously be involved in so many projects. He explained that he got it from remembering where he came from, who trained him and his community. His research at the Brigham allowed him to extend patient care to people worldwide. Ultimately, the goal was for his research to have a beneficial ripple effect that reached places like Caracas. That was the first time I saw a research career as a way to connect my passion for humanitarian work with medicine. This inspired me to apply for a Master’s in clinical epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. After I graduate later this spring, I will continue preparing for my training as a physician-scientist in medical oncology. I will think of my mentor as I aim for my work to translate into worldwide health care advances.

The experiences I have gained by serving as the chief executive officer of E-VEN and volunteering in health care-related non-profits have pushed me to be creative and practice systematic thinking. These qualities are quite valuable for research design and implementation. Moreover, my humanitarian work allowed me to fall in love with public service. But it was working at the Brigham that helped me understand there are many ways to connect social work, research and health care. All primary investigators in my department have research projects tailored to their goals, some in global health and others in basic science. I am confident that soon, as a clinical fellow, I will be able to connect these life spheres into one united work that will improve my patients’ lives.