Amanda Acosta-Ruiz: From NHI to the battle vs. coronavirus
As a graduate student at Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences in New York City, studying cell biology and neuroscience, Amanda Acosta-Ruiz started 2020 thinking about a few different things.
She was on her fourth year of research, moving toward the Ph.D. thesis she’s working on. At the beginning of the year, she was one of 40 students nationwide accepted to the Yale Ciencia Academy, a year-long program that provides graduate students with opportunities for mentoring, career development, and science outreach. She was also thinking about the direction she wanted to go in her career upon graduation, be it research, academia, or science policy — which are all viable and enticing options to her.
But Acosta-Ruiz, a Puerto Rico native who just turned 27, had her life transformed by the coronavirus pandemic that’s hit her new home city particularly hard. She’s had to practice social distancing in her Upper East Side apartment, doing the school work she can, but separated from her lab, which is adjacent to one of the hospitals tending to patients battling COVID-19.
She may soon be reunited with her lab, though, in order to run the tests that New Yorkers need in order to get a handle on the developing crisis.
“The test that determines whether or not you have coronavirus replicating in your body is basically a biochemical reaction that is very frequently run by molecular biologists,” she explains. “This is one of the moments where, you know, being able to run a certain biochemical reaction is actually really, really important for society. And we do it multiple times a week as part of our weekly activities in lab.”
She is, along with a number of her friends in grad school, volunteering to be part of the efforts in running tests. Though she’s not part of the first wave of volunteers selected to train this week, she could soon be called into action as the need for testing increases.
And she’s been engaged, even before getting this opportunity to directly help, by working on the massive public education effort required to get people to embrace social distancing.
“One thing you can do on a smaller scale, is just making sure that people in your social circle are well informed and are having access to good information and avoiding the spread of misinformation.” She’s been working with the Federation of American Scientists on the Ask a Scientist website that matches people’s questions about coronavirus to scientifically-backed information, in order to keep the flow of good information going. It’s even being integrated into one of the most important places for good answers to go: Amazon’s Alexa.
Acosta-Ruiz’s journey, from Academia del Perpetuo Socorro in San Juan, to the University of Pennsylvania, to Cornell’s medical school, was propelled by NHI. She made the trip to Rochester two years in a row, first as an LDZ student in 2010 and then as a junior counselor in 2011.
“It was a very welcoming, nurturing environment for someone like me,” she recalls. “I’d never done public speaking done anything government-related or political, and felt very comfortable doing it there.” She went from losing an election to participating as a Cabinet member, and laughs about the learn-as-you-go phenomenon of “all failing together to try to get through the first day.”
It did leave a lasting impression on her, though, even though she chose a science track. Of her career options, becoming involved in science policy, and being able to help guide the government’s response to scientific matters, is especially enticing to her. While the current pandemic hasn’t changed that for her, it has made its importance vivid.