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Staff Spotlight: Edwin Paz, PhD

Friday, July 13, 2018
By Imani Taylor
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While most of us think of pizza as simply a tasty treat, the La Spada lab’s Edwin Paz, PhD, compares its preparation to the experiments he conducts in the research lab. He says that the countless attempts it’s taken him to prepare a tasteful pizza resembles his many attempts in his current research. In this weeks ‘Faculty Spotlight’ interview, Paz tells us what he is currently researching, how his PhD in Cancer Biology ties into neurology, and one interesting fact about himself that very few people know.

What does a typical work day for you consist of?
I am a postdoctoral researcher in the La Spada laboratory. So, a typical work day for me is atypical, which means that each day is entirely unique. I am fortunate because most of my days are filled with feelings of scientific curiosity and excitement since I genuinely enjoy research. Most of the time, you will find me either on the lab bench conducting experiments, planning experiments, reading research articles, or writing. I also mentor undergraduate students, so a percentage of my time is also invested in training my mentees. On specific days, I attempt to contribute to science in other ways such as lecturing the next generation of scientists or volunteering in outreach activities. In between these activities, you will usually see me with a cup of coffee or tea, having spirited discussions with friends and colleagues.

You have a PhD in Cancer biology, could you explain how that ties into neurology?
I consider myself to have a diverse research training background. I initially obtained my undergraduate degree in Microbiology, Immunology, and Molecular Genetics. I was first provided an opportunity to understand molecular and cellular biology from a microbial perspective. During these formative years, I learned many of the foundational underpinnings of molecular biology that I now implement in lab to this day. For example, I was exposed to CRISPR in my undergraduate microbial courses, well before it was adapted to other systems and became the revolutionary genetic tool that it is today. Eventually, I took courses in advanced genetics and virology which is where I learned that specific microbes were associated with cancer. It was then that my interest in cancer research began. Fast forwarding to today, I study some of the same foundational molecular pathways and utilize techniques that I learned in microbiology and cancer biology.

My goal is to now apply the lessons I have gained towards understanding the molecular mechanisms of neurological diseases. The lessons I learned as an undergraduate and graduate student, still apply and reverberate to this day. It taught me that scientific progress and advances can be driven by diverse scientific perspectives. I am extremely fortunate to be in the La Spada lab where interdisciplinary approaches are highly encouraged and nurtured. It is a productive and creative environment to be in. Although I no longer study cancer per say, I do conduct research on pathways that are evolutionarily conserved and exploited by microbes, cancer, and neurological diseases. In the near future, it would not surprise me to see drugs that were meant to treat cancer patients be repurposed as treatment modalities in neurological or neurodegenerative diseases.

What are you currently working on/researching?

I currently have two major projects that I am pursuing. One project focuses on the fundamental mechanisms of autophagy in disease. Autophagy is a process that results in degradation of macromolecules and damaged organelles and this pathway ultimately culminates at the lysosome. Dysregulation of this process contributes to disease. Studies from our lab and others have demonstrated that this pathway is a potential tractable target for therapeutic intervention in the context of neurodegenerative disorders. I am therefore interested in studying the role nutrients and metabolism in the autophagy process. My aim is to identify molecular mechanisms that regulate autophagy in order to target diseases such as neurodegeneration.

My other project is also a scientific passion of mine and has to do with understanding the interplay between organelle biogenesis and disease. To this end, I am currently creating cellular models using CRISPR/Cas9 technology that will aid in understanding whether organelles such as peroxisomes contribute to disease. With the help of collaborators, I have identified potential factors that contribute to peroxisome biogenesis and am now focused on translating what I have found in cancer cell models into neurons and glial cells…stay tuned.

What do you enjoy most about your work?
What I enjoy most about the research I am conducting is knowing that our work is driven by the understanding that what we are attempting to uncover treatments for patients afflicted with disease. I never forget that although I am fortunate to pursue a passion of studying the uncharted, there are patients counting on us to generate the ideas and tools necessary to improve current treatment strategies. Sometimes my research takes me off the beaten path but I was extremely fortunate to have first-hand experience tackling challenging, yet exciting, research enigmas during my graduate studies. I try to apply those lessons as best I can towards my research today, it keeps me grounded and focused when the “going gets tough.” I also enjoy knowing that I am also teaching and mentoring the next generation of scientists who will also contribute to uncovering novel treatment strategies. I take this responsibility sincerely and try to train both competent scientists at the research level who are also conscious of the principle of primum nil nocere. To that end, I also truly enjoy working with collaborative scientists and physicians that share a vision of genuinely improving the lives of others.

How long have you been in your field of work?
I have conducted research since my undergraduate days but I began my current research endeavors in autophagy and organelle biogenesis in June 2014.

I also consider lecturing and mentoring part of my field of work and began that experience in 2013 when I was an instructor at the community college level. Last year, I was fortunate to help design and lead a course at San Diego State University as an IRACDA postdoctoral fellow at UCSD. The course I helped design included undergraduate and graduate students and focused on seminal papers in the CRISPR/Cas9 field. It was filled with amazing students who were conducting research in labs at UCSD, the Salk Institute, Scripps Research Institute, and in industry. It was gratifying to observe the maturation of the students over a scholastic year.

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
I love to spend time with my wife. She is one of the pillars in my life who also happens to be a postdoctoral research scientist. We try and maximize our time together whenever possible and since we are very close to our friends and family we make it a point to spend time with them anytime we can. I also enjoy to read. Unfortunately, I don’t have as much time, so I have now turned to audiobooks to supplement this hobby. I particularly enjoy reading or listening to books about transformative figures in history. On a few occasions, I’ve been known to experiment and cook pizza from scratch.

Who would you say is your favorite or most ideal "transformative history figure," and why?

I have no particular transformative historical figure that I consider my favorite, since each person I’ve read about has had their own unique strengths and weaknesses. I tend to enjoy reading about visionaries who helped pave the way for the lives we live today. Figures such as Alexander Hamilton, Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King Jr, Frida Kahlo, and Carl Sagan are particularly impactful.

Is pizza your favorite food? Could you compare the preparation of the pizza you make from scratch to your daily work? If so, how?

Pizza is indeed one of my favorite foods and the principles of cooking it can be argued to have similarities to conducting experiments. It took me countless attempts and some unappetizing pizza dinner nights with my wife to eventually stumble upon an edible pizza pie protocol. At first, I tried following recipes perfectly, much like I have done in lab, but the flavor profiles were always a little off. It probably had to do with a combination of minor things such as the type of salt and water used. Eventually I realized that trusting my own instincts and taste buds led to better pizzas. Eventually, I created a base tomato sauce and dough which I continuously try and improve upon. This process has been extremely fun and it requires a lot of learning but I am now mostly content with the pizza pies I make, especially when shared with family and friends.

What is one interesting fact about yourself that no one knows (or a select few)?
As the first person in my Guatemalan family to conduct scientific studies, I consider myself to be extremely blessed to conduct research here at Duke and more specifically in the La Spada lab. Although I truly enjoy the amazing people and environment here, I hail from South Central Los Angeles, so my basketball allegiances lie with my alma mater: UCLA. I will admit that I do root for Duke whenever they play any other team, something I never would have imagined before. You may even see me don a Duke hat while on my nature walks.


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Paz celebrates with his first undergraduate mentees cohort at UCSD (Anujin Dambaev and Kevin Trieu-Nguyen).