For Harvard Medical School’s Jessica Ruiz, M.D. ’18, being a caretaker was always a familiar role. The eldest of three children in a Mexican-American family in Texas, Ruiz learned from her parents, aunts, and uncles the importance of setting a good example and being responsible for her younger siblings and cousins.
“Being the oldest influenced how I approached life,” Ruiz said. “I want to take care of other people and be a source of both advice and comfort.”
Ruiz has spent years guiding others; however, her own path — at least in biomedical science — hasn’t always been so clear. She is thankful that throughout her undergraduate and medical school career others also looked out for her. The mentored research she participated in as an undergraduate and at Harvard Medical School (HMS), and the support she received from friends, helped her find her own way in research and medicine.
Watching over others
Throughout high school and college, Ruiz volunteered as a youth leader at her church, tutoring middle-school math students in an after-school program, and tutoring adolescents at Texas Children’s Hospital who needed help with their homework.
At HMS, the London Society student was involved with the Prevention Health Awareness and Choice through Education (PHACE) program, providing sexual education counseling to Boston youth at high risk for teen pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases. Ruiz believes the program’s value lies in providing facts and information, clearing up rumors about sexual issues, and giving teens a safe environment in which to ask questions about sex and get candid answers from a physician in training.
Hearts, young and old
As a junior at Rice University, Ruiz shadowed a pediatric cardiothoracic surgeon at Texas Children’s. What started as a one-time visit turned into a semester-long experience, with Ruiz visiting the hospital several times a month to observe in the clinic and the operating room.
“Just seeing those tiny, little hearts — babies a couple months old — and being able to help completely change their life, was an incredible experience,” she said.
When interviewed in 2016, Ruiz had yet to decide on a specialty, but said pediatric cardiology was one of her top choices for a residency. Since then, she has been selected as a 2018‒19 intern in the Boston Combined Residency Program in Pediatrics at Boston Children’s Hospital.
Honored for her work
As a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Medical Research Fellow, Ruiz did research on vascular calcification in the Aikawa-Aikawa lab at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Although the work involved adult cardiology, Ruiz said her experiences in the lab were integral to her scientific training and valuable in any area of medicine.
Upon graduation, Ruiz was one of 14 members of the Class of 2018 who received the M.D. degree with Honors in a Special Field, magna cum laude (additional graduates received Honors, cum laude). To earn this distinction, Ruiz wrote a thesis based on her work with principal investigator Elena Aikawa at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The thesis was reviewed by a four-person faculty committee, including two professors with expertise in Ruiz’s thesis topic. Ruiz had a 90-minute examination and defense with the committee that subsequently recommended she receive the magna Honors. The recommendation was then approved by the HMS Committee on Honors and Awards.
“This distinction recognizes Dr. Ruiz as an emerging physician-scientist, but also signifies the quality of her work and the contribution it represents to her research field,” noted Stephen Volante, Honors Program coordinator at HMS.
Ruiz said the guidance she received from Aikawa, mentor Joshua Hutcheson, and others in the lab was kind, dedicated, and encouraging. As a woman in science, Ruiz said it was great to be mentored by a female physician and to have had the opportunity to observe Aikawa’s leadership in academia and science.
While at the HMS, Aikawa gave Ruiz the opportunity to see how the scientific publishing review process works. Ruiz was able to contribute to review articles as well as help revise articles under review — both important skills for researchers.
“I’ve been able to get some initial experience in the other side of being a scientist,” said Ruiz.
Learning the art of science
In order to pursue research work as an undergraduate, Ruiz applied to several programs as a freshman. She was accepted into the National Science Foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates program and was paired with a senior Rice University researcher who was just beginning a new research project.
“It taught me how the whole scientific method starts from the very beginning,” said Ruiz.
The research combined biology and materials science and gave Ruiz an understanding of experimental methods, such as how to do chemical analysis and spectroscopy. Ruiz has presented on her work at a scientific conference.
Ruiz stayed on at the lab working a few hours a week until graduation. Over two summer breaks as an undergraduate, she also participated in research at the Yale School of Medicine as part of its Biomedical Science Training and Enrichment Program and at MIT as an Amgen Scholar.
Finding her own flock
At HMS, Ruiz found a niche in the Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology program, where students form close bonds and help each other through the pressures of med school.
“I know we’re all going to maintain those friendships throughout the rest of our careers,” she said.
This article was originally published Aug. 12, 2016, News and Research, Harvard Medical School. It has been lightly edited.