‘DO WHAT YOU LOVE’
Biological science graduate Kevin Ruan says his story has a cliche beginning, but not every science lover is a winner of the Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Research.
“Going into it, my adviser said don’t be upset if you don’t win. My expectations were low,” Mr. Ruan recounted. He checked his email after a midterm when he received the notification that he had won the award. “I didn’t even believe it! I was stoked. I was high on that for the next three days. It was amazing!”
Mr. Ruan’s work focuses on the tau protein and its association with Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases. He has worked as a researcher in Professor Stu Feinstein’s lab since he was a first-year student.
The Los Angeles native said that his interest in medicine and the tau protein came from a physiology class in high school and a documentary centered around concussions in the National Football League and their impact on chronic brain diseases. That propelled him to research the tau protein as an undergraduate at UCSB.
“I didn’t know you could research at that level,” Mr. Ruan said.
The researcher said Dr. Feinstein, took a chance on him, as many first-year students are not chosen to do lab research.
“Professors usually want someone with a background in biology or have taken classes such as taking intro to biology. They want to know that you’re competent. They took a chance on me. And I’m persistent,” he said, adding that he was “very happy” to have been chosen to work in the lab.
“I was the last undergraduate to be chosen,” Mr. Ruan said.
There were other undergraduates in the lab when he first started as a first year in 2016, but he has been the only undergraduate since the beginning of the 2016-2017 school year.
Dr. Feinstein praised Mr. Ruan when he nominated him for the Chancellor’s Award, according to a UCSB press release.
“In all of his work, Kevin has been simply outstanding,” Dr. Feinstein wrote in his nomination. “He has shown intelligence, passion and a tremendous work ethic. He owns his project and asks great questions. He is technically outstanding and his work is completely reproducible. He is the complete package. Despite being an undergraduate, I engage with him at the level of a superb senior graduate student.”
Mr. Ruan continues to work on researching tau protein. He is currently working on a project that was “basically built from scratch” and comes from a different angle than his previous paper. He will continue to work on it as a grad student.
But his life is not just centered around the lab and research. Mr. Ruan is also a fan of the Los Angeles Lakers and tries to watch every Laker game on his computer. When he’s not watching the Lakers he’s on the court himself.
And when he’s not eating, playing or watching basketball, he’s visiting his girlfriend, who goes to UC Irvine, on the weekends or mentoring first-year biology students.
“It’s my way of giving back. My own mentors did that for me,” he said.
The researcher is also the first in his family to graduate from college.
“It’s pretty surreal. It still hasn’t hit me since I’m staying in Santa Barbara,” he said.
Mr. Ruan will be staying at UCSB for at least the next two years, working on his project as a graduate student.
He is happy to be staying, he said, but sad that many of his friends are moving away to pursue their careers, interests and goals.
“It’s bittersweet,” Mr. Ruan said about staying in Santa Barbara.
He hopes to continue his research after graduate school. His long-term goal is to continue adding to the body of research on tau, but the ultimate goal is to cure Alzheimer’s disease. His goal is to get an MD-Ph.D in order gain different perspectives: a research perspective and the ability to use the knowledge and apply it in a clinical setting as a medical doctor.
“Do what you love. That’s something that my mentors instilled in me in the beginning,” Mr. Ruan advised future biology students. “That applies to everyone. If you do what you love, it won’t seem like a job for you.”