José Javier Otero, MD, PhD

Trailblazing Men

ASIP Highlights Session:
I Am An ASIP Member and This Is My Science

  • Experimental Biology 2019 – Orlando FL

José Javier Otero, MD, PhD

Assistant Professor
Director of Neuropathology
Department of Pathology
The Ohio State University College of Medicine, Columbus OH

I grew up in Kenner, a suburb of New Orleans, LA. My parents immigrated to the US in the late 1960’s to New Orleans due to its large Central American community. My father was an old-style community practice physician who suffered from a debilitating alcohol addiction problem. Ultimately, his disease led him to losing his license, his clinic, and the unfortunate fracturing of our family. I was a mediocre student as a child, constantly getting C’s and D’s, and occasional F’s, and was even expelled from Catholic school in the 7th grade. After the banks collected on our family’s debts by taking our home, furniture, car, and nearly all other useful belongings, we ended up transitioning to public housing. At that time, I did not handle this transition well, was a flunking student at Brother Martin High School in New Orleans, and within a year, at the age of 14, I had run away from my home.

I first drifted to New York City, and ultimately ended up living with a distant uncle of mine in Allentown, Pennsylvania. During my high school years, I experienced food insecurity, abuse, knew several drug pushers and users, but also met relentlessly hard-working individuals. Although I do not wish these experiences on anyone, having transitioned through this period in my life taught me several lessons with regards to endurance, integrity, grit, and purpose that have been very important for me to overcome both personal and professional challenges in my life. Eventually, I reunited with my mother, and we moved with a suit case to South Florida to start our lives over again. We rented a small studio apartment, and shared everything. University of Miami gave me a need-based scholarship, and I was determined to not to waste my opportunity for an education. I focused my energy on changing my circumstances, knowing very well that in my family’s financial reality I would have only one shot to proceed with medical and graduate school. During College, I fell in love with the life sciences through experiences as an undergraduate research federal work-study intern at U Miami, and decided to pursue a dual M.D., Ph.D. degree. Unfortunately, although I had done my best, after College I was admitted to only one M.D. program at Albert Einstein College of Medicine (AECOM) without matriculation into AECOM’s medical scientist training program (MSTP). Once at AECOM, I tried diligently to pursue a career in research, and I applied to AECOM’s MSTP program and the HHMI medical student program. Although AECOM’s MSTP director told me that she felt that I didn’t have the attributes to succeed in their MSTP program, or in research in general, I continued with my efforts until I was admitted to the HHMI’s medical student scholars program. 

During this HHMI year at AECOM, my mentor Dr. Jack Kessler became the Department Chair of Neurology at Northwestern University, and asked me to come with him to do a Ph.D. at Northwestern. Through Jack’s support, I enrolled in Northwestern’s MSTP program. Following my MD/PhD degree at Northwestern, I enrolled into the Anatomic Pathology/Neuropathology training program at University of California, San Francisco, after which I stayed on as a post-doctoral fellow in the laboratory of David Rowitch, a world-renowned neonatologist and developmental neurobiologist. 

Although the science in David’s lab was incredibly exciting, the 2008 financial crisis was in full swing, placing significant strain on UCSF’s resources, and I was not able to find a place on faculty. I was faced with the choice of exiting the post-doctoral fellowship early to start my lab with only one “low-impact” paper under my belt, or to stay on at UCSF in full soft-money, non-faculty line position unable to write my own grants without any career guarantees. I opted to transition to Ohio State and start a lab on a shoe-string budget, and mentor was very supportive of that decision. After 4 years, we were able to obtain major NIH funding, and I was recently awarded tenure at Ohio State. Because of these experiences, I have had a significant insight and rapport with trainees at all career levels, and I have come to significantly enjoy the opportunity to mentor trainees in biomedical science. My wife Catherine, who is also a professional scientist, and I have four children: Diego, Monica, Aaron, and David. I am an ASIP member, and this is how I did science.