Renato Aguilera to present E.E. Just award lecture

Renato Aguilera

The American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB) is pleased to announce that Renato J. Aguilera of the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) will present the 2022 E.E. Just Lectureship Award. Aguilera is the Deputy Research Director of the Border Biomedical Research Center (BBRC); Director of the Research Infrastructure Core and Cellular Characterization and Biorepository Unit of the BBRC, Director of the Biological Sciences Graduate Program, and Director of the U-RISE and G-RISE NIH Training Programs at UTEP. The award recognizes his three decades of groundbreaking cancer research, mentorship to underrepresented groups in STEM, and dedication to resolving health disparities in the Hispanic community. 

Aguilera’s research focuses on the discovery of new therapeutic agents against cancer, with extensive experience in immunology, cancer research, molecular and cell biology, and drug discovery. His research group developed high-throughput assays for screening chemical libraries on various human cancer cells. His various National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health-funded research projects have led to 85 publications and two patents. He is currently the Program Director of two NIH training grants and the co-PD of the ASCB Faculty Research and Education Development Program funded by NSF. During Cell Bio 2022 in Washington, DC, he will present the talk “From the Study of DNases to Cancer Research: an Unexpected Scientific Journey.” 

Known as “friendly and accessible,” Aguilera has devoted most of his academic career to training and mentoring underrepresented minority (URM) undergraduate and graduate students and creates a strong impression on his trainees. Over the past 25 years, these programs have trained over 300 URMs undergraduate and graduate students in STEM fields. Gustavo A. Miranda-Carboni, now an Associate Professor at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, recalls how Aguilera’s guidance helped launch his scientific career—first as an undergraduate researcher, then as a technician, and finally as one of his first graduate students when Aguilera held a faculty position at the University of California, Los Angeles.  

Miranda-Carboni wrote: “As he was the only minority in the Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology department, he attracted many minority students (including myself) to his research laboratory. At the beginning of (Renato’s) academic career, he worked side-by-side with graduate and undergraduate students in his laboratory. He taught me several techniques that were instrumental for my research advancement and career. Most importantly, all his graduate students obtained their PhD degrees, and many of his undergrads ended up going to great PhD or MD/PhD programs across the country…Dr. Aguilera has been an inspirational role model to many minority undergraduate students, graduate students, and postdoctoral fellows for almost 30 years, as attested by his receiving a Distinguished Mentor Award from SACNAS (Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science).”

Miranda-Carboni noted that another one of Aguilera’s significant contributions has been his leadership of the Border Biomedical Research Center (BBRC) at UTEP. Through advanced research, the BBRC seeks to address Hispanic cancer-related health disparities that affect the Texas-Mexico region and lead to disproportionately higher rates of premature morbidity and mortality.

“Under Dr. Aguilera’s directorship … (and) through the BBRC, a collaborative effort has been established with UTEP and other local nearby institutions, focusing on and addressing biomedical and health issues that are urgently needed for the residents in (South) Texas,” Miranda-Carboni added. “These efforts have also increased bicultural collaboration between El Paso and Ciudad Juarez as institutions from the Texas-Mexico border have worked together on graduate, postdoctoral, and health education to improve health issues important for this region of the nation.” 

Elma L. González, Professor Emerita of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at UCLA, remarked, “Students flocked to (Renato) because of his friendly, accessible style and because of his research interests in an exciting field that had obvious implications for biomedicine. He soon developed a very productive and empowering approach to training students.”

Together, González and Aguilera proposed the Minority Access to Research Careers for Undergraduate Student Training in Academic Research Program (MARC), funded by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences. “We were allocated five trainees during that first year. Renato did nearly all MARC-student advising and led the Journal Club during the early years. Our students successfully graduated and were admitted to prestigious post-graduate programs. The MARC program has continued to grow, and the NIH and UCLA have recognized its success. That was Renato’s legacy at UCLA.”

Aguilera earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Texas at El Paso. He traveled to the University of California, Berkeley, to earn a PhD in immunology and also completed postdoctoral training there. 

Humbled by the honor, Aguilera remarked, “I am very excited to receive this award for over 30 years of hard work as an academic researcher and research mentor.”

With all he has going on, Aguilera still makes an effort to pursue some exciting pastimes. His hobbies include golf and deep sea fishing.  

About the Author:

Mary Spiro is ASCB's Strategic Communications Manager.