Interview Questions for Faculty Spotlight: Ruben K. Dagda, Ph.D.

Department of Pharmacology

Tell me a little about your job on the UNR campus. What's your job title and what do you do?
I am currently an Assistant Professor at the Department of Pharmacology at the University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine. I really enjoy what I do since most of my time right now is devoted towards investigating how neurons in the brain die in Parkinson's disease and other brain-related disorders by using a combination of animal mouse models, chemical and genetic models of Parkinson's disease. I am a neuroscientist and a toxicologist by training. So another chunk of my time is dedicated towards understanding how different environmental toxicants and contaminants including poisons that disrupt the function of mitochondria, which are the energy centers of cells, and how snake venom toxins disrupt neuronal function and structure to understand neuroinflammation caused by natural toxins. I also enjoy teaching graduate students and undergraduates on neurobiology and pharmacology at the School of Medicine.
Can you tell me a little about your research and what lead you to your field?
I am a neuroscientist and a toxicologist by training. I became very interested in how neurotoxins cause pathology and disrupt the vascular endothelium to produce hemorrhage and how the normal function of motor neurons while working as a research assistant for Dr. Eppie Rael at the University of Texas at El Paso. I became very intrigued as to how potent neurotoxins can cause paralysis in small rodents from the venom of some rattlesnakes of the same species. So given my research experience at UT- El Paso, I felt a passion to pursue a career in neuropharmacology at the University of Iowa under the mentorship of Dr. Stefan Strack. For five years I discovered how different proteins called kinases and phosphatases regulate the energy and survival of neurons in the context of neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson's disease and spinocerebellar ataxias. I then went to pursue postdoctoral training in cellular neuropathology under the mentorship of Dr. Charleen Chu which sparked my interest in neurodegeneration and Parkinson's disease. Right now, I am still pursuing research in Parkinson's disease using the knowledge passed on to me by my three previous mentors to pursue research in toxicology, mitochondrial biology and Parkinson's disease.
Tell me about your college education – where did you get your bachelor's degree? Masters? Any further degrees?
I became initially interested in science when my high school biology instructor Dr. Johnson encouraged me to pursue a career in the biomedical sciences during one of the Biology lab exercises. Dr. Johnson became a source of inspiration that sparked my interest in science in high school. I then pursued a Bachelor's of Science in Microbiology at the University of Texas at El Paso in my hometown El Paso, a Master's in Biology with a specialty in Immunology at the University of Texas at El Paso, a Ph.D. in Pharmacology from the University of Iowa. I went back to the frying pan to do a six year postdoctoral training in cellular neuropathology for three years under Charleen Chu's mentorship and another three years in aging and mitochondrial pathology training under the combined mentorship of Dr. Chu and Valerian Kagan.
What was your college experience like in general?
My college experience was very enjoyable in all three colleges. At the University of Texas at El Paso I became very driven to complete my college education in three years which I actually did. Dr. Eppie Rael, the Chair of Biology at the time, took me under his wing for two years to do an M.S. in Biology and he helped me to do immunology research and had the opportunity to travel to many regional and national conferences. At UT-El Paso I was very involved in extracurricular activities and participated in various associations including a professional premed association the American Society for Microbiology, the Hispanic Leadership Society and the Golden Key Honor Society. Doing my graduate work at the University of Iowa in 2001 was a very different experience. During my five years in Iowa City, I established long-term relationships with colleagues, professors, mentors and friends. The life in Iowa City was very collegial, friendly and student life was very palpable in my view. Being away from my hometown - a city where Hispanics were the ethnic majority- and having to live in a small mid-western college-driven town was initially a cultural shock but had its silver lining as I learned to interact and learn from other people of other cultures and ethnic identities. At the University of Pittsburgh, I learned to work in a professional and the medical environment and build my professional career. For example, I had a great time leading multi-collaborative projects, taught many college level lectures and courses, interacted with leaders in the field of neuropathology and published many research papers. I do miss the people from Pittsburgh, they are very humble, highly cultural and down-to-earth people and very passionate for the Steelers.
