In November 2021 we hosted a Lab Member of the Year contest. This contest allowed for various members of the research community to be highlighted for their contributions to their respective labs. At the end of it all Dr. Francesc X. "Xavi" Ruiz Figueras, an assistant research professor at Rutgers' Center for Advanced Biotechnology and Medicine, took first place and became ABclonal's Lab Member of the Year.
Dr. Ruiz Figueras is a highly skilled scientist who has made significant scientific contributions to the fields of enzymology and structural biology studying the structure and function of human and viral proteins, especially HIV-1 reverse transcriptase and human aldo-keto reductases, with an emphasis on catalysis and inhibition for drug discovery1. In his spare time he enjoys playing basketball, reading, and spending time with his family. Currently, he is reading a book about philosophy, which he feels has applications to living during these pandemic times. He believes we should take whatever the life lessons we can take from this book in order to hopefully be more resilient.
We sat down with Dr. Ruiz to discuss his lab life at Rutgers, his current research, and what he is looking forward to researching in the future.
How does it feel to be voted Lab Member of the Year by your fellow researchers?
It was a very a nice surprise, it was totally unexpected!
What surprised you the most when you started working in your current lab at Rutgers? And what makes working in the lab enjoyable for you?
I already knew the work of the lab. So, what surprised me most, is that it is a nice the scientific environment with a lot of collaborations of these top scientists that I even knew by name before I met them by reading their papers. So, it was exciting to be exposed to this excellent environment. Also, how the team made the time for me, it was very nice to learn from them.
What makes a lab enjoyable is that you have work where you combine very different tools. And while you are working in a team, at the same time, your individual contributions can be decisive. So, I think it's very dynamic work and also being able to interact with my colleagues makes it very enjoyable to me.
What do you enjoy most about working in the scientific community?
What I enjoy most is to be able to answer all of these questions that we are formulating ourselves to understand what it's happening in biology. And also, of course, to be able to contribute to common knowledge and that this is contributing to find new tracks to explore down the road. Even if maybe it's not a direct thing sometimes. Curiosity I would say is my main driver for what I enjoy most.
Is it the love of curiosity that drove you to a career in STEM? Or was that something you discovered after you joined the scientific community?
Yeah, I think it was a little bit in the in between because I started doing research during my master’s and sort of started to see gradually the big picture. When I was in graduate studies, that's when I realized that's this is what I love to do.
What questions are you most excited to work on right now within your research?
So, before the pandemic, I was involved in research trying to find new inhibitors or drugs for HIV proteins. And I'm now currently trying to do that with SARS-CoV-2 and other RNA viruses with pandemic potential. So this is, like, very exciting, and also at the same time, like it feels like an important duty.
What's the big thing you want to achieve with the research you're doing right now?
Yeah, so what I want is to contribute to finding new drugs, because even though we have fantastic vaccines, and now we have two FDA approved drugs already, we know that the virus can probably generate resistance to those drugs, down the road. So, it's very important to be ahead of the virus. So yeah, that's one of the goals of our lab more immediately now, since we have already some research along these lines.
In particular, we'll be trying to knock down the polymerase of the virus, so it's an enzyme that copies the genetic material. So, the challenge here, it's not only one protein, it's the core of it, it's three proteins and they are challenging to produce. Later on, we have to find the structures of that complex... And that will be done by cli electron microscopy, we have already determined one structure in the lab from another virus. So, we certainly have to learn a lot more but that's very exciting at the same time.
What is one area of research or one topic that you haven't been able to research yet that you want to in the future?
I've been involved with cancer and viruses. In the future, it will be for me interesting to go with anti-microbial drug discovery, because it's like something that maybe it's not matching the news, but the current antibiotics generate more and more resistant bacteria. And so that's something that I feel is interesting and it's also a societal need. So yeah, I will be excited to work on that in the future.
Is there anything you’d like for us to talk about?
We recently published a paper in Journal of Medicinal Chemistry, about a new class of inhibitors for HIV, that it's actually not knocking down one target, but two at the same time, and I feel this is very exciting. And we're on the verge, also, of more developments on SARS-CoV-2 but we still have to work a little bit on that.