MERCED — University of California, Merced, biology Professor Rudy Ortiz has been given the National Institutes of Health's Independent Scientist Career Development Award, the first person on campus to earn this distinction.
The $414,720 grant, spread throughout four years, will allow Ortiz to spend more time conducting research into obesity by reducing some of his teaching and administrative duties.
"To get more time to focus on my research is huge," Ortiz said. "It gives me a great advantage because of the release-time it affords me to concentrate on my research."
Ortiz is studying how elephant seals are able to fast for several months by relying on their fat reserves and how they can experience apnea without harming their health.
Humans wouldn't live much longer than a month if they were deprived food. An instance of sleep apnea has the potential to harm their body within minutes and can be fatal. Yet, Ortiz explained, there is something that cues this behavior in seals. While fasting, elephant seals won't even bother to eat food put in front of them.
"What if we could figure out that switch?" Ortiz asked. "Obese people could eliminate their carbohydrate intake and rely on their fat mass until they're lean and can return to a balanced diet."
Ortiz said his team has been making groundbreaking discoveries but that it's a long process to develop any medical applications.
"This is going to take many more years to understand," he said. "It's the 'tip of the iceberg' metaphor."
Ortiz's award, which covers most of his salary, dovetails with another National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant he was awarded in 2009. The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, a division of NIH, gave Ortiz a five-year $1.78 million research award.
Ortiz joined UC Merced in 2005. He teaches in the School of Natural Sciences and serves as the undergraduate research and training lead for the Center of Excellence for the Study of Health Disparities in Rural and Ethnic Underserved Populations .
"Professor Ortiz's award reflects the real-world promise of his research into sleep apnea and food deprivation," said Maria Pallavicini, dean of the School of Natural Sciences .