Meet Our People – KA Aguilar, Rennie Burke, & Byron Ford

KA Aguilar, Rennie Burke and Byron Ford.

All stories by Paulina Laroya

KA Aguilar

KA Aguilar

KA Aguilar and her tricked-out, customized hearse.

If you were to ask for “Kathleen Ann” in the second floor offices of the School of Medicine Education Building, you probably wouldn’t receive any response. That’s because LACE Coordinator KA Aguilar always felt her given name was “a wee bit too Irish for me.”

KA (pronounced kay, no periods) joined the UCR School of Medicine in March 2016 as the School of Medicine’s coordinator of the Longitudinal Ambulatory Care Experience (LACE) program, a required and graded component of the School of Medicine’s curriculum. In this role, Aguilar is a vital part of the team that helps medical students gain experience in clinical settings.

“My favorite part of the job is connecting students with a LACE experience that allows them to grow and bond with their preceptors,” Aguilar said. “I really enjoy interacting with the medical students as well as the doctors in our community. It is quite exciting to watch the growth of the School of Medicine.”

Born and raised on the east coast, Aguilar moved west as a young adult and earned a degree in human resources from Colorado State. And while she has lived in the west for many years, she admits that she still struggles to shake her “east coast roots,” which includes a closet full of wool and cashmere.

Another passion for Aguilar is customized classic cars, something she picked up in her childhood from her uncle.

Over the years she has owned a series of vehicles that would make a classic car enthusiast swoon, including a 1964 Ford Country Squire Wagon, a 1964 Galaxie 500 XL 390, a 1965 Chevy Impala SS 396, and a 1973 Chrysler Town and Country Wagon. Now days, she turns heads by occasionally driving her customized black hearse with flame-shaped subwoofers.

“I am the weirdo 11 months of the year and the cool person during the month of October,” Aguilar said of her car. “I was never afraid to stand out; I was always afraid to be the same as everyone else. Diversity has its strengths.”

Aguilar said that she enjoys helping students find their paths to academic success. Before coming to UCR she was the director of career services at Summit College in Colton, where she helped students find the tools and support they need to take the next step in their careers.

But despite the similarities on the surface, she found that she had much to learn about her new position at the School of Medicine.

“There is a lot of acronym usage at the School of Medicine, which is why I had to completely overhaul my vocabulary,” she said. “The position is also very complex with a lot of moving parts. I had to become an expert at juggling as well as time management. Learning the position was like drinking from a fire hose. I just had to manage the process and prioritize my daily tasks until I understood the necessity of the tasks at hand.”

But what really stands out to Aguilar about her position at the School of Medicine is the atmosphere that the individuals around her create.

“The student body, as well as the employees, are a very intelligent bunch; working with this caliber of individuals makes me feel as though I have a very privileged position.”

Rennie Burke

Rennie Burke

Rennie Burke

“I dream of a world where people can be exactly who they want to be, where doctors can have green Mohawks or wear jodhpurs to work, and no one bats an eye.”

This is only one of Rennie Burke’s many dreams, and a very unique one at that – in fact just as unique as the educational journey he embarked up on that eventually led him to the UC Riverside School of Medicine.

Born in Japan and raised, briefly, in New York City, Burke’s family eventually settled in Hemet, California. While he calls Hemet his hometown, he admits to having a “complicated relationship” with it.

“Growing up in Hemet, I saw just about every addiction under the sun affect my friends and family,” he said, adding that it was these experiences that ultimately led him to choose to become a doctor. “I hope in my future medical career I can help change not just how doctors treat addiction, but how all society’s institutions treat addiction, from courts of law to the court of public opinion.”

“For me, delivering care to people is a matter of justice, of righting a particular wrong in how we’ve chosen to organize our resources as a society,” he added.

Burke didn’t immediately enter medical school after earning his bachelor’s degree in history and philosophy at UC Santa Barbara, instead going to Ohio University to pursue a master’s in history.

“It was everything I thought I wanted,” Burke recalled. “I was paid to read books, learn languages, and teach students. But even with all that, I did not feel as fulfilled as I expected. I wanted to do something more direct, something that merged the meditative qualities of working with one’s hands with the social importance of teaching.”

It was not until he volunteered at a local hospital that Burke realized the field of medicine was his calling, leading him to enroll in Mills College in Oakland, California to begin pre-med at the age of 26.

“It was a refreshing slap in the face. That first year in general chemistry was the first time I worked as hard as I could at something only to still not be very good at it,” Burke said. “In the end, that’s the best thing that could have happened to me though, because it forced me to develop the grit and determination to work as hard as I needed in order to succeed, no matter the challenge.”

