An NCI-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center
By Katie Neith | January 13, 2017
beckman research - jose ortiz Graduate student Jose Ortiz

When Jose Ortiz was growing up in Mexico, he and his sister often caught the tadpoles hatching in large puddles that gathered during heavy rains. They would put them in jars and Ortiz would marvel over their day-to-day development as tails seemed to shrink and legs sprung from their bodies.

“One morning, the jar was full of frogs and at first I thought they had somehow come in the night and eaten all the tadpoles,” remembers Ortiz, who now studies pancreatic cell development as a second year student at the Irell & Manella Graduate School of Biological Sciences at City of Hope. “I was so curious about how the tadpoles — and other animals and insects — grew and changed. In school, text was hard for me so I was drawn to the pictures I saw in life science. These things got me engaged.”

But the path from frog legs to stem cells was neither straight nor easy. Ortiz and his family came to California when we was 7 and he spoke no English. He says teachers routinely ignored him and he had to rely on drawings to teach himself the language of his new home. Through this visual education, Ortiz discovered he is good at art, but he did not understand how to use it apply it to a career path.

“Growing up in the hood is hard,” says Ortiz, who is from Los Angeles. “You need to survive, so painting and drawing helped me deal with stress. I became interested in science and medicine because I saw how things like lack of access to health care affected my community, and found that I was motived by questions like, ‘What is research? What is cancer and why do so many people die from it?’ I wanted to learn more.”

Finding Inspiration

In 2009, he began his studies at UCLA and graduated with a degree in molecular cell and developmental biology six years later. During his time at UCLA, Ortiz attended the Eugene and Ruth Roberts Summer Student Academy, which gives college students a hands-on research experience at City of Hope. So when it was time to select a graduate school, Ortiz says the choice was easy.

“It just made sense for me to come here. I knew what to expect — that it was friendly, cooperative and close to my family,” he says. “And they do great work here.”

But despite feeling at home at City of Hope, Ortiz had trouble shaking the notion that he didn’t quite belong.

“As first a generation undocumented immigrant, with a mom who didn’t go to college and no one in my family who has done science … I don’t know a lot of students like me,” says Ortiz. “According to statistics about people who grew up like me, I shouldn’t be here. I felt like I had to work 10 times harder than everyone to be at their level.”

Then, in the spring of 2016 during his first year at City of Hope, Ortiz was selected as a Ford Fellowship recipient. The Ford Fellowship is a highly competitive program administered by the Fellowships Office of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. It seeks to increase diversity in academia in order to enrich education opportunities for all students, and holds a conference each September in Washington, D.C. Ortiz attended the conference as one of only 60 predoctoral students from across the country selected as new fellows.

“I consider myself an average student, so when I received the award I was surprised, but I think a point of the foundation is to look for people who are not typical students and try to keep them engaged,” says Ortiz. “The conference encouraged me to keep going with my Ph.D. for sure.”

He says one of the biggest benefits of the meeting was connecting with people like him who had also struggled to find their place in academia. One student who made a huge impact on Ortiz was a blind woman whom he bonded with over being ignored early in their schooling. Initially told that she couldn’t take the GRE because they didn’t have accommodations for her, she didn’t quit until she found someone who would monitor the test. Today, she’s a postdoctoral chemist.

“She said that while being blind was initially difficult, it became a huge advantage – it’s all about her mind,” says Ortiz. “She has to visualize what molecules look like and it’s all physics for her. It’s really cool how something that could have worked against her is actually her strength.”

He also attended a session for people of color in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields, where students and faculty alike shared stories of lacking resources and feeling out of place. It was there that Ortiz says he got some “real talk” from a professor that left an impression.

“She told me, ‘You’re enough. You don’t have to work 10 times harder and sacrifice yourself to get the same degree that everyone else is getting,’” he says. “As a student, my self-worth is something I question every single day. Especially for people who doesn’t see others like themselves — we question it every single moment. Knowing there’s a network, a support group that understands you, makes the journey less lonely.”

Applying Lessons Learned

Ortiz returned from the conference energized with self-confidence and eager to be a resource for other nontraditional students.

“I almost didn’t apply because I was intimidated and thinking I wasn’t good enough, so I want other students who have a similar background as me to apply and know it’s possible,” he says. “I learned to see the good in people, including myself — everyone has a function and contribution to society. I left very inspired.”

Ortiz says the experienced has encouraged him to apply to other fellowships. He also learned that his biggest worry — writing in English — is one of his bigger strengths.

“People say I’m good at it and I learned that through the application process. But I can still relate to other students who have English as an obstacle, so when I do my research presentations, I really refrain from using text — I mostly use pictures,” says Ortiz. “I draw all my figures myself. I explain science with pictures because that’s how I learned — if you understand my drawing, we can connect. It’s important for me because if it’s visually engaging; people get interested."

Ortiz is studying pancreas cell development in the lab of Ben Shih, Ph.D., assistant professor of translational research and cellular therapeutics.

“I really enjoy working in the Shih lab; my projects involved a lot of visual work,” he says. “We do a lot of immunofluorescence work — we stain cells using different fluorescent markers to look at where proteins are expressed.”

In particular, the Shih lab is interested in understanding how endocrine progenitor cells in the pancreas form. Beta cells, which make insulin, come from endocrine progenitor cells, so if researchers can understand the molecular mechanisms that control the production of beta cells then, in concept, they can use that to their advantage to make beta cells outside the body and transplant them to diabetic patients.

“That would be a cure, essentially — that’s the hope,” says Ortiz. “Our work could go beyond diabetes, such as pancreatic cancers, which is one of the most lethal types. If we learn more about the basic mechanisms governing pancreas cell development, we could understand how they become dysregulated in various diseases.

“I found Ben’s lab and was able to go back to the roots of what really started my interest in science and biology, and that’s cell development,” Ortiz continues. “It’s ironic how everything worked out.”