Growing up in the deserts of west Texas, Rudy Martin Ortiz dreamed of the sea. His imagination drew him into college studies of marine biology, and soon his fascination changed from what he calls a superficial interest in the sea to scientific curiosity about the biological functions that allow animals to live in the ocean environment. Today, Ortiz studies kidney function in marine animals.
In time, I realized that animals like the elephant seal, who live both on land and in the water, provide an interesting opportunity to study how organisms can adapt from one environment to another, Ortiz explains. Specifically, moving from land to water is a lot like moving from Earth to space, because of the gravitational difference involved. Ortiz used this parallel working at NASA before he earned his Ph.D. from UC Santa Cruz in 2001.
Ortiz studies the kidney function of elephant seals during a unique post-weaning fast period. When the pups stop nursing, their bodies are 48% fat. They then spend several weeks on land, fasting the entire time. By monitoring the hormones in the pups urine, Ortiz hopes to help learn why they fast during that period, what makes them stop fasting, and how fasting may affect their kidneys. Someday, this type of research may even contribute to greater understanding of human eating behaviors and obesity.
Kidney research also constitutes what Ortiz calls his more fundable work: studying the role of the kidneys in hypertension (chronic high blood pressure). Specifically, he studies the role of the adrenal steroid aldosterone, which damages soft tissue such as the heart in patients with hypertension. Drugs that block aldosterone prevent such damage, but paradoxically also seem to stimulate more aldosterone production. Ortiz promises exciting results soon from one aldosterone study.
Ortiz has moved to the area with his wife, Brenda, who has just begun working in the Office of Student Life. The couple and their young daughter are happy to be back in California after Ortiz postdoctoral position at Tulane University. Like many other faculty and staff members, Ortiz cites the unique opportunities and challenges of a startup research university as his first motivations for choosing to work at UC Merced.
Of course it's challenging building research programs from scratch, Ortiz concedes. But when our work stops challenging us, it becomes boring. With two exciting research avenues to pursue already, Ortiz will not be bored at UC Merced!
Rudy Martin Ortiz studies the role of the kidneys in elephant seal pups, among other research objectives.