July 15, 2020—It all started with one life-altering email. When Ruben Garcia Vazquez was a young boy in Puerto Rico, he nurtured a love of science, but with no exposure to the field as a potential career path, he had to find his own way into the laboratory.
“At 16, filled with curiosity, ambition and a thirst for knowledge, I created my first email account and messaged Dr. Carlos Gonzalez at the University of Puerto Rico, asking to work in his lab,” recalls Garcia Vazquez.
Garcia Vazquez got his wish and entered a lifelong relationship with biomedical research. With his distinctive drive and determination, the Ph.D. candidate in the UF Graduate Program in Biomedical Sciences is a recipient of the 2020 Fulbright Scholarship. Garcia Vazquez, who currently studies under Edward Scott, Ph.D., in the UF Department of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology, says the honor makes him feel “ecstatic and blissful.”
“I am achieving a lot of firsts for my family. Receiving this recognition that allows me to work abroad, be a part of a prestigious organization and distinguish me from the pool of very talented students is a great honor for me and my family,” says Garcia Vazquez.
The Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program funds students and professionals conducting research or lecturing abroad for up to one year. Garcia Vazquez will travel to Dresden, Germany, where he will conduct research with Maximina Yun, Ph.D., at the Center for Regenerative Therapies at Technische Universität.
Henry Baker, Ph.D., the Hazel Kitzman Professor and Chair of the UF Department of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology, says, “Ruben’s selection for a Fulbright scholarship is in recognition of his hard work and success to date. It also is a testament to his mentor, Ed Scott, and the UF Graduate Program in Biomedical Sciences.”
Garcia Vazquez’s research studies the regenerative ability of axolotls, an amphibian commonly known as the Mexican walking fish. Unlike humans, when axolotls are injured, they heal without inflammation or scarring. Garcia Vazquez’s work uses comparative biology and a close eye on the immune system’s macrophages to define the genetic pathways that cause this difference in response among axolotls and mammals.
“The goal is to aid humans in the process of wound healing to diminish fibrosis or scar formation after cuts and burns,” he says.
Garcia Vazquez says he’s excited to become part of the Fulbright community, and the scholarship affords him the opportunity to pursue community-building around a topic near to his heart.
“Not only do I aim to become an independent scientist with my own laboratory, but I also wish to be a scientific ambassador, mentoring students from underrepresented, minority and multi-cultural communities and encouraging students in my home of Puerto Rico to pursue higher education,” he says.
When Dr. Gonzalez at the University of Puerto Rico mentored Garcia Vazquez, he made his mentee promise to one day pay it forward by mentoring other students from low-income backgrounds who have little exposure to science as a potential career. When Garcia Vazquez travels to Dresden, he aims to help young underrepresented scientists find research opportunities and help them to prepare and succeed in a competitive European research setting.
“I believe that there are many capable, passionate and brilliant students in my community who can reach higher than what their environments have allowed them to dream. I see myself in these students, and I just want to hold their hands, tell them that everything will be fantastic and provide them the tools to build their goals even bigger,” Garcia Vazquez says. “I represent more than just a Puerto Rican student. I represent a whole community that is ready to make an even bigger impact in their countries.”