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VUMC postdoctoral scientist named HHMI Hanna Gray Fellow

Feb. 18, 2021, 5:01 AM

VUMC postdoctoral fellow Valeria Reyes Ruiz, PhD, has been selected as a 2020 Hanna Gray Fellow by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
VUMC postdoctoral fellow Valeria Reyes Ruiz, PhD, has been selected as a 2020 Hanna Gray Fellow by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. (photo by Donn Jones)

by Leigh MacMillan

Valeria Reyes Ruiz, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Pathology, Microbiology and Immunology, has been selected as a 2020 Hanna Gray Fellow by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI).

The Hanna H. Gray Fellows Program aims to increase diversity in biomedical research and academic faculty by supporting exceptional early career scientists from underrepresented backgrounds, according to HHMI.

The current cohort includes 21 fellows, who represent 18 institutions across the United States and join 43 Hanna Gray Fellows selected during the first three years of the program. Each fellow receives up to $1.4 million over eight years.

“These promising researchers are poised to do groundbreaking work and ready to inspire the next generation of scientists,” HHMI President Erin O’Shea, PhD, said in a news release. “HHMI is excited to welcome our new Hanna Gray Fellows into our community and to support them in their career journeys, as individuals and as a network of leaders changing the face of science.”

Reyes Ruiz is studying how the bacterium Staphylococcus aureus (staph) acquires the essential mineral manganese and how host immune cells try to starve staph of the manganese it needs — a process called “nutritional immunity.” Identifying molecules involved in this struggle for nutrients could point to novel therapeutic targets, which are urgently needed to treat antibiotic-resistant forms of staph that cause hospital-acquired infections, infectious heart disease and pus-forming skin and soft tissue infections.

“Valeria’s selection as a Hanna Gray Fellow is a testament to the creative and exciting project she has developed and the review committee’s confidence that she will be a leader in biomedical sciences,” said Eric Skaar, PhD, MPH, Ernest W. Goodpasture Professor of Pathology, Microbiology and Immunology, and Reyes Ruiz’s mentor. “She brings an interdisciplinary approach to the program that strengthens their portfolio in infection biology at a time when the importance of infectious disease research could not be more apparent.”

Reyes Ruiz is from San Lorenzo, Puerto Rico. She was a first-generation college student at the University of Puerto Rico, Humacao and earned a BS in Microbiology. She received her PhD from the University of Pennsylvania, where she worked with Sunny Shin, PhD, studying immune detection of bacterial components by the human inflammasome, a multi-protein signaling platform.

“It is such an honor to be selected for this fellowship and join an outstanding group of Hanna Gray Fellows,” Reyes Ruiz said. “I am fortunate and grateful to have wonderful mentors including Dr. Eric Skaar, Dr. Sunny Shin and many others that helped me throughout my scientific journey. Being named a Hanna Gray Fellow means so much as this support will allow me to continue making scientific discoveries related to infectious diseases while also providing me with the opportunity to pay forward the outstanding mentorship I have received.”

Reyes Ruiz has already “shown a strong commitment” to the program’s goal of recruiting and retaining researchers from groups underrepresented in the life sciences “by taking on a significant leadership role on the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion committee of the Vanderbilt Institute for Infection, Immunology and Inflammation (VI4),” said Skaar, director of VI4.

Reyes Ruiz said she is “grateful to the Howard Hughes Medical Institute for believing in my potential and for providing me with this opportunity.

“As a Hispanic woman from a disadvantaged background, I did not always have equal access to educational resources and role models,” she said. “Receiving this fellowship provides a platform with which I can continue supporting and advocating for students interested in science by listening, sharing my experiences and working within the community to foster a welcoming environment for everyone.”

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