From Spain to the U.S.: An Academy Fellow’s Journey

May 6, 2021

Dr. Natividad (“Natacha”) Ruiz
Dr. Natividad (“Natacha”) Ruiz
As ASM embraces the concept of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), the American Academy of Microbiology (AAM) is making important progress towards the vision of a forward-looking and inclusive organization. This year’s class includes a strong and diverse cohort of fellows. Newly elected AAM fellow Dr. Natividad (“Natacha”) Ruiz shares her research interests, journey—from Spain to the United States— and her commitment to supporting DEI initiatives, especially those dedicated to the LGBTQIA community.

Can you talk about your support for the LGBTQIA community and DEI in general?

I have learned from my own personal and professional history that diversity enriches society, and that achieving equity and fighting exclusion is the right thing to do.
For example, I could have started the process of becoming a U.S. citizen sooner if my life partner were Bob, instead of Becky. Becky and I have been in a committed relationship since 1998, but it was not legal for us to get married until 2015. Therefore, I could not pursue a green card or citizenship through marriage. Instead, I had wait longer to apply based on my professional qualifications. Not having U. S. citizenship was a constant reminder that, at any given point, I might have to leave this country. In addition, I wanted to participate fully in American society by exercising my right to vote and feel comfortable expressing my views. This is just one example of the impact of exclusion, and why eliminating it and achieving equity is important to me.
I think the absence of diversity, equity and inclusion in science needs to be addressed both at the individual and institutional levels. Calling this out is something we need to do because recognizing that problems exist is the first step to making change. Each of us should take an introspective look at ourselves to recognize our biases and learn how to overcome them. I think it is also important that we actively fight to think outside the traditional box that society and institutions set so that we can better value the perspectives and different life experiences that people have. We all must have an open mind, not just for science, but also for life in general. I hope to encourage that in others.
I hope by being transparent as a gay individual, I empower others to feel comfortable sharing this piece of their identity, as well. In my case, it is when I speak about my wife that it is clear to everyone that I am gay. I encourage members, of both the Academy and ASM community, to be open about who they are so they can not only find others to relate to, but also encourage society to embrace the LGBTQIA community.
It took me a while to get to this point, and seeing others who were openly gay many years ago helped me through the process. Although there has been a lot of progress towards equality and acceptance, discrimination and hate against the LGBTQIA community still exists in many places in the U.S., and all over the world. So some young scientists might still struggle with openly being who they are. If I can help like those before me helped me, I’ll be happy. 

Tell us about your journey as an immigrant from Spain.

I was born and raised in Córdoba, Spain. I became fascinated with microbes when, as a child, I read the book Los Invasores del Cuerpo Humano (The Invaders of the Human Body) by Fernando Fernández. The book, which is full of fantasy-based illustrations, describes what happens to a young boy during a bacterial infection. After that, I wanted to explore the microbial world, so I convinced my brother we needed to ask for a microscope for Christmas. We got one! Unfortunately, I never saw any microbes with it, but I used it to look at macroscopic objects in detail, which I drew in a notebook.
Despite my inability to see microbes with the toy microscope, I decided I wanted to be a researcher. The scientists on TV or in movies were my favorite characters—unless they were the villain. In the late 1980s, Spain was still recovering from Franco’s dictatorship and developing as a democracy, so resources for research were limited. My schools in Spain did not have the resources for laboratories, but I never lost my desire to pursue a career in the sciences. As I was finishing high school, I was still determined to become a scientist and was especially interested in microbiology. When choosing where to go for college, I was fortunate to have my parents’ support, which allowed me to come to the U.S. to pursue a career in microbiology. I ended up studying at Kansas University (KU). I still remember the joy I felt when I finally got to see, as an undergraduate student, a bacterium through a microscope in a Gram stain of Bacillus subtilis.
Immigrating to the U.S. to pursue a career in science was not an easy decision. Leaving my family behind was extremely hard, and it is still difficult to be so far away from them today. My family sacrificed a lot to make it possible for me to study in the U.S., for which I am eternally grateful. I’m extremely fortunate and proud to call both Spain and the U.S. my home. I have also been fortunate that most Americans I have interacted with have been very welcoming to me. I am sad and upset to see the inhumane treatment and sentiment that some Americans have displayed toward immigrants, especially in recent years.
Throughout my training, I went from visa to visa, then permanent residency and, eventually, in 2014, almost 25 years after arriving in Kansas, I became a U.S. citizen. Becoming a U.S. citizen was very exciting and a great relief to me. I couldn’t wait to vote. Even though I never had issues with immigration, I could finally let go of the kernel of fear about what would happen if I was not able to stay in the U.S. I will never forget hearing the immigration officer say “Welcome back home!” the first time I returned to the U.S. with an U.S. passport.

What are your current research interests?

After graduate school, I started a postdoc with Dr. Thomas Silhavy at Princeton University in 1998. After a couple of years of studying the post-transcriptional regulation of the stationary phase sigma factor RpoS in Escherichia coli, I began to address the question I am still investigating 20+ years later in my own laboratory: how do gram-negative bacteria build their cell envelopes? This is a fundamental question in bacterial physiology. Besides informing us about how cells grow, addressing this question is important for the development of new antimicrobials, since factors needed to build the cell envelope have proven to be effective targets for antibiotics. The initial project was on outer membrane biogenesis and was a collaboration with Dr. Daniel Kahne, who, at that time, was in the Chemistry Department at Princeton University. I learned a lot about science and collaborations through this project. To this day, I still work with Kahne and his group at Harvard University.
My research on the cell envelope focuses on understanding how cells build their outer membrane and peptidoglycan cell wall. Most envelope components are made in a cellular location that is different from where they ultimately function. Since I opened my laboratory at The Ohio State University in 2010, my group has been studying the transport of essential glycolipids across the cell envelope. One project focuses on the lipid II flippase, MurJ, which moves the peptidoglycan lipid-linked building block (lipid II) across the cytoplasmic membrane. The other project is on the lipopolysaccharide transport (Lpt) system, a multi-protein machine that transports lipopolysaccharides from the inner membrane to the cell surface. Both MurJ and the Lpt system are essential for the survival of E. coli and other bacteria. Without these machines, these cells cannot build their cell wall or outer membrane, respectively, so they die. Mainly using genetic approaches, my group has uncovered molecular details about how these transporters function. We hope this knowledge will also contribute to the development of antimicrobial drugs that can inhibit these transporters since they are vital for bacterial growth.

Tell us about your roles within ASM.

ASM has been critical to my development as a scientist in multiple ways. I currently serve as a councilor-at-large on the ASM Council on Microbial Sciences (COMS) and as a member of the ASM Microbe Program Committee.
As is true for many microbiologists, ASM journals and meetings have provided a platform for me to learn science from others, present my work to the community and interact with colleagues from many different fields. By serving on ASM committees, I have learned about some of the inner workings of a large organization like ASM, further developed personal and professional skills and established connections with other members of the microbiology community. I would not be the same without the learning and interactions that ASM has provided me throughout my career. 
As a newly elected fellow, I look forward to contributing to the process of nominating future fellow candidates who reflect the great diversity of microbiology as a science and the people that make up our community. In addition, I believe that ASM and the Academy are well poised to strengthen the relationship between the scientific community and the public, so I look forward to contributing to this endeavor.

Author: Shaundra Branova

Shaundra Branova
Shaundra Branova is a program officer at ASM who develops and leads strategic projects, programs and initatives dedicated to elevating and embodying inclusive diversity.