The Heart of the Matter
By Julia Halprin Jackson Tiffany Harbrecht contributed to this story
The Alexander Payumo Lab at San José State investigates the regenerative potential of the mammalian heart.
When San José State University Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences Alexander Payumo, ’08 Biochemistry, was completing his PhD in chemical and systems biology at Stanford, his father died of a heart attack. The sudden loss, coupled with the knowledge that heart disease claims one in four Americans each year, prompted him to explore how he could help others avoid this fate.
“I wanted to study something meaningful to my cultural and personal background,” he reflects. “The cool thing about science is it encourages creativity. You can express your interests in what you research. As I learn more about ways to potentially recover the heart, it’s a compatible space for my mind to explore important moments in my life.”
During his postdoctoral training at the Cardiovascular Research Institute at the University of California, San Francisco, Payumo learned that cardiomyocytes, the specialized heart cells that contract to pump blood throughout the body, die during heart attacks. Even if a person survives, currently there is no way to replace these critical cells. The phenomenon piqued his curiosity: What if these cells could be revived?
Even though he started at SJSU during the pandemic, Payumo emphasized giving students hands-on research experience. Photo: Robert C. Bain.
Payumo brought this inquiry to San José State in 2020, where he established a lab for students to gain hands-on research experience. Though the pandemic forced them to meet virtually at first, it didn’t take long to recruit Spartans motivated to contribute.
“Our big picture is to help people who have had heart attacks,” he says. “But before we can regenerate some of their missing cardiomyocytes, we need to figure out the biology. Why can’t they regenerate in the first place? Can we figure out a way to regenerate the adult mammalian heart?”
These are exciting questions for the San José native and first-generation college student whose original major was music. It wasn’t until Biological Sciences Professor Julio Soto recommended that he apply for the Maximizing Access to Research Careers (MARC) Undergraduate Student Training in Academic Research (U*STAR) summer program that Payumo realized he could have a future in science.
The program, funded by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, a branch of the National Institute of Health, prepares undergraduate students who are underrepresented in the biomedical sciences for graduate school. It connected Payumo to Biochemistry Professor Daryl Eggers, who recruited him to work in his lab. The experience was “very transformational, because I found something that I could do and actually really liked,” Payumo adds.
“Science is trying to piece a puzzle together, before we even have all the edges of the picture.”
— Alexander Payumo
When he spotted the faculty position at SJSU, Payumo knew he needed to pay forward his mentors’ impact to the next generation. Thanks to funding from California State University’s CSUPERB New Investigator Award, a Research, Scholarship and Creative Activity seed grant from SJSU, and recent federal support from the National Institute of Health’s SuRE-First program, Payumo hired a team of undergraduate and graduate research assistants. His master’s students all opted to stay on in his lab after completing their bachelor’s degrees.
“Before I joined the lab, I did mostly science on paper,” says Jaquelyn Simmons, ’22 BS, ’24 MS Biological Sciences. “It’s really nice to have an environment where you learn what it means to do science, rather than learning hypotheticals in a classroom. We decide what we want to study and how we want to do it.”
Payumo encourages his mentees to strive, not for perfection, but for learning and growth.
“Science puts us at the forefront of what’s known while trying to learn something new,” he says. “There isn’t necessarily a right answer; just observations. Even if you think something makes sense, it’s not the full story. Science is trying to piece a puzzle together, before we even have all the edges of the picture.”