Ross Villiger, PhD: Persistence and organization through struggles ‘make victory shine brighter’

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Some people know right away what career they want to pursue and work towards that goal the moment they realize it. For others, figuring that out takes a little longer. That was the case for Ross Villiger, a graduate student at the University of Hawaiʻi John A. Burns School of Medicine (UH JABSOM) in the Department of Cell and Molecular Biology. Although Villiger now has his sights set on continuing his research career after graduating with his PhD this past Saturday, he wasn’t always so sure what to study. In fact, he didn’t really have any interest in science until he took a human nutrition class in college.

“I learned about carbohydrates, proteins, and lipids, and how they’re metabolized and have many different roles in human physiology,” Villiger said of his path in science. “I really understood science and how these basic chemicals were the building blocks of how we live and perform everyday tasks.”

From then on, he took an interest in the molecular biology of metabolism and understanding biochemistry pathways. Villiger, an ʻIolani School graduate from Kailua, received his Bachelor of Science degree in Food Science and Human Nutrition from the UH Mānoa College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources. He continued his education at JABSOM since he was still eager to expand understanding of human physiology from a molecular basis.

“I chose to study at JABSOM because of the strong rigorous scientific research program in basic biomedical sciences,” said Villiger. He also acknowledged the medical school for its diversity and inclusion. Although he has low vision due to a rare retinol condition, he found the school to be accommodating to his needs. “JABSOM has been a great place to pursue molecular biology research…I can still intellectually grow, contribute, and perform.”

With Dr. Ben Fogelgren as his research mentor, Villiger has been studying congenital abnormalities of the kidney and urinary tract using mouse models and mammalian cell culture systems. He hopes to eventually publish generalized knowledge that can be used to better understand, and hopefully treat and prevent, congenital development birth abnormalities.

The most exciting part of his PhD journey at JABSOM was presenting his research at international conferences, and meeting others to share his results and ideas. For Villiger, the most challenging part of research was executing his research plan, as he found that oftentimes, they didn’t pan out the way he hoped. In those cases, he commended Dr. Fogelgren, as well Dr. Noemi Polgar and Dr. Michael Ortega, former postdoctoral researchers he has worked with in the past, for guiding him through the process. He also credited them for shaping him to become a better research scientist.

“So far in graduate school, doing original science research, I’ve learned to be persistent because frequently science experiments fail, and that only makes the victory shine brighter through your mistakes,” said Villiger.

While he acknowledges that the job search after graduation will be daunting, he is excited to start a new chapter in his life and share what he learned from JABSOM to help other researchers perform their own work.

Before leaving his mark in the Cell and Molecular Biology program at JABSOM, Villiger gave some practical words of advice to incoming JABSOM graduate students:

“Be organized with keeping a lab notebook, original data files, and writing and presentations about your research. Solid organization will pay dividends when the time comes to submit research to a peer-reviewed journal, present at conferences, and write your research thesis or dissertation.”

Congratulations on successfully defending your doctoral thesis and graduating, Ross!