Jimena Ruiz ’19 is the kind of person who asks questions, and that genuine curiosity changed the course of her life.
For most of her life, the biology major was convinced she was going to be a doctor. During her first year, she signed up for a science course with James Irvine Foundation Chair in Biological Sciences Sylvia Vetrone ’99—and as the professor led the class through the complexities of living organisms, Ruiz was unafraid to raise her hand to question the material, seek clarification, and dig deeper. In the student’s inquiry, Vetrone recognized the makings of a researcher.
At the end of the semester, Vetrone approached Ruiz with a question of her own: how about pursuing her curiosity further with research?
At first, Ruiz was hesitant; a lab wasn’t what she had in mind. But with encouragement from both Vetrone, as well as her peers already involved in research, Ruiz said yes—and it changed the course of her academic career.
Rather than adopting a project from someone else, the idea was to pursue her own, personal experiment. Ruiz took inspiration from her interest in homeopathic medicine and decided to study the benefits of essiac tea. The brew is a blend of herbs: burdock root, rhubarb root, sheep sorrel, and slippery elm bark. Ruiz first tested whether it improves longevity by feeding different concentrations to microscopic worms, who were then exposed to oxidative stress.
“With essiac, they did live longer,” Ruiz said. “It was really exciting. Just doing more research and everything, I got more excited and started leaning more towards that subject.”
By her junior year, Ruiz expanded her investigation: experimenting with essiac’s cancer-fighting potential. By now, she was mostly her own, independent researcher; while working closely with Vetrone as a sophomore, the professor helped Ruiz build up her proficiency in the lab and self-assurance in her work. By the time Ruiz was testing essiac’s effects on prostate cancer and different types of leukemia and myelomas, she had grown so much as a scientist that she was confident enough to help her peers with similar projects, as well.
She was taking full ownership of her work, another quality Vetrone had recognized in her and knew would make her a good researcher.
As with the longevity tests, the anti-cancer tests proved out Ruiz’s hypothesis. The cancer cells were dying.
Ruiz hopes to have the results published. In the meantime, her impressive work won her the Outstanding Research in Biology award at the 2019 Honors Convocation.
“She puts herself out there and she wants to grow, and she did,” Vetrone said. “She took full advantage of her college experience to grow academically, professionally, and as a person.”
The professor was more than a great mentor for Ruiz; she also connected her with a fellowship that afforded her the experiment resources she needed.
The summer between her junior and senior year, Ruiz applied to and won the Barbara Ondrasik ’57 and Dr. David E. Groce SURF Fellowship, which helps sophomores and juniors engage in substantial academic research or a creative project, regardless of their major.
“A funny thing is I’m a Palmer, and Barbara Ondrasik, she’s a Palmer alumna. So after I got accepted to the fellowship, she actually called me and we talked on the phone for 30-40 minutes about Palmer stuff and about my research, and I thought that was really great,” Ruiz said.
After graduating, Ruiz plans to take a year to work and hone her phlebotomy skills before pursuing her master’s degree and, eventually, Ph.D. in cancer research.
“It’s really interesting how just being able to come to Whittier College and get exposed to all of these different experiences and opportunities makes you completely change your career path sometimes,” she said.