Dr. Velez-Cruz in the lab

Faculty Spotlight: Renier Vélez-Cruz, Ph.D.

Associate Professor, Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics, College of Graduate Studies, Downers Grove

  • IL - Downers Grove
“I feel privileged to occupy the position I have today here at Ƶ. As a young kid who grew up in Puerto Rico, I never thought that I would become a professor and teach at an institution like this.”
Renier Vélez-Cruz, Ph.D.

Years at Ƶ: Since July 2017, almost 7 years

Research Interests: 

  • SWI/SNF chromatin remodelers (rearranging chromatin (proteins and DNA that comprise chromosomes) to create an RNA (ribonucleic acid, a molecule existing in most organisms and viruses) copy from the gene’s DNA sequence)
  • DNA repair
  • Transcription regulation (biological process where cells respond to extra- and intra- cellular signals)

My lab is interested in studying the involvement of the SWI/SNF chromatin remodelers in the cellular response to DNA damage at the DNA repair level and at the transcriptional response level. We intend to use the knowledge that we gain from our studies towards the improvement of cancer therapies that kill tumor cells by damaging their DNA.

What is the most rewarding part of being a member of the Ƶ faculty?: 

I think that the most rewarding part of my job is when I try to help a student, either with a course or in the lab. They recognize that I am trying to help them and appreciate the help, even though sometimes that help comes in the form of a stern talk about their efforts. Similarly, I am most proud of my research students who walk out of the lab with a complete technical mastery of their work and techniques. It’s an incredible evolution and growth in such a short time.

How do you engage students in the learning process?:  

In my experience, students become more engaged when they sense that the professor is not just talking about the textbook, but about real life. I give a number of lectures on diabetes and while I don’t work in diabetes in terms of research, I’m deeply invested in diabetes research because I come from a family of individuals with diabetes (grandparents, parents, brothers, etc.). My dad died four years ago due to complications associated with uncontrolled diabetes. I tell my students about the contrast between my mom, who has always taken care of her diabetes and still has no symptoms associated with uncontrolled diabetes, versus my dad, who died with every single complication associated with uncontrolled diabetes. Given the prevalence of diabetes and the seriousness of this disease, I feel it is important to underscore the reality of this condition.

What do you hope students learn from your classes?:

I hope students learn more than just the material, but that they learn the application of the material. I hope they understand and appreciate why we are teaching what we are teaching and its importance for their future careers. Students should know that we often don’t know where we will end up, and what we will end up doing in the future. Thus, it’s important to learn as much as you can so that you are better prepared for whatever comes your way.

What lessons would you like students to take with them in their professional careers?:

I would like students to understand that we, the faculty, are not in an adversarial relationship with them. We are here to teach them and help them, and they should feel comfortable coming to us for help when they need it because we will try our best to help them. We will all need help from someone at some point, and knowing when you need help and being able to ask for help is an important personality trait.

What about your profession should people know more about?:  

People should know more about the opportunities available for young faculty at smaller teaching-focused institutions such as Ƶ. As a post-doctoral fellow, I interacted with so many talented researchers with excellent communication skills who left science because they did not find a faculty position at a large research institution. I am convinced that many of those individuals would have been able to do research in a place like Ƶ and would have been also excellent professors, as they were excellent communicators.

Anything to add?: 

I feel privileged to occupy the position I have today here at Ƶ. As a young kid who grew up in Puerto Rico, I never thought that I would become a professor and teach at an institution like this. I owe all my accomplishments to the strong relationships I built and developed with all my professors, advisors, supervisors, colleagues, and mentors at all the different stages of my career. Their advice was incredibly important to me, and their success was my motivation. Today, I thank all of them for their contribution to my professional success and I can only hope to see the success of my students, whether it will be during graduation from Chicago College of Osteopathic Medicine (CCOM) or another program, or maybe their acceptance to programs outside Ƶ.

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