The UC Riverside School of Medicine is truly home to Burke, and for many reasons.

“First and foremost, UC Riverside actually walks the walk when it comes to serving the community,” Burke said. “This is a mission-oriented place and there is a strong contingent of us who are committed to working with the underserved. To be at a school where that commitment is more than just rhetoric but a true guiding principle is exhilarating.”

“In terms of academics, I knew I wanted to go to a school that had small class sizes, but was also new enough that if changes needed to be made, they would be willing to make them,” he said. “UCR remains a dynamic, evolving place, and being part of such a bold experiment is an opportunity I could not get anywhere else.”

Taking advantage of the School of Medicine’s opportunities, Burke co-taught a health sciences class in a local prison, CIW-Chino, an experience he enjoyed so much that he returned to teach an extra semester at another local prison, CRC-Norco.

“I believe all people deserve an education and that anyone can be a fabulous student if only they have the proper resources,” Burke said.

Burke, along with fellow School of Medicine students Madeline Mullen and Eddie Lievanos, also co-founded Medical Students for Choice, a program intended to provide students with training on family planning and abortion.

“It’s a vital, positive service that empowers women to make the best decisions for themselves, and I’m excited to be a part of promoting it,” Burke said.

Burke will also soon co-chair the several medicine interest groups with fellow School of Medicine students Annie Le, Erin Liang, and Ryan Roleson. But one of the most meaningful experiences Burke has had at the School of Medicine is co-managing the Riverside Free Clinic (RFC) with Lievanos.

“RFC is why I came to UCR in a nutshell – it helps me be a better clinician, and it lets me serve the people in the area who the system has broken down on,” said Burke. “Striving to give our patients thorough, quality care is not just something I love, but something I consider an ethical obligation. So long as I’m in the area, rain or shine, final next week or not, I am at RFC.”

Despite his many involvements, Burke still finds the time to do research through the new San Bernardino Free Clinic and the San Francisco VA Medical Center, working with a team that developed a study instrument to gather data that will help better serve their patient population. Burke will be presenting this project this fall at the American Public Health Association conference.

Inevitably, Burke bumped into struggles along the path to success, but he continues to find the motivation and passion to move forward.

“I slept on the floor of a fraternity carriage house for a year to save money to pay for my post-bac,” Burke said. “I cashiered all my savings, took on a fair amount of debt, and developed new and exciting wrinkles around my eyes. I’m studying material that I love and find endlessly fascinating, in an environment that supports me as I pursue everything I’m interested in, surrounded by an amazing group of friends. I am fortunate to be part of UCR’s quest to improve the health of the region.”

Burke credits his parents, Ed and Linda Burke, for fully believing in him despite his decision to switch careers at 26 years old.

“Now that I’m on the road to being the first doctor in my family,” Burke said, “I’m already getting inundated with health questions and pictures of rashes, but that’s okay; their support through my life to this point means they get an unlimited free pass.”

Moving forward, Burke is optimistic not only about learning more in his field, but ultimately in being able to use medicine as an agent for social change.

“Earlier this year at RFC, I was able to help a patient solve a problem that had been impacting their quality of life for a long time,” Burke said. “It was hardly the cinematic, life-saving moment that you’d get from a medical drama, but it was the first time I felt like I had been able to apply something I learned to make a real difference for someone. I hope that I can continue to lessen the burden for others in my coming decades of practice.”

Byron Ford

Dr. Byron Ford

Dr. Byron Ford

Dr. Byron Ford wasn’t looking for a new job when he ran into UC Riverside Biomedical Sciences Chair Dr. Monica Carson at a Gordon Conference in January 2015, but when he visited UC Riverside for the first time, he had no doubt that joining the Division of Biomedical Sciences at the UCR School of Medicine would be a good choice.

“I came for my first interview and fell in love with UCR and the city of Riverside,” said Ford, now a professor of biomedical sciences. “To this day, I have not had a bad day at UCR. The School of Medicine and the institution have been very supportive of my career success. However, one of the very attractive things about UCR to me is the mission. To be at a high-level research institution with a mission to serve the underserved and the community is a dream come true.”

After growing up in Grambling, Louisiana and earning his undergraduate degree at Grambling State University, Ford earned his Ph.D. at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee. He completed his postdoctoral fellowship in Department of Neurobiology at Harvard Medical School and was eventually appointed as a full professor and vice chairman of the Department of Neurobiology at the Morehouse School of Medicine (MSM) in Atlanta, Georgia, the position he held when he met Carson.

“I’ve known Dr. Carson for quite some time as we served on NIH study sections together. We ran into each other last year at a conference where she told me about UCR and that they were searching for new faculty. I submitted my application that weekend and the rest is history,” he said.

