In 2008 as an undergraduate senior, Dr. Victor Ocasio Ramirez, won a presentation award at the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS). Ten years later he attended ABRCMS again to provide valuable mentorship to students through the Judge Travel Award. Dr. Ocasio Ramirez explains how he became interested in science as an undergraduate, his current research as a postdoctoral fellow at Duke University, and why attending ABRCMS was a gratifying experience.
Tell me about your background. I am originally from a small town in Puerto Rico, where I studied Industrial Biotechnology at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez. I developed an interest in basic science, specifically microbiology. In 2014, I obtained my Ph.D. in molecular microbiology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, Texas. Currently, I am a postdoctoral fellow at Duke University working in host pathogen interactions.
What first made you interested in science? As a second-year undergraduate student, I had the rare opportunity to conduct research with Dr. Joseph Bonaventura from Duke University studying the antimicrobial properties of the plantain plant. I got to travel to different parts of Puerto Rico to collect diverse plantain samples for my experiments. A year later, I joined a plant biotechnology laboratory where I studied gene expression profiles in transgenic Cassava plants using emerging qRT-PCR technology. Both of these experiences were fundamental in cementing my passion for science.
What is your current research about? My research involves the study of host microbe interactions. More specifically, how pathogenic bacteria have evolved to evade the immune response and grow in what it seems to be a hostile environment. Chlamydia trachomatis is a sexually transmitted pathogen that contains more than a hundred proteins predicted to be secreted to the host. These effector proteins help Chlamydia establish its intracellular lifestyle, elude the immune response and take control of many host cellular processes. I employ a combination of genetics, biochemistry and cell biology methods to characterize the function of these secreted effectors.
How were your experiences with ABRCMS both as a student and judge? Both of these experiences were different for me because I had very different perspectives each time I went. As an attendee in 2008, I was an eager senior undergraduate student looking for the next step in my academic career, graduate school. I remember walking up and down tirelessly through the aisles looking at the booths of different universities. At this point, I was trying to decide which institution would make me feel welcomed as an underrepresented minority, but also be a great fit for me academically. In 2018 as a judge, I was able to share the experiences of what it is like to earn a Ph.D. I walked tirelessly up and down the aisles of posters talking to students, giving advice and encouraging them to do the same thing I did ten years ago.
Why should someone consider being a judge at ABRCMS? Being a judge at ABRCMS is much more than scoring presentations. You get to meet a myriad of students from different backgrounds that are excited and passionate about science. But some of them lack the experience or don’t know what to do next. As a judge, you have the opportunity to interact with all of these students and to learn about their background and give them advice based on your personal experiences. This was one of the most gratifying experiences I had in 2018.
What advice do you have for students considering submitting an abstract to the conference? Have a clear hypothesis of your project or model and share the abstract with your peers and mentor. If they can understand your research project from the abstract alone, then you’ve written an abstract where the points come across clearly.
How has your ASM membership impacted your career? As an ASM member, I’ve attended various conferences like ABRCMS and ASM Microbe where I presented my research and networked with colleagues. Also, in 2018 I participated in the Best Practices in Curriculum Design, Teaching and Assessment webinar, which showed me a different aspect of academia and made me an attractive candidate for the Preparing Future Faculty (PFF) program at Duke in 2018-2019. I taught as an adjunct professor at Elon University for one semester and put into practice many of the concepts I learned in the ASM webinar. Overall, since becoming an ASM member, I’ve had many opportunities to improve my career, get access to a wide network of scientists and see the impact of the work I am doing.