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Finding Your Soulmate: ​Drs. Sealy and Heather Hambright

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Author: MaryAnn Hobbs | Category: GSBS Alumni | Meet The Researcher | Cancer Biology | August 08, 2017

Drs. Sealy and Heather Hambright are two recent graduates from The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio that have accepted postdoctoral positions in Houston. Although they came to San Antonio only to complete doctoral degrees, they left with much more than they could’ve imagined.

Sealy is from East Texas, and went to The University of Texas at Tyler to pursue his bachelor’s degree in biology, with a minor in chemistry. He then stayed in the UT system and went to get a master’s degree at The University of Texas at Arlington in microbiology.

Heather is originally from San Antonio where she started her pursuit of science at Health Careers high school, just down the road from UT Health San Antonio. In 2004, she chased her dream to UT Austin, where she ran track and cross country, completing her Bachelor of Arts in geography and biology in 2007. After graduating, she accepted a position as a research assistant at UT Health San Antonio for three years.

After completing their undergraduate studies and getting a small taste of the world of science, both Heather and Sealy landed upon the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences here at UT Health San Antonio due to the translational opportunities offered, and the strong bonds in and between departmental programs.

“I knew about the translational opportunities at the Health Science Center because I went to high school less than a mile from it. The exceptional faculty, resources, funding, and fellowship opportunities are all abundant resources here and are what brought me back,” Heather said.

Sealy added, “Getting to shadow and speak with clinicians while doing lab research adds so much meaning to my work, and it was really unique to the environment here at the Health Science Center.”

At UT Health San Antonio, Sealy studied in the Biology of Aging discipline and Heather studied Cancer Biology both in the department of Cellular and Structural Biology under the umbrella of the Integrated Multidisciplinary Graduate Program.

Sealy landed on the Biology of Aging discipline specifically because of the innovative ways a myriad of different diseases can be researched alongside the developmental changes caused by aging.

“Ultimately, we are trying to understand the process of aging, so we can try to reverse it, or create therapies,” Sealy explained.

For Heather, cancer had been interesting to her from the beginning, “Research with melanoma is particularly exciting because it’s been called the poster child for targeted and immunotherapies,” she said. Immunotherapy stimulates your body’s own immune system to work towards eradicating the problem. “During my Ph.D. I was mostly trying to determine structural, mechanistic, and signaling differences between melanoma tumor cells and melanocytes. I had a special focus on the redox biology aspect of the research,” explained Heather.

Both Heather and Sealy gained so much from their time here in San Antonio. Sealy found the thing that most surprised him was the usefulness of being pulled out of the lab away from his experiments.

“Ultimately the meetings, workshops and other outings of the scientific community helped me meet other students and even already established scientists. It really helps when you can talk to other people in your field. A lot of times someone else has struggled with something similar and can help you with your experiment or research,” said Sealy.

For Heather finding that she had a desire to get married was the most surprising thing that came out of her time here. “I had never really wanted to get married, and especially have kids, and it was a surprise to me that I found someone that I loved so much I couldn’t help but want those things,” she said.

Heather went on to tell how their relationship came about: “Sealy and I were in the same friend group because we started the program at the same time. It’s a small program so we all knew each other from the beginning.” A year later in 2012, Heather adds “We decided to start dating after finishing our first year in the program, then a month later we were engaged. By September 2012, we were getting married in Saint Thomas—I know it’s cliché but when you know, you know!” Heather said.

“I know it sounds crazy,” Sealy added; “And probably even crazier that we had our kids in graduate school on purpose.” Liam, their first son was born in June 2014, and his little brother Maksim was born in October of the following year. “It’s so funny how different they are, Maks looks like me but favors his dad’s strong personality,” Heather said; “Liam is our quiet, sweet but looks just like Sealy.”

It was a hard decision for the Hambrights to decide it was the right time for them to have children. “Just like any parent will tell you, there is no perfect time to have kids,” said Sealy; “It helped that Heather’s family lived here.”

With the support of Heather’s family, and both their mentors, Dr. Ran for Sealy and Dr. Ghosh for Heather, they knew that this was environment they wanted to bring their children into.

Now, Heather is taking her skills and applying them at MD Anderson in Houston, continuing her study of melanoma in the lab of Elizabeth Grimm, a pioneer in the field of melanoma and immunotherapy.

