A patient meets heart pioneers

Donna Marie Robinson visits Sanford Burnham Prebys to meet four early-career scientists—all recipients of American Heart Association fellowships
From left: Katja Birker, Clara Guida, Ph.D., Donna Marie Robinson, Chiara Nicoletti, Ph.D., and Ee Phie Tan, Ph.D.

“I may have heart failure, but heart failure doesn’t have me,” says Donna Marie Robinson. “I’m here today because of advances in biomedical research that led to excellent medical care and medicines that saved—and continue to save—my life.”

Robinson, a former Bank of America executive, was in peak fitness when she passed out on vacation in the south of France. When she returned to the U.S., she was diagnosed with heart failure, a condition that affects about five million Americans every year. Although genetics can influence the risk for heart conditions in many ways, Robinson was unsuspecting.

“It came as quite a shock to hear the diagnosis ‘heart failure,’ but I’m learning to live with it,” says Robinson. “Instead of high-intensity spinning classes, I now practice yoga to keep my body and mind in shape.”

On a recent visit to our campus, Robinson met with Katja Birker, Clara Guida, Ph.D., Chiara Nicoletti, Ph.D., and Ee Phie Tan, Ph.D., all recipients of American Heart Association fellowships for early-career scientists. Over a lunch of healthy salads, they described how their research might one day improve the care of patients with heart disease.


Birker, a graduate student, is studying genes that could contribute to hypoplastic left heart syndrome—a condition that affects roughly two to four of every 10,000 babies. Guida, a postdoc, is studying the inheritance of epigenetic marks in fruit flies fed a high-fat diet that causes heart problems in offspring. Nicoletti, a postdoc, is studying the genetics of metabolic changes in skeletal muscle that lead to heart disease. And Tan, also a postdoc, is looking at the cell networks that govern lipophagy—a process that can contribute to toxic fat deposits and heart disease when gone awry.

“It was so interesting to see how they use worms and fruit flies as research tools to study the genes that affect heart function and how the heart ages over time,” says Robinson. “It’s an eye-opener to see first- hand how scientists work, and then realize this is where medical breakthroughs begin.

“But the best part was seeing how passionate these women are about their research. It’s women like these who will create the paths that lead to better medicine for heart patients—like me.”

gradient heart with ekg

The American Heart Association (AHA) supports early-career scientists with passion, commitment and focus. Fellowships help finance projects that will help people live healthier lives, free of cardiovascular disease and stroke.