Celebrating Science: UH–Manoa alumnus succeeds with excellent faculty mentoring

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This week we proudly celebrate some of our JABSOM scientists as we welcome the National Diversity in STEM Conference to Hawaiʻi Nei.

Dr. Michael Ortega, a post-doctoral scholar in the Department of Anatomy, Biochemistry, and Physiology at the University of Hawaiʻi-Mānoa (UHM), is investigating the molecular and genetic causes of pediatric renal disease. With Dr. Ben Fogelgren and his team at the John A. Burns School of Medicine (JABSOM), he has developed a unique mouse model that is helping scientists understand the pathogenesis of congenital obstructive nephropathy, the most common cause of chronic kidney disease and end-stage renal disease in children.

“This project has great potential to peel back the layers of this malady and potentially yield therapeutic insights,” Ortega said. “Knowing that the results of our work can have a direct impact on the future of patient care is very exciting.”

Ortega earned a B.S. in Biology and a B.A. in History at the UH–Mānoa in 2011. In 2015 he received a Ph.D. in Developmental and Reproductive Biology, also from UH–Mānoa.

Dr. Ortega’s current research focuses on understanding the mechanisms governing cellular stress and damage response within the scope of kidney development and disease. The knowledge and understanding that will be gained are likely to lead to the development of novel therapies. Ortega’s long-term goal is to develop an independent research program that investigates how cellular responses to injury contribute to abnormal physiology and disease.

As an undergraduate, Ortega became fascinated by the history of science and medicine. He enjoyed working closely with a professor on a self-designed course that allowed him to explore this field, although some time passed before it occurred to him to take a few biology courses. “I was fortunate enough to be introduced to a research mentor that was willing to train me in his lab. It became clear rather quickly that this was the right career path for me,” Ortega said.

“It’s absolutely necessary to be a part of system that understands its place in the broader community as well as invests itself in developing young researchers. JABSOM is excellent in each of these areas,” said post-doctoral researcher Michael Ortega.

Ortega was attracted to JABSOM by opportunities available at the Kakaʻako Health Sciences Campus. “JABSOM has some outstanding biomedical investigators that anchor the core of its scientific community, as demonstrated by their consistent top rankings in primary care and ability to pulldown NIH funding for research,” he noted. “It’s absolutely necessary to be a part of system that understands its place in the broader community as well as invests itself in developing young researchers. JABSOM is excellent in each of these areas.”

Ortega is appreciative of his mentors and peers: “JABSOM has a rich pool of talented researchers who are committed to mentoring and training the next generation of biomedical scientists.” He credits Drs. Steve Ward (his previous graduate advisor), Mariana Gerschenson, and Takashi Matsui for their institutional leadership. His current mentor is Dr. Fogelgren. “It’s a real pleasure to train with Dr. Fogelgren,” Ortega said. “His project designs are really quite impressive and he has cultivated an impeccable research environment in his lab. I’m taking in as much as I can from him.”

Ortega was born in Oakland, California and grew up spending equal amounts of time in the Bay Area and farther north in Sonoma County. He and his family visit Yosemite National Park whenever possible. They also enjoy going to Mokuleʻia on Oʻahu.

“Along with my post-doctoral position at the University of Virginia, I can say that I’ve always been within driving distance to the beach,” Ortega commented. Not surprisingly, maintaining an aquarium is his main hobby, which occasionally needs to be scaled back. “Anyone who has ever been serious about keeping fish will tell you the real trick to being an aquarist is limiting yourself to just one tank,” Ortega said. “At the beginning, I was sprouting off additional side project tanks at an alarming rate, but through my wife’s wise counsel I was able to dial that number back down to just one.”