As we commemorate National Hispanic Heritage Month, Keystone Symposia celebrates the many inspiring Hispanic/Latinx scientists who contribute to our mission to accelerate life science discovery. Scientific thought-leaders from Hispanic/Latinx backgrounds are critical members of the Keystone Symposia community, on our Scientific Advisory Board for conference development, as speakers sharing their cutting-edge research at our meetings, and as meeting attendees, poster presenters and scholarship awardees aspiring to launch their careers.
In addition, the Hispanic/Latinx community comprises a significant portion of our Keystone Symposia Fellows program—a unique professional advancement opportunity designed to enhance confidence, leadership skills, networking opportunities, and visibility for early-career scientists from underrepresented backgrounds in the biological and biomedical sciences. In honor of National Hispanic Heritage Month, we are showcasing the 27 Hispanic/Latinx Fellows and invite those from Hispanic/Latinx backgrounds to apply for next year’s class. Please help us spread the word among your professional networks!
Application Deadline: October 15, 2021
Zaida G. Ramirez Ortiz (class of 2020/21)
Assistant Professor, Department of Medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School
I study Immunology with a focus on autoimmune diseases. 1.5 million Americans and 5 million people worldwide suffer with a form of lupus. Approximately, 70% of lupus cases progress to systemic disease referred to as systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). There is no known cause or cure for lupus, but several studies have shown that patients with SLE have increased levels of circulating ACs, indicating a failure in the clearance of dying cells. Therefore, efficient detection and clearance of apoptotic cells (ACs), a process termed efferocytosis, is critical for control of tissue homeostasis and the resolution of inflammation. Our current lack of understanding about how phagocytes mediate capture and engulfment of ACs and the signaling pathways initiated by apoptotic debris to prevent loss of tolerance and autoimmunity remain a critical barrier to progress in the field of understanding autoimmune disease pathogenesis. What motivated me to pursue this area is to understand what cause this break in immune tolerance resulting in autoimmunity. Furthermore, the pressing need exists for the development of more specific and less toxic drugs for the treatment of SLE and other autoimmune diseases given that very few drugs have been approved specifically for patients with lupus in the last 50 years.
When I transitioned to an independent position, I thought I needed to be independent from others but that was far from the truth. You need mentors-- people in your corner that will guide you and help you be successful. Being a KS fellow, I found that my fellow colleagues became mentors- especially during this unprecedented pandemic time.
Being part of Keystone Symposia as a fellow you become part of a larger family. Fellows from prior years are there to provide advice and you want to celebrate their good news with them. I hope that I can do the same for future fellows!
Tom is a molecular biologist with a BS in Biology from the University of New Mexico and a PhD in Molecular Biology from the University of Washington. During his studies, Tom utilized the budding yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, to identify and characterize essential molecular components that regulate DNA replication, DNA repair, chromosome segregation, and ribosomal DNA maintenance.
After obtaining his PhD, Tom conducted postdoctoral research at Princeton University as a Burroughs Wellcome research fellow, a New Jersey Commission on Cancer Research fellow, a Ford foundation research fellow, and a Keystone Symposia fellow. His work used S. cerevisiae and Schizosaccharomyces pombe to identify and characterize important molecular pathways mediating genome stability and telomere maintenance in the presence of both endogenous and exogenous stresses.
Tom entered the antibody space in 2019, joining NovaRock Biotherapeutics as a senior scientist and lead for molecular design. He leveraged his expertise to design and develop recombinant expression vectors and proteins to produce monoclonal, bi-specific, and multi-specific antibodies. Tom was also a project lead for one of the company’s therapeutic antibody candidates, centrally involved with the identification of monoclonal antibodies derived from hybridoma screens and the development/implementation of pipeline improvements to streamline the molecular cloning workflows.
In 2021, Tom joined Specifica Inc, a company focused on providing the next generation of human antibody engineering and discovery. Specifica specializes in creating custom antibody libraries to obtain drug-like antibodies straight from selection. As a senior scientist, Tom leverages his prior academic and biotech experience to advance the selection of novel antibodies. He has a central role in expression vector design and construction, yeast display, yeast engineering, technology development, and process improvement.
Tom has been extensively involved with activities and award-winning organizations geared toward the recruitment and retention of under-represented students in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM). He is the founder and former co-president of the Princeton University Society for Advancing Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) chapter. He believes that increasing interest in and access to STEM fields is crucial to maximizing creativity, innovation, and advancement of important biological and technological discoveries.
Paola Giusti-Rodríguez (class of 2017)
Assistant Professor, McKnight Brain Institute, Department of Psychiatry, University of Florida
Dr. Giusti-Rodriguez currently works in the Adult Research Division and will conduct research in genetic psychiatric illnesses, with interest in human-based studies of neurodevelopmental disorders (including ASD and schizophrenia), at the UF Center for OCD, Anxiety and Related Disorders (COARD). In addition, she serves as an important academic teacher and mentor for medical students, interns, training residents and promoting the research and educational mission of the McKnight Brain Institute (MBI) for Department of Psychiatry.
Dennis Montoya (class of 2016)
Assistant Researcher at the UC Davis School of Medicine
Dennis Montoya is a computational biologist currently serving as an Assistant Researcher at the UC Davis School of Medicine. His research focuses on developing methods to parse the tissue cellular microenvironment through analysis of genomic, transcriptomic, and epigenomic data. He has developed a suite of computational tools for the estimation of cellular frequency or immune activation pathways from whole tissue functional genomic data. His computational tools have been used in many settings, in particular for biomarker discovery from observational research studies. He is currently focusing on novel diagnostics and therapies for ovarian cancer.
