First-generation College Student Eager to Give Back to their Community

Grace Milauskas
October 27, 2022
Ph.D. candidate Denys Rujchanarong.

Being a first-generation college graduate can be daunting to anyone, but not for Denys Rujchanarong. Instead, Ph.D. candidate Rujchanarong saw it as a challenge and opportunity to improve her community and to give back.

While in her undergrad years, she studied biochemistry at California State University of Long Beach (CSULB) and worked as an AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) tutor at her high school alma mater while being enrolled as a full-time student.

She was introduced to research through the NIH-funded research scholar program, BUILD (Building Infrastructure Leading to Diversity). The program is designed to implement innovative approaches to engaging and retaining students from diverse backgrounds into biomedical research.

"BUILD has been one of the main contributing factors that have led to my development as a researcher passionate about health disparities," said Rujchanarong.

"As a BUILD scholar, my research in Dr. Ashley Carter's lab focused on trying to understand the gender disparities in Drosophila melanogaster exposed to high versus low sugar diets."

Once she arrived at MUSC, Rujchanarong joined Dr. Peggi Angel's lab, where she is focusing her research on investigating the ancestry-dependent molecular signatures contributing to increased breast cancer risk. "Black women are affected with significantly higher breast cancer mortality rates compared to white women, despite them having a similar incidence of breast cancer," said Rujchanarong. "Thus, there is an immediate need to understand why Black women are diagnosed at younger ages and with more aggressive breast cancers, contributing to higher mortality rates."

The Angel lab uses imaging mass spectrometry (IMS) to investigate spatial collagen proteomic and N-glycosylation regulation in genetic ancestry-defined normal breast tissue. To their knowledge, they are the first group to have identified specific N-glycan molecular signatures that are associated with different socioeconomic status and breast cancer risk factors based on ancestry. Rujchanarong believes that uncovering breast cancer risk biomarkers that are associated with specific underprivileged groups can positively impact health equity for communities like hers that need it most.

"As a first-generation Latina scientist, my passion for helping underrepresented communities and implementing the importance of representation has been a part of my identity for as long as I can remember," said Rujchanarong.

Earlier this year, she was invited to talk about what it means to be a scientist to a class of second graders from a majority Hispanic elementary school in Orange County, California. "This was a heartwarming experience. These young students were so excited to learn what a scientist is and all they can do, and best of all, it was with a Latina scientist the students could identify with," said Rujchanarong.

Additionally, Rujchanarong had the privilege of presenting a talk regarding breast cancer prevention and control to Spanish-speaking mothers in a program known as Abrazos, a family literacy program for Hispanic mothers in Charleston. This experience sparked her interest in patient advocacy and bridging the gap between health science and underserved communities.

We asked Rujchanarong to share some of her thoughts about science and her MUSC experiences.

What drives your commitment to science?

My career and personal goals, which are focused on serving underrepresented and disadvantaged communities towards achieving health diversity, equity and inclusion, drive my commitment to biomedical sciences. My research in Dr. Angel's lab, focused on investigating ancestry-dependent molecular signatures contributing to high breast cancer risk, is doubly important to me as a scientist and an under-represented Latina from a disadvantaged community. Representation is very important to me; I am dedicated to health disparities research in hopes of lessening the disproportionate burden that underrepresented communities face and being a role model for other young Latinx students.

How has your experience at MUSC and the College of Graduate Studies impacted your approach to science and opportunities for the future?

Joining the Angel lab has been such a rewarding experience that has nourished my passion for helping underrepresented and underserved communities. Our team has provided me with the opportunities, support and motivation to conduct cancer disparities research, present at national conferences, and continue to be an avid volunteer for Spanish-speaking communities. Additionally, our lab is highly collaborative with other MUSC labs, including the Drake and Mehta lab and non-MUSC labs based in Los Angeles, California, Bloomington, Indiana, Madison, Wisconsin, etc., which have opened the doors to many mentors and colleagues.

What advice would you give to current students?

Be open-minded. This is the time to try new things and really discover where your passions lie. Pay close attention to the places, research topics, and people that make you feel the happiest and most excited. You may think you want to do one thing but end up on a completely different but better-suited path for yourself.

Going forward, what things do you think MUSC and CGS should be focusing on for the future?

More focus should be on diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I). This can look like increasing diversity outreach and training for students, faculty and administration.