Empowering Others: Spotlight on Dioscaris R. Garcia

April 30, 2024

Dioscaris Garcia
Dioscaris Garcia
Source: American Society for Microbiology
Dioscaris R. Garcia, Ph.D., encourages all scientists to remain connected to who they are and where they come from. “Staying grounded is about having strong roots, bound to who you are and what you bring,” Garcia said. Many of Garcia’s transitions throughout his academic journey presented him with unfamiliar landscapes—both geographically and academically. These changes led him to the world of microbiology and self-discovery, where he unearthed parallels between his heritage and scientific pursuits.  

For Garcia, an assistant professor of orthopedics (research) at Brown University, his STEM journey highlights the importance of mentorship and the profound impact of embracing one's intersectional identities. As a first-generation student navigating the complexities of academia, Garcia’s mentors provided him with guidance to navigate through uncharted territories and thrive in environments that initially felt unfamiliar to him. The guidance and reassurance that Garcia received from his own mentors is what he hopes to pass on to his present-day mentees. “Being a mentor, providing a safe space and pouring myself into my students really defines who I am and what I want my legacy to be,” he said. 

Garcia's connection with microbiology traces back to his early childhood in the Dominican Republic. At 8 years old, while his parents immigrated to the U.S., Garcia remained in the Dominican Republic with his grandparents, who cared for him and his younger sibling. His grandparents shared their knowledge about soils, plants and the intricate harmony of natural products. “My maternal grandmother taught me about what soils are best for growing crops and which plants to avoid. I did not know it at the time, but I was turning myself into a natural products chemist and an environmental biologist,” Garcia recalled. 

After a few years with his grandparents in the Dominican Republic, 11-year-old Garcia and his 9-year-old sibling joined their parents in New York City. Soon after, the family moved to Rhode Island.  

Garcia attended Central Falls High School and subsequently earned admission to the University of Rhode Island (URI). “When I arrived in the U.S., I went from studying in a 1-room schoolhouse in the Dominican Republic to a college campus as large as my hometown. Until I stepped foot onto a college campus, I had no idea what microbiology was,” he said. “As a matter of fact, becoming a microbiologist was almost accidental.” To fund his undergraduate education, Garcia pursued and obtained a scholarship from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which made it possible for him to attend college. Under the leadership of Kimberly Anderson and Deborah Grossman-Garber, the program offered financial support to students studying in “up and coming, high-demand careers, one of which was biotechnology.” 

Through this program, based in URI’s microbiology department, Garcia was introduced to the microbial sciences. He met David Rowley, Ph.D., who would become one of the most influential individuals in Garcia’s career. “English is not my first language, and here I am trying to accelerate into the scientific world. Individuals like Rowley saw something in me that I was not seeing in myself. And I eventually published my first paper with Rowley,” he said. Under Rowley’s leadership, Garcia studied natural chemistry, extracting antibiotics from natural sources. Rowley’s research focused on the discovery and characterization of novel secondary bioactive metabolites from saprophytic marine bacteria.  

Garcia describes Rowley as a “down-to-earth” individual who was “open with [his students].” Rowley’s personality and eagerness to mentor made him “such a special faculty member.” 

“His hands-on teaching style exposed us to harvesting, growing and purifying marine bacteria with the purpose of discovering new antibiotics. I [fell] in love with that world because I recognized this as what my grandma was teaching me as a child.” After completing his B.S. in microbiology, Garcia took a gap year working at Amgen, where he focused on the process development and purification of a drug called Enbrel, which is used to treat various disorders and diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis and plaque psoriasis. His experience and enjoyment of the industrial environment cemented his decision to study pharmacology, which provided Garcia with a broad knowledge of the discovery, purification and production of natural products.   

Garcia credits Rowley and Grossman-Garber with “pushing [him] to apply to Brown University” for graduate school. At Brown, Garcia pursued his Ph.D. under Wayne Bowen, Ph.D., in the department of molecular pharmacology, physiology and biotechnology. “[Bowen] took me under his wing. At the time, [he] was the only Black professor in his department. He provided insight into systems that I did not know,” Garcia said. Bowen and other mentors helped Garcia navigate the spaces and systems that he said were completely new to him. "Although I spent my entire adolescence in Rhode Island, I did not know Brown University existed until my junior year of college.” This experience allowed Garcia to shape his mentorship style and begin mentoring Brown University students.  