Were you a first generation or low-income college student? If so, what was that like for you? (For example: Did your family encourage getting a higher degree? Did you always feel like you would be able to get into or "make it" in college? Did you have a good support system in college? How did you overcome any obstacles that may have prevented your from obtaining a Ph.D.?)
I am a second generation degreed professional. My parents had degrees in business administration and accounting. They initially pushed me to get a medical degree but I opted to pursue a Ph.D. in Pharmacology when I learned about the field since I wanted to make a different kind of impact by actually discovering new knowledge that can help understand diseases and improve the human health condition. I never felt that I had an easy ride going through graduate school. I actually pursued an M.S. in Biology and improved my GPA to 3.75 to be more competitive to get accepted into graduate school. I always felt compelled to excel in everything I do. As a graduate student and as a postdoctoral scholar, I obtained four travel and research awards and published a research manuscript before entering to a graduate program in 1999. I obtained several research scholarships including a NIH Ruth L. Kirchstein predoctoral and postdoctoral research award, a two year NIH Minority Supplement, five conference travel awards to help pay for my research since I did not wanted to be a financial burden to my mentors while expanding my CV and being productive in the research lab.
Did you go to college with the intention of getting the job you have now? If not, explain how you came to the position you're in now at the university. Any other jobs lead you here?
Yes, I went to college with the intention to pursue a job in academia. I never bothered sending a resume to industry or a teaching job. My former postdoctoral mentor was extremely supportive and gracious to allow me to stay longer in her lab a couple of more years until I landed a job in academia.
How do you like working on a university campus?
I love working at the University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine. It is a great institution to do research, initiate collaborations while getting a great support network of faculty mentors. Dr. Iain Buxton, my chair, is very supportive of junior faculty, such as myself, in my department; all the faculty at the School of Medicine is down-to-earth, lend support when it is needed.
Is there anything else about your life that you'd like to share?
Yes, I am one of two twins who was born in El Paso, TX and raised in Mexico for 10 years. My great grandparents from my father's side were Lebanese and moved to Puebla in Mexico, whereas my mother's family grew up in Parral, Chihuhua. I am very happy to live in Reno since the desert landscape is somewhat similar to my hometown of El Paso but without the volcanic ridges. Some of my hobbies are hiking, bicycling, cross-country jogging on the foothills, collecting coffee mugs, playing basketball and hand-ball pickup games, playing chess, bowling, reading science fiction books and following the Mexican and European soccer leagues. I really look forward to the World Cup this year.
Do you have any advice about the college experience that you would offer to students who intend to go to graduate school in order to obtain a doctorate so that they may teach on campus and/or work in college administration?
I offer the same advice that I offered to the high school students during the Hispanic Leadership conference this semester: first of all, never procrastinate and build time management skills. Graduate school is a whole different ball game compared to your first four years of college. You are expected to follow through, be creative, explore, be innovative, and build your writing and networking skills so you do not have the luxury to procrastinate or pass on an opportunity. 2) Always take advantage of any opportunity that can boost your career, whether small or big. During my experience in graduate school, I obtained over nine different travel, research, conference awards and recognitions while in graduate school. 3) If you fall down, you will always learn to pick yourself up. I learned that you have to build a tough skin since I found that one is most successful after going through failure. 4) Always find a great mentor in graduate school. Being able to identify a mentor that can coach you, support you and give you life and career changing advice is critical for the success of graduate school. A mentor is someone who will give his time to devote to your success and not just to help fulfill their agenda. Five to six years of research is a long time and commitment so finding the right mentor is critical. 5) Finally, if you plan to pursue a career in administration after your Ph.D., you have to learn to diversify your education by taking on courses that are tailored for this career path. For me, I was able to get additional training in leadership and management skills by attending a variety of workshops and taking courses during my time as a postdoc which helped me be a better supervisor and manager of my lab.