One Scientist’s Journey: An Interview with INVEST Fellow Dr. Silvia Cruz

Silvia Cruz, Ph.D.
Dr. Silvia Cruz

Silvia Cruz, Ph.D., is an international expert on the neurobiology of addiction who was a 1996-1997 NIDA INVEST Fellow at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) with Robert Balster, Ph.D. In 2010, she spent a year as an invited researcher at Mexico’s Ramón de la Fuente Muñiz National Institute of Psychiatry, where she focused on epidemiology, anthropology, and sociology. Dr. Cruz is currently a full professor at Mexico’s Center of Research and Advanced Studies of the National Polytechnic Institute (Cinvestav), where she previously served as graduate program coordinator and chair of the Department of Pharmacobiology. This interview is based on her webinar for the International Society of Addiction Medicine (ISAM) Neuroscience Interest Group series, “In Love with Addiction Neuroscience.”

How did you decide to become a neuroscientist?

My father was a physician and I enjoyed looking at artistic brain drawings in his old anatomy books. When I first learned about neuronal excitation, cardiac pacemaker cells, and neurotransmission, I thought, “This is the essence of life and I want to know more about it.” My first job, when I was 20, was as an assistant professor teaching biophysics at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. I met some researchers among my teachers who were trained neuroscientists. They advised me to pursue graduate studies in physiology. I checked several curricula and decided to study neuropharmacology.

You were the last student of Julian Villarreal, who earlier mentored NIDA Director Dr. Nora Volkow. How did this coincidence influence your career?

It is an honor to have been Julian Villarreal’s student. He was intelligent, kind, and creative. Having informal discussions with him was truly enjoyable. At that time, I hardly noticed that he was always acting as a mentor, whether we were talking about animals, computer programming, opera, or the infinite number series. Nora took full advantage of his mentorship and she has unique skills that make her an outstanding researcher. Later, I had the opportunity to meet her and we realized that we had some ideas in common regarding opioid effects, despite having different personal histories. We became friends and keep in touch. She has always been very supportive and a generous researcher to me and my fellow Mexican researchers. 

What are some of the highlights of your research findings?

I particularly enjoyed developing a theoretical framework to understand the abstinence response to opioids, finding a molecular mechanism of toluene’s action, understanding opioid-opioid interactions to potentiate analgesic effects and delay tolerance development to morphine, studying neuroinflammatory effects of abused drugs, and complementing molecular and behavioral approaches in my research.

Why did you decide to investigate the action of inhalants?

It was Julian’s idea. He told me that I should study inhalants because solvent misuse was an important health problem in Mexico. Neuroscientists knew little about solvent effects, and we, as people interested in drugs of abuse, should pay attention to this topic. I began reading and was surprised to learn that inhalants were such a diverse group of drugs and that so little was known about their cellular and molecular actions. I then heard about Bob Balster’s work, read his papers, and got in touch with him.

How did you learn about the NIDA INVEST Fellowship?

I visited Bob’s lab at the Medical College of Virginia, VCU. He introduced me to John Woodward, an expert in studying alcohol effects, and we discussed the possibility of studying inhalants using the same experimental approaches to study ethanol. Bob told me about the NIDA INVEST Fellowship as a program that could support researchers to spend a year doing work with a NIDA grantee, and I thought it was an excellent opportunity.

How did the INVEST Fellowship advance your career?

It allowed me to spend a year working with, and learning from, two excellent mentors, learning new techniques, and building strong research networks that have been a great support throughout my career. I am deeply grateful for this.

How was it difficult to transition back to Mexico after your INVEST Fellowship?

Changes can be difficult. I missed my country when I was abroad and missed the United States when I came back to Mexico. The most difficult part was getting funds to buy the equipment that I needed to apply the techniques learned in John Woodward’s lab. Bob gave me an exposure chamber to continue the study of behavioral effects of inhalants, and that’s what I did.

What role did the NIDA International Forum play in your research?

It’s an excellent opportunity to keep in touch with researchers from different parts of the world, to have rapid updates on important issues concerning drug use trends, and to be part of a supportive group for life. 

What qualities should scientists look for in a mentor?

Based on the human and academic qualities of my own mentors, I would recommend being sound from the academic point of view, generous, kind, and respectful of individual differences and interests. 

What advice do you have for young investigators?

Each pathway is unique. Be passionate, work hard, find your own way, and keep a balanced and productive life. Make sure you enjoy what you do. Keep learning and keep teaching. Both activities are highly rewarding.