Paloma Ruiz has participated in cancer research at UNC's Strahl Lab since her second semester at the University.
Now a junior, Ruiz joined the lab with research experience under her belt from high school and a passion for epigenetics, a budding field in science.
With this early pursuit of research and her leadership across campus, Ruiz was recently named UNC’s 51st Goldwater Scholar.
Brian Strahl, the interim chairperson of the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics and the principal investigator at Strahl Lab, said Ruiz got involved in his lab quickly at UNC.
But Ruiz has engaged in research since high school. During the summer of 2016, she researched at Enzerna Biosciences Inc., testing technology to target mitochondrial diseases.
“I saw what research was like as a field, and I absolutely loved it,” Ruiz said. "It kickstarted my passion for research, and doing research now throughout undergrad has been a really amazing experience.”
With Strahl Lab, Ruiz has been working on how a protein called PBRM1 contributes to gene expression and cancer when mutated. The lab’s primary focus is on epigenetics and cancer research.
“Starting as young as Paloma did, she has all this time to spend developing her toolkit and applying those tools to scientific problems,” Strahl said. “She's done that very well, so we're hoping she can finish this last experiment that will give us the data we need to get this paper submitted.”
To be named a Goldwater Scholar, students must go through UNC's rigorous application, selection and vetting process to be endorsed, and then recipients are selected by the Goldwater Scholars committee.
“It's very, very competitive, and we're just delighted that Paloma won,” Inger Brodey, director of the Office of Distinguished Scholarships, said.
Brodey said Ruiz’s enormous leadership around campus also distinguished her from other students.
“It's extra impressive if somebody can have multiple leadership positions and be a researcher of such high caliber at the same time,” Brodey said. “She's taken her own initiative to become a biology ambassador, which she’s become a role model for, especially women and Latina peoples to succeed in STEM.”
Additionally, Ruiz is part of the Chancellor’s Science Scholars Program, a merit-based scholars program focused on promoting underrepresented people in STEM and in research. Ruiz mentors younger students in this program.
“I always really liked being able to like mentor people,” Ruiz said. “I also have a younger brother, so I think like, from since I was a kid, I was kind of always that older sister and looked out for him. Especially going into college, I wanted to help out others, especially that are younger than me, trying to go through this college experience.”
Regarding her current leadership, Ruiz is the president of UNC’s chapter of Pi Beta Phi. She previously served as lieutenant governor for UNC Community Government, a political action committee member for Mi Pueblo UNC and a resident adviser for Carolina Housing.
As a part of the Goldwater Scholars program, Ruiz has the chance to virtually meet current and past scholars and to be mentored through the program. Ruiz said it is valuable to get older scholars’ advice as she progresses through her education and into the research field.
“Especially when I applied to grad school this fall, being able to at least talk to people and figure out what their experiences are with the grad school process and being a grad student, or even if they're a postdoc themselves, looking back, have they learned anything that I can get ahead on or any secret tips,” Ruiz said. “I'm very excited to be able to meet some of the older scholars and gain some of their advice moving forward.”
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