Member Story

How Strong Women Helped One Gene Therapy Researcher Thrive

Devin Rose - March 08, 2023

ASGCT Member Ruth Castellanos, PhD, talks about how the women in her life have helped her advocate for herself and ask for opportunities to succeed.

ASGCT Member Ruth Castellanos, PhD, grew up surrounded by strong women who always encouraged her to ask for more.

More education. More resources. More career opportunities.

Since her childhood in Puerto Rico, Castellanos’ mother, Enedy Rivera, and her grandmother, who she calls her Abuelita Laura, instilled in her the importance of advocating for herself. Now a director of research and development at Kriya Therapeutics, Castellanos works on preclinical studies to support AAV gene therapies for the treatment of rare diseases. She credits the women in her life, especially her mother and grandmother, for pushing her to get where she wanted to go in her career despite the challenges.

“When you keep on exploring and pushing and making a case for yourself, people hear you and support you,” Castellanos says. “Keep looking for what you need and what you want.”

Castellanos presented her first poster at a conference in New Orleans, LA, when she was 17.

Castellanos presented her first poster at a conference in New Orleans, LA, when she was 17, and won the sophomore poster category.

Castellanos didn’t want to follow in the footsteps of her biology-teacher mom, even though Castellanos studied biology in college. But she got curious about Dolly the cloned sheep while researching for a presentation. The experience raised questions for her about the potential of modifying DNA, and she started looking into higher education programs to help her answer them.

Back then, she says, nothing was available in Puerto Rico that could satisfy her curiosity. And she had already sunk her teeth into exciting work at universities in California. She had a summer research internship in the neuroscience department at UC Irvine while she was in college. She also completed a research internship program at UCLA for three consecutive summers. After college, she returned to UCLA for a post-baccalaureate program and asked to take English classes.

Castellanos says it was through the dedication of her great-grandmother and grandmother that her mom and all her aunts went to college. For her, it was “the hardest decision,” to move from Puerto Rico. No one in her family had moved away or attended graduate school before.

“My grandmother was pulled out of school in sixth grade because her parents needed her to work, so she always thought my mom needed to go to school to be educated,” Castellanos says. 

“The journeys and struggles their generations faced inspired me to dream more, do more, value the freedom of choosing my own destiny and, more importantly become an independent woman.” 

In grad school at the University of Virginia, Castellanos says, her English was terrible. Still, asking to take those English classes was the best thing she could have done.

Ruth reached one of her scientific goals when she was joined the Asokan lab at UNC.

Ruth reached one of her scientific goals when she joined the Asokan lab at UNC.

In her second year of grad school, she wrote to the head of the biology department and asked to take a new epigenetics class meant for seniors. She was the only grad student in the class, but she loved learning about gene expression. Eventually, she landed a position in the lab of current ASGCT Board of Directors Member Aravind Asokan, PhD.

“That was a dream come true," she says. Working in that position,"I knew I wanted to be in the gene therapy field."

Castellanos learned about ASGCT and became a member in 2015. Now she never misses the Annual Meeting, where she loves reconnecting with old colleagues and getting ideas from new people she meets. "It's my favorite conference," she says.

Now, one of the ways Castellanos remembers her Abuelita Laura is by sharing stories about her with her own son and daughter. Abuelita Laura passed away at the age of 89.

“When my kids complain about school, I say ‘be thankful for your education,’ and I remind them about their great grandmother.”

For women, and especially minorities, Castellanos says, “we still have to keep working to be represented in leadership positions,” even in 2023. To help close that gap, that means continuing to be persistent and asking for opportunities.

“When you want something and work hard to make it happen, I promise you will always find someone who’s going to give you the opportunity and support your needs.”

Devin is ASGCT's communications manager.

 

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