Upon completing his Ph.D., Garcia joined the department of orthopedics and worked alongside Christopher Born, M.D. “I have been at Brown ever since,” he said. Garcia credits Born with being the capstone of his training by incorporating clinical training into his drug discovery and production career path. “Born was just starting the Diane N. Weiss Center for Orthopaedic Trauma Research when I joined his lab. He allowed me to bring the totality of my experience into a lab,” Garcia said. His work would later focus on developing novel diagnostics and therapeutics within the context of orthopaedic infections. It was at the Weiss Center that Garcia and Born trained more than 100 doctors of several demographics with a near-zero attrition rate from its inception. “The Weiss Center is where I found my identity and solidified what I want as my legacy.” 

Garcia shares that his experience would not be complete without the Office of Belonging, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (OBEDI), where he serves as the Director of the Center for Student Belonging and Assistant Dean of Diversity at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University. “It is at OBEDI where I found my perch and my people after nearly 2 decades at Brown. OBEDI gave me empowerment and belonging in a way that I had never felt before. I finally felt seen,” he said.  

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Garcia knew he wanted to help his community navigate this public health crisis. “I understood my community that I grew up with—low-income, first generation people starting their lives—because I was, and still am, from this community,” he said.  

When the pandemic hit the U.S., Garcia utilized his breadth of microbiological knowledge alongside his lived experiences. While maintaining his academic duties, Garcia also served as an expert trainer to community leaders and advisor to elected officials in Rhode Island. “I ran vaccination clinics, translated complex and dynamic information to community-level language, advised on culturally based communication strategies and a myriad of other initiatives that helped Rhode Island become one of the national leaders in the COVID-19 mitigation efforts, and I became one of the most trusted figures in the state,” he said. For his efforts, Garcia has been recognized with dozens of municipal, state and congressional accolades as one of the heroes of the pandemic.  

“I was a vessel to communicate knowledge to my fellow community members, but knowing findings and developments meant very little if I was not able to translate it to others in my community,” Garcia explained. “I recall seeing the social media campaigns for a community that did not use social media, but I knew that the corner bodegas, affordable markets and places of congregation were primary sources of information exchange.” Garcia leveraged his community visibility and networks to ensure scientific information was translated to understandable language, which was buttressed by the community’s trust in him. “After all, I was one of them, and still lived in the same community,” he added. 

Currently, Garcia serves in various roles at Lifespan and the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University. His research focuses on the identification, characterization and development of next-gen diagnostics and therapeutics to combat the post-antibiotic age in orthopedics. His laboratory continues to mentor and serve as a pathway for historically excluded groups (HEGs) in STEM. His latest initiatives revolve around the Department of Orthopaedic Research Summer Academic Leadership Program (DORSAL), which funds high school students from under-resourced environments to conduct a paid 10-week internship at Brown University, and the EMBRaCE: Empowering Minoritized Biomedical Researchers through Community Engagement Initiative through OBEDI, which aims to magnify the knowledge of community providers to inform clinical research and support junior faculty conducting community level health research. Garcia encourages future and early-career scientists from HEGs to “recognize who you are as an individual person and [know] that you already have what you need to be successful.” 

Reflecting on his own tenure in STEM, Garcia underscores the importance of mentorship, urging early-career scientists from historically excluded communities to seek guidance and expand their networks. He emphasizes the pivotal role mentors played in helping him unlock new possibilities and believes in paying it forward by being a guiding light for aspiring scientists. “Mentors like Patricia Poitevien, Joseph Diaz and Dean Mukesh Jain are pillars of my foundation and identity,” he said. “These individuals gave me the freedom to allow me to bring my true self to the environments that I occupy. I finally feel whole.” 

Garcia envisions a future where belonging is not a distant dream but a natural state of existence. “For the longest time, I refused to label myself. I thought that if I did not label myself with race then the issues would not affect me,” he said. Now, Garcia embraces his multifaceted identity—a Black man, a Latino, a person of faith, a husband, a father and a proud Rhode Islander. Garcia now understands that his intersectional identity serves as a bridge, allowing Garcia to connect with diverse communities and make the careers and knowledge within the intricate concepts of science accessible and relatable. 

Garcia's legacy isn't merely about scientific achievements; it's about becoming a beacon of hope, an advocate for inclusivity and a testament to the transformative power of mentorship. He advocates for fostering inclusive environments where every individual's voice is not just heard, but also cherished. Garcia strives to be that nurturing soil where others can root themselves for growth and empowerment. 

Author: Shannon Vassell

Shannon Vassell
Shannon Vassell is the Senior Program Officer for IDEAA at ASM.