In July 2021, Amanda Elyssa Ruiz ’17 — a molecular biology and immunology Ph.D. candidate at Brown University who studies vaccine candidacy for schistosomiasis japonica, a parasitic disease that affects over 200 million people worldwide — joined the latest cohort of fellows for the Gilliam Fellowships for Advanced Study. The Gilliam fellowship, a program at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), is designed to help foster a more inclusive academic environment in the sciences by supporting graduate students who come from historically underrepresented backgrounds with various resources to advance their dissertation research.
Ruiz’s interest in scientific research was first sparked at Barnard, where she majored in cellular and molecular biology and participated in both the Alumnae and Donor Sponsored Internship Grant Program (now known as the Beyond Barnard Internship Program) and the inaugural Summer Research Institute (SRI) in 2014. In a 2016 article that featured Ruiz’s volunteer service with the ASPCA, she said, “I try to focus my means of giving back to communities and populations that are ignored, marginalized, and disadvantaged in various ways.”
As part of the Barnard Year of Science, the College’s yearlong celebration of all things STEM-related, Ruiz discusses her interest in vaccine development for zoonotic diseases and how her new Gilliam fellowship will help her research.
What led you to pursue a Ph.D. in pathobiology at Brown University?
I specifically [chose] pathobiology because I am intrigued by the molecular mechanisms that lead to the development of disease, pathologies, and morbidities. Understanding these mechanisms allows us to intervene — either through policy, therapeutics, or public health campaigns — during the course of a disease or before a disease arises to prevent a detrimental impact on the health of humans, animals, and the environment.
I have been particularly interested in zoonotic diseases since my time at Barnard, when I had the opportunity through the [then] Alumnae and Donor Sponsored Internship Grant Program to conduct research in the laboratory of Dr. Megan Sykes at the Columbia University Irving Medical Center. In Dr. Sykes’ lab, I studied the immunological mechanisms that dictate how humans can accept organs from nonhuman donors, specifically in the context of antigen presentation. This research opportunity in comparative medicine, which uses animal models to study human and animal diseases, alongside coursework in public health, led me to explore the One Health initiative and zoonotic diseases.
What is your thesis topic, and why is it important to study this?
My main project is to identify novel vaccine candidates for schistosomiasis using epidemiologic data alongside immunologic and biochemical approaches. Schistosomiasis is the second most socioeconomically devastating parasitic disease after malaria.
Schistosoma japonicum, the most aggressive species that causes schistosomiasis, is a zoonotic parasite. Water buffalo are an animal reservoir of the parasite — meaning [that] water buffalo play a critical role in the survival, persistence, and transmission of the parasite in the environment. Schistosomiasis japonica, the disease caused by the Schistosoma japonicum species, is endemic to China, the Philippines, and Indonesia, [where] water buffalo are the key labor force for wetland rice agriculture. Thus, there is a critical connection between the animal reservoir of the parasite, susceptible humans, and the environment. Schistosomiasis is currently treated with a highly efficacious anti-helminthic agent, praziquantel, but this chemotherapy does not prevent reinfection. [As a result, it is important] to identify effective vaccine candidates that reduce the burden of disease, stop the transmission of the disease, and protect those most vulnerable from becoming infected.
My project focuses on the identification of candidates for the development of vaccines against human and bovine schistosomiasis japonica. My thesis adviser, Dr. Jake Kurtis, and his lab team developed a screening strategy for vaccine candidates that identifies the parasite antigens that are targeted by naturally acquired human immune responses in individuals resistant to schistosomiasis. I have identified one promising vaccine candidate, and I am currently in the process of characterizing the schistosome protein further. Later, I will conduct a pilot vaccination study in water buffalo to determine its efficacy in the animal reservoir. I believe a vaccine for both humans and buffalo will accelerate the elimination of schistosomiasis and, ultimately, ameliorate health disparities and economic stagnation in areas in which this zoonosis is endemic.
How did Barnard help you pursue your passions in science and research?
Barnard empowered me through phenomenal and innovative pedagogy and teaching practices. At Barnard, professors and teaching assistants went above and beyond, and I truly believe their dedication motivated me to continue pursuing a career in academia. As a first-year, I took the Research Apprenticeship Seminar, a class offered through Barnard’s Hughes Science Pipeline Project initiative. At the undergraduate level, the class introduced me to research, allowed me to rotate throughout different labs at Barnard and Columbia, and taught me the basics of science communication. As a rising sophomore, I participated in the inaugural Summer Research Institute, where I conducted research in Dr. Patricia Cortes’ lab at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. During that summer, I studied RAG-1 and RAG-2, the proteins that work together as an enzyme to initiate the genetic recombination that yields the generation of the diverse antigen receptors of lymphocytes.
Through SRI, I was also able to present my own original research and form connections with professors on campus devoted to developing the next generation of scientists. During my time at Barnard, it wasn’t just professors rooting for me — to my surprise, so many staff members and administrators were so supportive of my passions in science and research, including Dean Christina Kuan Tsu, Provost Linda Bell, Dean Alina Wong, and so many more.
How does being a 2021 Gilliam fellow support you and your research?
The Gilliam fellowship supports graduate students from underrepresented backgrounds pursuing biomedical research who have shown distinction in their research and leadership in creating a more inclusive and diverse academic environment. I am humbled and honored to have been named a fellow this year. The fellowship will cover my tuition, stipend, health insurance, and allowance for professional development activities. Moreover, my thesis adviser and I are provided with funds to carry out a diversity, equity, and inclusion project. We will be revamping my academic department’s summer research internship, which brings local high school students from underrepresented backgrounds to Brown for an immersive six-week experience in translational and basic science research, to include the sponsorship of near-peer graduate student mentors for the high school students. Through this fellowship, I will also become a part of a vibrant community of HHMI investigators and trainees that will prove to be pivotal throughout my career and training.
– SOLBY LIM '22