Dr. Luna earned his bachelor’s degree in Biological Sciences from Southern University (Historically Black College and University) in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. During his junior year at Southern, he was one of six individuals selected from a nationwide competition to participate in the inaugural Biomedical Research Training Program at the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute at NIH, which ignited a passion for biomedical research. Dr. Luna thoroughly enjoyed his biomedical research experience, as he subsequently earned his doctorate in Biological Sciences at LSU.
Dr. Luna performed his postdoctorate research at Harvard Medical School, which centered on elucidating the sequence of protein-protein interactions leading to the decoding of the initial start codons of messenger RNAs. Dr. Luna held the position of Instructor in the Department of Biological Chemistry and Molecular Pharmacology at Harvard Medical School. He also held the role as Program Director for Senior Faculty Promotions in the Office for Faculty Affairs at Harvard Medical School. As the previous Executive Director of the National Research Mentoring Network (NRMN) and the former Principal Investigator of the Administrative Core of NRMN located at Boston College, Dr. Rafael E. Luna utilized data analytics to strategically grow NRMN and effectively reach all 50 states, including Hawaii, Alaska & Puerto Rico.
In addition to serving as a leader in higher education, Dr. Luna is the author of the book, The Art of Scientific Storytelling, which provides a narrative roadmap for scientists publishing in peer-review journals. He is a dynamic speaker and has taught his Scientific Storytelling method throughout the United States, Europe and Asia, e.g. Harvard Medical School, Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT-Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer, Wyss Institute at Harvard, Harvard University, Children’s Hospital-Boston, Brigham & Women’s Hospital, Boston University Medical School, Dana- Farber Cancer Institute, University of Bergen (Norway), Saarland University (Germany), University of Graz (Austria), University College of London (England), Beijing (China) and many more.
Dr. De Jesus always acknowledges the many mentors throughout her educational and professional journey. She credits her career success because she is a product of pipeline mentorship. As a faculty member she developed “A scientist looks just like you” program to educate and inspire children in grades 3-12 to understand that they too can be scientists regardless of background or socioeconomic status. She also volunteers with the Rise High STEM program in the underserved community of Schenectady, New York . She is currently developing a STEM pipeline program for Pfizer that targets middle school and high school students.
Jonathan Perez Deane (class of 2011)
Director of Immunology at Kumquat Biosciences Inc.
Jonathan Deane earned his B.S. and Ph.D. at the University of California, Irvine. His graduate student work was focused on the role of regulatory subunits of the lipid kinase PI3K in immune and leukemia function. At the NIAID, his postdoctoral fellowship was concentrated on the role of nucleic acid-sensing receptors in the innate immune system. Specifically, he focused on TLR7 and MDA5 to understand that expression levels of these molecules contributes to the development of autoimmune disease. As an investigator at the Genomics Institute of the Novartis Research Foundation, Jonathan spent over 10 years in drug discovery considering ways to apply basic research to making novel therapeutics. This led to the nomination of 3 clinical candidates including LHC165, an intratumoral TLR7 agonist. He also helped outlicense IOV-3001, a novel IL-2 biologic which is now being developed by Iovance. Since July 2020, Jonathan has been the Director of Immunology at Kumquat Biosciences, a startup company dedicated to developing novel therapeutics in the fields of oncology, immune oncology and immunology.
Fatima Rivas (class of 2010)
Assistant Professor, Louisiana State University
The Rivas group is interested in developing new chemical tools from natural products to tease out biological processes with the potential of treating human disease. Natural products chemistry is the study of substances produced by living organisms. We investigate them to improve our understanding of biological processes and identify compounds that may lead to the development of new therapeutic agents. We also develop derivatization strategies to discover new chemical matter. We used a variety of methods, such as bio-guided isolation, reactivity-guided labeling, and total syntheses, which provide access to novel natural products based on their bioactivity or reactivity. These approaches have the potential to uncover fascinating new chemical structures with profound insight into the vast chemical space of natural products and their capability to bring healing to human disease. One of our discoveries, the synthesis and biological evaluation of colletoic acid, a remarkable selective inhibitor of a metabolic enzyme that promotes adipose dysfunction. We are now studying ways to identify suitable delivery systems to test this compound and its derivatives in in vivo models.
These research endeavors promise to discover new natural products and identification of novel biological targets to further facilitate the development of the next generation of molecular probes to alleviate human disease.
In the summers she has enjoyed working with undergraduate students as part of NIH-funded programs. Wherever possible, Fatima has contributed voluntarily to teaching. She has been active in her communities, serving on NIH panels, organizing symposia at ACS meetings and participating in formal student mentoring programs.
Dr. Crawford’s laboratory accesses large-scale epidemiologic and clinical data to characterize common and rare genetic variants associated with human diseases. A particular interest is in identifying pleiotropy (when a single gene or variant influences two or more seemingly unrelated traits) and environmental modifiers of genetic associations, including pharmacogenomics (the study of how genetic variants affect a person's response to drugs). She has played leading roles in NIH-funded consortia dedicated to developing the infrastructure for national studies emphasizing diversity and drawing from electronic health records integrated with genomics. Dr. Crawford promotes the cultivation of women and minorities in STEM education and research, recognizing that perspectives and findings from diverse studies can unlock why people with diverse genetic, behavioral, and environmental backgrounds can have varied risks for diseases and outcomes to interventions or treatments.