Alex Cruz is a doctoral student in biomedical engineering from New Jersey. He studies tissue engineering approaches to calcific aortic valve disease under the guidance of Jonathan Butcher at Cornell. Read more about Using tissue engineering approaches to better understand cardiovascular disease
Nancy Ruiz-Uribe, Ph.D. Student
Hometown: Bogotá, Colombia
BME research/concentration area: Biomedical Imaging
Lab affiliation/Adviser: Prof. Chris Schaffer/Schaffer-Nishimura lab
What brought you to Cornell?
I came to Cornell in the summer of 2015 as an undergraduate to work at the Applied and Engineering Physics department, where I worked in Chris Xu’s lab (multiphoton microscopy and various applications) and I had a great time. I loved the supportive and multicultural environment, the welcoming people, and the natural beauty of Ithaca. I also had the opportunity to visit my current lab in BME (Schaffer lab) to learn how to do surgeries. I felt very attracted to the research performed in the Schaffer Lab because it merged my physics and biology background. I applied for the PhD in BME so I could keep working with Dr. Schaffer.
What fueled your interest in biomedical engineering? What do you like the most about it?
I studied physics and biology in my undergrad, and my research interests have always been aligned with microscopy and imaging. I wanted to continue to do research in imaging, but with a medical/translational focus, and biomedical engineering seemed like the perfect fit. What I like the most about BME is how interdisciplinary it can be, and how we can collaborate with people from different departments to pursue new and innovative ideas.
Brief description of your research:
I work with Dr. Chris Schaffer on understanding the molecular mechanisms leading to blood flow deficits and cognitive impairment in Alzheimer’s disease (AD). This devastating disease affects millions of people worldwide and there is no cure or treatment for it. My research focuses on detecting deficits in cerebral blood flow in AD mouse models and working on how we can improve them. I use an advanced microscopy technique called multiphoton microscopy that helps measure blood flow on individual vessels as tiny as capillaries. I combine this technique with molecular biology, behavioral tests, and basic neuroscience techniques to address the cause of blood flow deficits and how they affect cognition.
What’s the most rewarding part of your Ph.D. experience so far?
The most rewarding part has been being able to work on such interesting projects with such smart and organized people. I love being able to collaborate with scientists from different disciplines, such as immunology, neuroscience, microscopy and computer science in order to develop creative and innovative solutions for very hard problems.
. . . . Your greatest challenge?
Being a PhD student can be very rewarding but also a very exhausting and isolating experience. Working very long hours on my own and becoming independent have been the most challenging parts.
Advice for students considering research in BME?
I would say, go for it! BME is an area that offers a space for people with many different backgrounds, interests and skills. Cornell is a highly interdisciplinary and collaborative environment. I have learned many different techniques, some that I would never have imagined of doing myself. If you like medical problems seen from an engineering perspective, and if you like helping people, I think BME is the right fit for you.
While at Cornell/BME, what did you do for fun?
I became involved in several clubs that I felt aligned to pretty early in my career. The first of them was Grad SWE (Society of Women Engineers), which I joined with a couple other BME students. Being on the executive board of this club allowed me to develop a great set of professional and networking skills. I met many amazing women engineers/scientists that have become role models for me. I had a similar experience when I joined GWiS (Graduate Women in Science), and in particular, their Science on Tap program, for which I am an officer this year. I organized monthly science communication talks from faculty all over Cornell, and a science communication program for graduate students and postdocs during the summer. I also became involved with ComSciCon and helped organize the first version of ComSciCon NY, which brought students and speakers from all over NY state. In addition, I have discovered several new hobbies, such as swimming and rock climbing. All of these activities have made my time outside the lab pretty enjoyable.
How has the Cornell faculty impacted your time at Cornell?
I am still amazed by how available, collaborative and supportive the faculty at Cornell are. Faculty want to see you succeed and they will support you no matter what. That is something that I didn’t experience my undergrad institution.
Has being at Cornell, or studying BME, taught you anything new about yourself?
One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is that there are many career paths after a PhD. When I first joined, I thought academia was the only path possible. Nonetheless, the more time I spend here, the more I realize there are many things I can do with my skills and many opportunities lie ahead. I’ve also learned new ways to push myself, and the BME program has definitely helped to get the best out of me and exploit my potential to the fullest.
Have you explored outside of Cornell? What is your favorite thing to do in Ithaca? Any recommendations?
Ithaca has a lot of natural beauty. There are many gorgeous waterfalls and hiking trails, and with Cayuga lake so close, Cornell and Ithaca have the perfect scenario for outdoor activities. I enjoy swimming in the lake, as well as going to the parks for hikes. My favorites are the Watkins Glens State Park and the Adirondacks regions.
When you reflect on your time at Cornell, what stands out the most to you?
The people and the community, and how supportive everyone is, especially with international students.
What’s the next step for you after Cornell?
I really like to do research so I’m hoping to apply for postdocs in academia or industry after I finish my PhD. I’m still unsure what my career goals are, but I would definitely like to continue biomedical research, in a more translational way, that can benefit patients.