Carlos Ortiz-Bonilla, a Puerto Rican native who has been studying science at the University of Rochester for the past seven years, is the first graduate of a new course concentration in cancer biology, spearheaded by the Wilmot Cancer Institute.
The cancer biology concentration was developed in partnership with UR’s doctoral programs, such as the Pathology-Cell Biology of Disease graduate program from which Ortiz-Bonilla earned his degree.
“I feel so privileged to have the honor of being the first to complete this new curriculum,” said Ortiz-Bonilla, who is also the first in his family to receive an advanced degree.
The elective concentration was the brainchild of Paula Vertino, Ph.D., the Wilmot Distinguished Professor in Cancer Genomics. Several leaders at Wilmot and across the UR Medical Center supported Vertino, including Ruth O’Regan, M.D., professor and chair of Medicine who oversees cancer research training and education coordination (CRTEC) at Wilmot; Richard Libby, Ph.D., senior associate dean for graduate education and post-doctoral affairs at URMC; and Helene McMurray, Ph.D., who directs the Pathology-Cell Biology of Disease program.
The goal was to provide graduate students with the opportunity for advanced studies in modern cancer biology and translational research in oncology — and to encourage exceptional students from diverse backgrounds to specialize in this type of work.
Ortiz-Bonilla’s investigation has centered on bladder cancer, under the guidance of his mentor, Yi-Fen Lee, Ph.D., professor of Urology and Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, and a Wilmot member. The Lee lab studies the tiny vesicles released from bladder cancer cells, and how those vesicles spur the growth and spread of the disease. His thesis, however, focused on the “good guy” activities of the vesicles in support of anti-tumor immunity to prevent bladder cancer recurrence.
Ortiz-Bonilla also earned a master’s degree at UR, held several leadership positions and mentored other students throughout his education — all while working as a guest shuttle driver and bell attendant at the Hilton Garden Inn near campus. He plans to continue his cancer research career in Rochester.
“Having the opportunity to contribute to this field and ultimately impact positively on a cancer patient’s life has always been my motivation,” he said. “I also intend to motivate other Puerto Rican and Latino students in the field of science and show them how successful they can be.”
Vertino’s innovative curriculum includes didactic courses aided, in part, by Wilmot physicians to give students a keener understanding of clinical needs, movement of lab discoveries into clinical trials, and patient experiences. Before coming to Wilmot in 2018 as the inaugural Associate Director for Translational Research, Vertino developed a similar curriculum at Emory University and its Winship Cancer Institute.
“A lot of people at the University of Rochester helped to get this new concentration off the ground and accredited in a timely manner,” Vertino said. “Having our first graduate is something we should celebrate.”