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Seeking an 'off switch' for melanoma

Graduate student Rolando Ruiz-Vega won the 2015 student research award for his work trying to understand the genetic pathways of melanoma. .
UC Irvine School of Medicine
UC Irvine School of Medicine graduate student Rolando Ruiz-Vega won a research award for his work in the genetics of melanoma.

'Curiosity' motivates Rolando Ruiz-Vega

Department of Biological Chemistry graduate student Rolando Ruiz-Vega is a recipient of the 2015 UC Irvine School of Medicine Outstanding Student Fellowship Award.

Given this year for the first time, the award recognizes two doctoral students for academic and scientific achievements, as well as volunteer work.

Ruiz-Vega and fellow recipient Hyun-Ik Jun "exemplify the strengths and values of high-level researchers who will have a profound impact in their future scientific and philanthropic endeavors," said Klemens Hertel, PhD, associate dean of Graduate Studies.

Ruiz-Vega, who works in the lab of UC Irvine dermatologist and melanoma researcher Dr. Anand Ganesan, shares his thoughts about his research studies and his passion for science:

Q: What impact will your research have on healthcare in the future?

A: Melanoma is the deadliest type of skin cancer and it is caused by ultraviolet radiation as well as genetic mutations that are independent of environmental factors. Last year, there were more than 76,000 new melanoma cases in the United States. Melanoma arises when melanocytes, the pigment producing cells in our skin, mutate and begin to spread rapidly in the top layer of the skin then later invade deeper tissues.

The two most common genes associated with melanoma are the Braf and Pten genes. Recently, my lab identified a novel gene known as RhoJ that acts like an on-off switch and makes melanoma cells sensitive to therapeutic drugs. The goal of my project is to determine how RhoJ affects tumor development and metastasis.

I used a melanoma mouse model with a mutation of the Braf gene. I removed RhoJ gene to determine the effects on melanoma and discovered that melanoma-prone mice that do not have RhoJ gene survive an average of 100 days longer and they have 20 times fewer lung metastases than those with RhoJ. More recently, I found that RhoJ has this effect on melanoma because it signals through the BRAF gene, which is mutated in this melanoma mouse model. 

These new discoveries can help us identify more efficient therapeutic targets for melanoma. The disease currently becomes resistant to existing therapies, but these new discoveries may allow us to get closer to unraveling resistance mechanisms in melanoma.

Q: How did you first become interested in this field?
A: During my second year as an undergraduate student at Cal State Fullerton, a master’s student introduced me to research and I developed a passion for it.

I started conducting research in a basic science cell biology lab, which taught me the fundamental techniques that all scientists should know, such as pipetting. As I began thinking more like a scientist, my passion for the field grew deeper. 

Q: Who in your life has helped shape your scientific interests?
A: Dr. Anand Ganesan, my current research mentor, has been vital in transforming me into a knowledgeable scientist. He always challenges me to think outside the box so that I can become a great scientist. He emphasizes the complexity of a scientific problem and how important it is to always look at the big picture.

Two professors from my undergraduate institution also played a big role in shaping my scientific career and interests. First, Dr. Robert Koch took me into his lab even though I had no research experience and began molding me into a scientist. It was his patience and mentoring that kept me excited and motivated about coming to lab everyday. The second person who played an important role in shaping my scientific interests is Dr. Amybeth Cohen. She taught me that there was more to science than just conducting research. Every week she would push me to read the scientific literature and open my mind beyond what I was doing in the lab. She motivated me to go outside my comfort zone to explore everything going on in the science world and to grow as a researcher.

Q: When did you first realize that you wanted to go into the field of biomedical research?
A: I realized that I wanted to go into biomedical research when I first started conducting research in a brain cancer lab during my post baccalaureate at Tufts University. As I started reading papers about glioblastoma, I realized the complexity of the disease and the amount of work that still needs to be done in order to move the field forward. I thought to myself that if brain cancer is so far behind with effective therapeutics, then other cancers might be in the same situation because of how complex science is in cancers.

Q: What keeps you motivated?
A: Curiosity! I really enjoy science because there are always new things to be discovered. And after every discovery, there are more questions that need to be answered. Every unanswered question keeps me motivated to keep working and unraveling new discoveries.

Q: What are your long-term goals?
A: When I grow up, I would like to teach at a university and conduct my own research. I am also looking forward to mentoring students and preparing the new pipeline of scientists.

Q: What advice would you give to others who are thinking about a career in biomedical research?
A: My advice to anyone thinking about a career in biomedical research would be to never give up and keep pushing forward. Science can be difficult at times but that is what makes it fun and exciting. So never give up and keep making new discoveries!

Q: What do you do outside of the lab?
A: I enjoy spending time with my girlfriend, mountain biking and photography. I am also very passionate about mentoring students who are interested in the sciences, and in students who have gone through adversities but are highly motivated to pursue higher education. I mentor young scientists at the Orange County Science and Engineering Fair while I judge their projects.

I also mentor high school students that participate in a program that I helped organize here at the UC Irvine Cancer Research Institute. As a Horatio Alger mentor, I mentor students who have overcome adversities and encourage them during difficult times in their educational career. I also enjoy volunteering in my community on evenings and weekends.

Q: How do you feel about receiving the School of Medicine Outstanding Student Award 2015?
A: I am very excited to receive this award. It motivates me to work harder to achieve my goal of graduating and beginning my journey as a scientist.

Q: Tell us something that most people don’t know about you.
A: I am taking some intermediate Cumbia and Bachata dance classes with my girlfriend.