“I am so excited to be mentored by Dr. Grimm in this new environment, and have many opportunities including weekly Melanoma Medical Oncology Grand Rounds, where I get to learn about groundbreaking science going on here at the institution and around the world,” Heather said about her new position- “I believe the creative freedom and scientific guidance Dr. Ghosh gave me as a graduate student resulted in this skillset that made me a prime candidate for this postdoctoral fellowship, but I think specifically my redox biology background will bring an exciting and complementary perspective to the lab here since Dr. Grimm’s research focus involves tumoral inflammation and role of nitric oxide in melanoma,” said Heather.

Sealy was drawn to the Health Science Center in Houston because of the contemporary and innovative experiments happening everyday, especially in his new home lab. “One of the cooler studies that this lab follows—like few others around the world—is called parabiosis,” said Sealy.

Parabiosis is when two organisms, usually mice, are joined together at the side, joining their circulatory systems, so that they are sharing the same blood. “One of the mice is younger and one is older, and within weeks the older mouse starts exhibiting healthier trends. The mouse’s tissues are healthier, the fur is shinier, and the energy level is decreased,” explained Sealy.

“There’s so much going on here, it’s like coming to Manhattan, it’s the biggest Health Science Center in the world, and they already have a few phase three clinical trials going on,” explained Sealy. Like Heather, Sealy is most looking forward to the translational opportunities being so closely connected with clinical trials can bring.

Heather hopes that her NIH-funded postdoctoral fellowship will teach her a lot of useful tools that she can take with her on her path through academia, where she intends to stay as an independent scientist. Sealy, on the other hand, is keeping his options open and hopes this new position teaches him valuable techniques that he can bring with him to any science related career that he may have in the future.

While not sure exactly where his love for biology will take him, Sealy did say, “I think it would be really awesome to get to work with a small biotech start-up, from the beginning. Getting to support a company I truly believe in and help shape it into treatment options from the bench to clinics seems really exciting.”

When they aren’t at the bench the Hambright family likes to stay active by going to parks or working out. Heather has been into mountain biking for years, and when Sealy and Heather were in the same friend group, she got him into biking too. “I really just got a bike to chase her around,” Sealy added, “but I also enjoy rock climbing and working out when I can.”

Since having kids the two did admit that they haven’t had time to keep up the more high-maintenance hobbies, but both stressed how important their independence is to keeping their sanity. “I love to watch Ted Talks and Youtube,” said Heather, “I love Steve Jobs’ commencement speech at Stanford, sometimes its gets me through when I’m having a particularly hard time.”

As one might expect, the Hambright family has been asked for advice on how they became leading scientists and started a family at the same time and still seem so happy. Heather has written an article “Ten Tips from a Scientist Mom” where she gives her collection of family advice; but she made sure to stress a few of the things she thought were really important.

“I definitely think that taking time for yourself is the most important thing you can do. Your happiness affects every aspect of your life,” said Heather. She also added, “Definitely I think everyone should try to marry someone smarter than them, I’m never bored with Sealy.”

Sealy agreed that separate hobbies are essential when you raise a family together and are involved in the same things. But Sealy wanted to give some advice for current Ph.D. students; “I just really want people to know that they can do it. Hang in there! All the data comes in the last two years anyway.”

He added for prospective students, “You shouldn’t start your Ph.D. unless you are sure about it, and you shouldn’t get one at all unless you can learn from failure. If I had to erase all my greatest successes or all my greatest failures I would keep the failures because they taught me the most.”

Heather and Sealy couldn’t mention enough how many people supported them throughout their time here. “I remember thinking, I could fill up this entire acknowledgements slide with names,” said Sealy. Knowing that they will be supported through this transitional time, and having already conquered so much, the Hambrights are optimistic about the new challenges they may face in a new city with a new job.

Thankful for all the encouragement they received while attending school here, both Drs. Sealy and Heather Hambright continue to make us proud by striving to be leading scientists and continually seeking out new things to learn. Good luck in these new endeavors Hambright Family! 

About the Author 

MaryAnn is currently a research assistant in the Cellular and Integrative Physiology department, with hopes of attending a Biochemistry and Structural Biology graduate program in fall 2018.

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