When Marcos García-Ojeda was a post-doctoral researcher at the Pasteur Institute in France, a friend told him that UC Merced was looking for stem cell biologists. García-Ojeda’s work investigating how bone marrow stem cells become T cells and other blood cells turned out to be a perfect fit.
“We want to find out what signals cause a bone marrow stem cell to become a developed blood cell,” he explained. “We think physical environment has something to do with it - when a stem cell is harbored in its niche, it receives chemical and other signals that cause it to remain a stem cell. When it moves away, it begins to differentiate.”
The immunology focus of García-Ojeda’s research is motivated by a phenomenon that shaped the thinking of many in his generation: the global HIV/AIDS epidemic. He hopes that someday, in addition to fighting HIV with anti-retroviral drugs, doctors will be able to strengthen the immune system using healthy cells created from blood marrow stem cells.
“When I was first interested in AIDS research there was a stigma attached, not just to the disease, but to researchers who worked on it,” he said. “That’s changed.”
Life in Merced is a big adjustment after spending three years in Paris, but García-Ojeda knows California. He earned his Ph.D. at Stanford and his M.A. at UC Santa Cruz.
Although he just arrived at UC Merced in May 2006, he has already begun applying for grants to support his research. Like other stem cell scientists at UC Merced, he says the passage of Proposition 71 was a factor in his decision to come to California. He also appreciates the chance to be a part of the outstanding diversity found in UC Merced’s faculty and student body and the potential of having a medical school associated with the university.
“A medical school or hospital would open up a whole new potential avenue of research,” he said.