Photo: Jason Varney Photography
For Ben Ortiz, an assistant professor in biology at Hunter College of the City University of New York, a career in science was something he couldn't imagine when he was growing up. Now, he works to convince his students that they, too, have broader prospects, particularly in the sciences.
Ortiz grew up in the diverse, low-to-middle income community of Coney Island in Brooklyn, NY. After a microbiology course in high school piqued his interest, he enrolled at Hunter with the intention of becoming a medical technician like his mother.
Being "ruled by practical considerations," which often goes hand-in-hand with a disadvantaged background, was a serious obstacle to pursuing science, Ortiz recalls. In his freshman year, when a professor talked to him about the possibility of graduate school in science, Ortiz told him, "I don't have that kind of time. I have to go out and get a job."
But after his sophomore year, he received an NIH-funded Minority Access to Research Careers (MARC) grant that allowed him to quit his part-time job as a bank teller and try research on slime mold. By the end of the summer, he was "hooked." The experience gave Ortiz his first coauthorship on a publication and a boost in confidence that led him to switch majors to biology and enroll in graduate school.
Throughout his New York school experiences, Ortiz had been exposed to diverse student bodies. But starting out as a graduate student at Stanford University, he found minority students lacking and the condescension towards them "thick" at times. In his interview, he remembers being told: "It's so rare to find a qualified minority candidate for these positions."
"I just think that not much was expected of me," he says. "It didn't affect me, because I was very hardheaded and my mentor was very supportive." Five years later he graduated with a PhD in immunology. After a postdoctoral stint at the University of California, Berkeley, he was recruited back to Hunter by the chair of the biology department and through the Research Centers in Minority Institutions (RCMI) Program. He decided to return in large part because of the opportunity to work with diverse, hardworking students with whom he could relate. "I know where they're coming from, quite literally," he says.
At Hunter, Ortiz "wanted to build a strong research lab and have that lab dually serve as an educational springboard for novice scientists." True to his goals, he now runs a productive lab studying gene regulation in chromatin during T cell development, and has published multiple times with his trainees. "My students generated the data leading to the NIH R01 grant award and CAREER award from the NSF, which now fund our research," says Ortiz. "We discovered a new DNA regulatory element that combats gene silencing by chromatin in T cells. Further studies should increase understanding of how T cells selectively activate genes and inform the design of more effective gene-therapy vectors."
Ortiz remains in close contact with his former students, many now in PhD and MD programs. He says, "I never want them to wonder if I ever wonder how they are doing."