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Rolling with the Beats: Sebastian Valencia Amores

Sebastian Valencia Amores, PhD ’26 (CELL), looked earnestly at the display screen in front of him, and then, he saw it—movement, a beat, a pulse! He was seeing active heart tissue cells. But these weren’t just any heart tissue cells—they were engineered. He still remembers the first time he saw them: “It was truly remarkable,” he reflects.

Valencia Amores. Portrait shot, light skin, brown hair, white sweater and smiling.
Photo by Megan Mulliner

Growing Through Change

Valencia Amores has lived in multiple countries. He was born and raised in Ecuador and then moved to Panama as a teen. After serving a full-time mission in Honduras, he came to the U.S. for higher education. Valencia Amores says that learning from new experiences and cultures prepared him to confront the challenges associated with the change he faced throughout his journey at BYU.

Valencia Amores made his way to heart tissue engineering after exploring the field of medicine at LDS Business College, now Ensign College. After transferring to BYU and becoming a neuroscience major, he joined Dr. Alonzo Cook’s lab, which focuses on engineering essential aspects of heart tissue functionality. Valencia Amores felt like he finally found something he could pour his heart and soul into.

After some time in Dr. Cook’s lab, Valencia Amores was chosen to be the lead research assistant, as an undergraduate. “That was a sobering experience,” remembers Valencia Amores, “and a time of great growth.” Valencia Amores felt like he was able to learn the ins and outs of how a lab works and how to lead. He has managed teams of up to 26 individuals and conducts lab meetings with students from a variety of disciplines in engineering and life sciences majors.

The Courage to Try Something New

Valencia Amores works on his laptop. A side shot. Wearing blue jeans, white sweate.
Photo by Megan Mulliner

A significant change occurred in Valencia Amores’ journey when Dr. Cook retired. Fortunately, he was able to continue his research under Dr. Dario Mizrachi, a professor in the Department of Cell Biology and Physiology. Periods of significant change often are accompanied by feelings of uncertainty, but he used it as an opportunity for additional learning. “During this time of change,” he recalls, “I reevaluated the approaches we had taken in the past and started thinking about novel methods to address some of the issues that we were seeing in the field. This mindset of not shying away from new approaches paved the way for me to branch out into various fields of study.”

Continuing the project as a PhD student under Dr. Mizrachi, Valencia Amores took classes in mechanical and electrical engineering, mathematics, and self-directed studies in other fields, such as the inference of analysis gene regulatory networks. Valencia Amores has completed enough classes to obtain a minor in mathematics in addition to his PhD. Branching out has provided Valencia Amores with a unique perspective and a personalized educational experience that has equipped him with the skills he needs to further his research.

“You have to be willing to be bad at something new,” says Valencia Amores about his approach to learning. “That's the beauty of life.... that though it might not be our forte initially, it can be. You just have to put in the work and be willing to learn.”

Gratitude for Help Along the Way

Valencia Amores is working with equipment with jars and tubes.
Photo by Megan Mulliner

Aiming to make significant steps forward in the medical field, Valencia Amores says that recreating the essential aspects of human heart functionality could speed up pharmaceutical drug screening by using these models as platforms to test large numbers of candidate treatments in a relevant human heart model. The tissues could also be used to study heart development and heart disease. In terms of personalized medicine, these heart models can be patient specific so that multiple treatments could be tested in order to find what would work best for an individual.

Valencia Amores realizes that his path has been possible because of the help he’s received from others. “I am very grateful for my mentors,” he says, “for Dr. Cook, who so graciously received me into his research even though I had no previous experience in the sciences, and Dr. Mizrachi, who has offered me unconditional support every step of the way.”

Valencia Amores is immensely grateful for the opportunity he’s had to attend BYU. He finds that “although it is common to feel like you might not measure up, if you reach out and collaborate, you will find kind-hearted students and faculty willing to go above and beyond to raise each other up.” He reflects that his experiences seem to illustrate the truth of a well-known verse from the bible:

Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.
Matthew 7:7

Valencia Amores will continue to ask, seek, and knock in order to better understand the heart. He is excited to have some of his research published soon.