I wanted to be a singer...

by Hazel Guerrero

Published Nov. 13, 2018, last updated Dec. 2, 2018, 10:17 p.m.

Nicaragua circa 1995, it was a rainy day and I was having the best talk with my mother. She asked me “Hazelita, what is your dream? What do you want to be when you get older”? This is a hard-working woman with a low income whose motto was “Health and education come first, fashion and anything else second”. Can you imagine her shock when I said, “I want to be a singer like Shakira” ? Exactly…

Nicaragua is the poorest country in central America. Regardless of education and health being free, resources are limited. The public education system covers basic knowledge but could not afford to include a heavy science component or even have enough teachers for the number of students. As a child in Nicaragua, being a scientist, explorer or any “exotic” career didn’t seem like attainable goals.

So, it was no surprise that her answer to my star dreams were “Oh honey but you can’t sing, now let’s think about a real thing”. That might sound rough, but I always loved her honesty, and in a developing country you cannot afford to live from a gift you don’t possess (also, I most definitely cannot sing!).

Breaking the barrier for science in Nicaragua

Fast forward to college, I was lucky enough to be accepted for Medical school at UNAN, Managua, the biggest public medical school in the country (yey mom!). The faculty was demanding and full of talented professors and students. I was recruited by my mentors to do research, so we started with just a small qualitative research about HIV and from there we did different projects. Sadly, without that opportunity I would have never followed a research path.

2008, Faculty of Medicine, UNAN Managua. From left to right: me, my mentor Dr. Clara Gonzalez and an Ascaris lumbricoides (a parasite).

The university really tries to encourage research, but resources are limited, and we didn’t have many labs, no state-of-the-art equipment and no funding. Very few departments had ongoing projects that had funding from outside the university. It wasn’t due to a lack of amazing ideas or protocols, it is just the “perks” of living in a developing country that speaks Spanish and doesn’t have a reputation in science.

Nowadays, the programs have improved with subjects like molecular biology, Immunogenetics, and more students and teachers speak English which is the universal science language, especially for funding.

I never said no to the opportunities in front of me, and that philosophy took me from medical school to exchange programs in Japan, Mexico and Canada. Most recently, I finished my Masters in Immunology at Imperial College in London, something I thought could only be done in movies.

London, 2016. Chevening Scholarship Farewell Event. From left to right: Mario Rivas, me, Maria Asunción Castillo and Sebastián Martínez. Scholars from Nicaragua. We were awarded the Chevening scholarship to do a one-year master's degree in the UK.

Why is translation of medicine important in a developing country?

In summary, after sacrificing a promising career as a singer I ended up in the health field (yeah, right!). Being in the hospital taught me the challenges we face in Nicaragua. Most of the time I would draw blood with just a syringe as well as doing 33-hour shifts every 3 days due to lack of personnel. And my experience was easy compared with those who go to the rural areas with even less resources.

Sometimes I would work as a manual respiratory support for critical patients. I remember doing this for a 75-year old man at 3 a.m. In that moment I observed once more the vulnerability of our lives. The whole time I was wondering, “how many of these patients survive compared to having a respiratory support machine? What can we do to improve this technique?”. Perhaps other countries have similar experiences and other places have enough nurses and machines to never have to do that. Nicaraguan doctors are always asking these questions, but not always publishing. That’s why a platform like BRIGHT International is so important. We are in the process of connecting healthcare communities and researchers throughout the world. By understanding the individual circumstances of our health systems and their research we can translate that to applications that can save lives.

Hazel is a Medical Doctor and recently completed a master's degree in Immunology at Imperial College through the Chevening Scholarship Program.