For Ford, the relatively sudden move to Southern California was not the first unexpected turn that Ford’s career has taken.

“My original plan was to acquire an M.D. after college – I knew nothing about research at the time. While at Grambling State University, I enrolled in the allied health program to become a respiratory therapist,” Ford said. “I had the opportunity to work in a hospital and realized it was not for me.”

After becoming involved in research activities on campus, Ford was introduced to Dr. James Townsel, who became Ford’s mentor and invited him to conduct research over the summer at Meharry, where he eventually decided to attend for his Ph.D.

“The environment at Meharry was vibrant and very supportive at the time,” Ford said. “I discovered my passion for research once I acquired enough data to write my first manuscript. My passion further developed when I did my postdoctoral fellowship in the Department of Neurobiology at Harvard Medical School with Dr. Gerry Fischbach, the department chair.”

Ford’s experiences with Fischbach then sparked his interest in his current research focus.

“When I joined Dr. Fischbach’s lab at Harvard, he had just discovered a protein now known as neuregulin-1 (NRG),” which according to Ford’s early research, could prevent brain cell death and inflammation.

In 2001, Ford started his laboratory at the MSM and developed a stroke research program.

“My lab discovered that NRG could prevent brain damage following stroke, even when given up to 13 hours after the stroke,” said Ford. “We are currently developing a partnership with a biotech company to take NRG into clinical trials for stroke. NRG is currently in FDA-approved clinical trials for heart failure and was shown to improve cardiac function in patients. It will be amazing to see our work actually help a human patient of stroke and other disorders.”

Ford also started a company with one of his three brothers, Dr. Gregory Ford, who worked closely with him through a postdoctoral fellowship and through MSM’s sister school, Morehouse College. Their company, Brain-Gen, was formed with the hope of translating their research findings into commercial use, and they have produced nine U.S. patents and three worldwide patents so far.

At UCR, Ford and his Ph.D. students Catherine Augello, Angela Avitua, and Hakeem Omotayo, continue to work with NRG in multiple ways, examining its role in systemic inflammation, regeneration after stroke, and protection from traumatic brain injury and concussions. Ford also works with Dr. Yonggang Li, an associate project scientist at UCR who helps train the three students and has worked with Ford for over a decade.

Ford is optimistic of the medical school’s future.

“As Dean Deborah Deas likes to say, UCR will be a force to be reckoned with,” he said. “The faculty expertise and facilities here are allowing me to ask research questions in a way I was not able to before. The results should be quite innovative and exciting.”

New Staff and Faculty at the UCR School of Medicine

Appointments since May 2016.

Recent Staff Appointments

  • Mayra Cortez Alcaraz, Junior Specialist, Biomedical Sciences
  • G Brock, Policy Analyst, Strategic Resource Center
  • Maira Calavazo, Medical Assistant, Clinical Affairs
  • Cora Dickerson, Medical Assistant, Clinical Affairs
  • Jeffrey Flogerzi, Systems Administrator, SOM Strategic Resource Center
  • Ntwali Gaju, Laboratory Assistant, Plant Pathology & Microbiology
  • Anna Kulinich, Postdoc, Biomedical Sciences
  • Kay Monteith, Student Affairs Officer, Undergrad Medical Education
  • Esperanza Murray, Administrative Officer, Dean’s Office
  • Arnold Palacios, Lab Assistant, Biomedical Sciences

Recent Academic Appointments

  • Waqas Aftab, Asst. Clinical Professor, Internal Medicine
  • Priya Batra, Asst. Professor in Residence, Center for Healthy Communities/Women’s Health
  • Arun Chakrabarty, Associate Physician, UCR Health
  • Prabhakar Kavipurapu, Asst. Clinical Professor, Dept. of Family Medicine
  • Tiffany Kamerman, Asst. Clinical Professor, Pediatrics
  • Sam Lin, Associate Physician, UCR Health
  • Marium Mohammad, Associate Physician, Riverside Community Hospital
  • Elizabeth Morrison-Banks, Asst. Clinical Professor, Neuroscience
  • Jana Mullen, Associate Physician Diplomate, Pediatrics
  • Hoda Pourhassan, Clinical Instructor, Internal Medicine
  • Charles Stout, Asst. Clinical Professor, Neuroscience
  • Srinivasa Srinidhi, Asst. Clinical Professor, Internal Medicine
  • Patrick Sweet, Asst. Clinical Professor, Dept. of Family Medicine
  • Brent Wagner, Asst. Clinical Professor, Internal Medicine
  • Afshin Zandpour, Asst. Clinical Professor, Dept. of Family Medicine

Media Contact

Tel: (951) 827-2969

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