5 Questions with James Salazar

As a Texas BME undergraduate student, James Salazar (B.S. 2013) was an active participant in his education. Beyond engineering coursework, he volunteered with a number of student organizations, such as the Biomedical Outreach and Leadership Team (BOLT), and conducted research with Mia Markey in her Biomedical Informatics Lab and in various summer research programs.

His post-UT Austin career also reflects someone with a robust motivation to explore all facets of health care. He has earned both an MD and master’s in clinical research from the University of California San Francisco (UCSF).

UCSF has provided him with ample opportunities, including serving on the editorial team of JAMA Internal Medicine, a peer-reviewed medical journal published by the American Medical Association. Earlier this year, Salazar published a survey study of editors at 25 leading scientific and medical journals in JAMA Internal Medicine bringing to light the lack of diversity among editorial teams at these impactful journals. He stresses the importance of diversity in medicine and science in the pursuit of excellence in research innovation and patient care, and he took the time to answer questions about the subject and his career path.

What type of work have you been doing at UCSF?

After medical school, I completed my internal medicine residency, an NIH-sponsored clinical research fellowship, and am now completing a cardiology fellowship. In the future, I plan to further specialize within cardiology to focus on heart rhythm disorders (electrophysiology). Alongside my clinical training, I’ve continued my development as a researcher to investigate clinical problems and inform patient care. One area of interest has been sudden cardiac death, which are deaths due to a fatal arrhythmia (abnormal heart rhythm), and a leading cause of death worldwide. I have had the fortune of working with a unique autopsy cohort of patients that died suddenly in San Francisco. Using this cohort, we have shown that many sudden deaths presumed to be cardiac in origin are not actually due to arrhythmias. We’ve developed models to distinguish patients who actually die of an arrhythmia and might have benefitted from a cardioverter-defibrillator from those who die suddenly from non-cardiac causes, such as stroke.

What was your path to gaining an editorial position at JAMA Internal Medicine?

The editor-in-chief at JAMA Internal Medicine, Dr. Rita Redberg, is a cardiologist at UCSF. The journal started a fellowship program for selected residents to participate as junior editors over a 2-year appointment. In this role, I attended weekly manuscript meetings and participated in the review, development, and selection of manuscripts. It was a unique opportunity, early in my career, to have such an active role at a high-impact journal.

Have you always been interested in diversity?

From an early age I’ve known diversity matters. Austin and UT Austin are vibrant and diverse spaces – growing up in Austin, going to UT, and being Hispanic myself, I grew up thinking about diversity a lot.

I’ve been involved with and benefited from equity efforts along the way. My dad wanted to be a doctor but didn’t have the resources growing up as an immigrant from Mexico, making his way from poverty. I’m grateful for opportunities I’ve been given and have always wanted to give back. These instincts were further honed during a variety of undergrad experiences including my time as Jackie Robinson Foundation (JRF) Scholar. Jackie Robinson was a baseball player who broke the color barrier. As a JRF Scholar, I was flown to New York where the JRF provided brilliant career training and a strong foundation in the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

I didn’t know when I arrived at JAMA Internal Medicine that I would work on this paper. But, the question of diversity naturally came up. Diverse representation is necessary in all aspects of research and medicine. As my fellowship with the journal progressed, I knew I had to look at this subject, especially off the heels of the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and too many other Black people.

What are your future plans?

The cardiology fellowship is three years long, and I’m grateful to also be continuing my work with my mentor on the fatal arrhythmia research. I anticipate doing an electrophysiology fellowship and ultimately, hope to work in academic medicine, where I can teach trainees, treat patients, perform procedures such as putting in pacemakers or ablating portions of the heart to stop arrhythmias, and also pursue research.

If a student were interested in medical school or cardiology, what advice would you give?

Texas BME is a launchpad for so many career paths. One of the degree’s main strengths is flexibility. As an undergrad, I could never have imagined how my career was going to play out. I knew about cardiology from my physiology course, for instance, but I didn’t know about sudden cardiac death. By participating in the Biomedical Informatics Lab I developed problem solving skills and learned how to apply what I learned in the classroom to real-world problems, but I never would’ve thought I’d be doing autopsy research. You can’t predict what opportunities will inspire you, but BME training prepares you for any challenge that interests you. My main advice is to take advantage of all the flexibility the BME program affords – follow your passions, take on opportunities that push your comfort zone; things will work out in more incredible ways than you could have believed from the start.