Romano Ibarra earns trainee scholarship, finds strength in community

Guillermo Romano Ibarra, a Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP) candidate, recently received a Minority Trainee Development Scholarship (MTDS) from the American Thoracic Society (ATS). He will give an oral presentation and be honored during the Diversity Forum of the ATS’s International Conference on May 15 in San Francisco, CA. However, his road to the MTDS scholarship and ATS stage has been anything but simple.

Dr. David Stoltz

Now in his fifth year of the MSTP, Romano Ibarra is nearing the completion of his MD and PhD in Molecular Medicine. Under the mentorship of David Stoltz, MD, PhD, Romano Ibarra studies cell plasticity in the airway. Recently, he has begun to find that secretory cells, which are typically seen in airway diseases like cystic fibrosis, asthma, and COPD, may be able to take on stem cell-like properties. These new findings have potential implications for cell and gene therapies in airway diseases.

Stoltz, professor and director of the Division of Pulmonary, Critical Care, and Occupational Medicine, says he could not be prouder of Romano Ibarra and his resilience. In addition to academic training, Stoltz and the faculty and staff of the MSTP have offered Romano Ibarra support during personal battles.

Adapting to change
In August of 2019, Romano Ibarra was riding his bicycle when he was hit by a motor vehicle going 60 mph, leaving him with life-threatening injuries, including several fractures in his pelvis and his spine. Romano Ibarra was rushed to the hospital in an ambulance. Once at the hospital, Romano Ibarra asked his ER doctor to call Stoltz, but serendipitously, Stoltz happened to be calling him at that very moment.

“He came to the hospital, and he actually ended up staying with me the entire night until they took me to surgery the next morning,” Romano Ibarra said. “Knowing him, it’s not surprising.”

Stoltz also helped Romano Ibarra get accommodations for his classes and programs. Taking a leave of absence from school threatened Romano Ibarra’s degrees, as well as his medical insurance. Stoltz helped him figure out a plan that kept him enrolled in his classes.

“Despite many obstacles and struggles following Guillermo’s bicycle accident, he has persevered, remained upbeat and positive, and risen to meet these challenges,” Stoltz said. “I am extremely impressed and proud of the important scientific discoveries he has made thus far. This tenacity and drive demonstrates his strong commitment to a career as a physician-scientist.”

In addition to Stoltz, Romano Ibarra says his instructors were accommodating and helpful while he recovered. Thanks to the flexibility and compassion of his professors, Romano Ibarra did not have to retake any courses.

“I was just able to slow way down, and it didn’t mean that I completely stopped,” he said.

A community of help
Throughout his recovery, Romano Ibarra was treated by Iowa providers, including Amy Yotty, PT, DPT, NCS, a UI Health Care neuro physical therapist; surgeons Andrew J. Pugely, MD, and Mathew Karam, MD; and physical medicine and rehabilitation physician Philip Chen, MD. With their help, Romano Ibarra was able to start walking more and spending less time in the wheelchair.

Wes Sotzen, facility manager in the college’s Office of Facilities Planning and Management, helped Romano Ibarra make his lab space more accessible. They lowered his desk, chair, shelf space, and refrigerators, so he could easily access his workspace in his wheelchair.

Romano Ibarra’s accident also affected his microscopic world. He had been working with cell cultures for years, but after his accident, he was losing entire cultures to contamination.

“I tracked down what was happening, which is that using my wheelchair was tracking in all sorts of contaminants. It was like constantly touching the soles of my shoes, and I couldn’t take enough precautions to stop getting contaminations.” Romano Ibarra said. “So basically, I couldn’t do cell culture with my wheelchair; it was just contaminating everything.”

Members of the Stoltz lab stepped in to help with him with cell culture, allowing him to focus on other experiments in the lab.

Choosing Iowa and life here now
Before Romano Ibarra joined the Iowa MSTP, he was a research scientist at Seattle Children’s Research Institute, where he researched hematopoietic cell therapies. Iowa was his first stop on the interview trail, “setting a high bar that was difficult to compete with, even at other high-ranking schools.” After that visit, Iowa remained his top choice because of the scientific opportunities and the close-knit and supportive members of the MSTP.

“It’s like one big family, and I think that really is the best term for it,” Romano Ibarra said.

In his free time, Romano Ibarra enjoys growing and taking care of plants (a hobby he shares with Stoltz). He has several bonsai trees at home and keeps a bonsai tree and cacti in his lab space. After his accident and to help with his recovery, Romano Ibarra adopted a dog.

“We used to go on wheelchair runs,” Romano Ibarra said. “I tied his retractable leash to my chair and looped it through to his harness, and we’d go running. It was pretty cute, and he loved it.”

As Romano Ibarra began walking more, he took in a second dog. Both are named after Harry Potter characters, and Moody and Tonks love going on walks with Romano Ibarra as part of his rehabilitation.

In addition to his physical therapy, Romano Ibarra also swims for exercise. He is a life-long competitive swimmer, and the pool closures early in the pandemic motivated him to take up open water swimming. He became a member of the iCows (Iowa City Open Water Swimmers), with whom he has completed several 5k and 10k swims. This fall, he will attempt to swim the 21-mile English Channel as part of a relay with iCows member and Engineering professor Tom Casavant.


As a recipient of the MTDS, Ibarra will receive a certificate of achievement, a complimentary registration for the conference, a one-year free ATS membership, and $1,000 scholarship.

Since its founding in 1977, Iowa’s MSTP has been one of the oldest and most successful dual MD/PhD programs in the nation. Headed by Steven Lentz, MD, PhD, and Pamela Geyer, PhD, the program recently received a renewal of its $4.2M NIH T32 grant.

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