Elizabeth Ruzzo - L.A. Lady Interviews

Elizabeth Ruzzo, Postdoctoral Scholar at UCLA. Interviewed by Michele Carroll. Photography: Michael Hillman


For those the readers who don’t know, give us a little rundown of what you do.

I am a human geneticist, which means my work seeks to find the root cause of diseases. My main focus is neurological disorders, primarily epilepsy and autism. Some researchers focus on a single gene or region of interest, but not me. I look at the entire human genome at once (3 billion bases of DNA) by sequencing DNA from individuals with and without disease and comparing them to identify differences. These differences can then be statistically analyzed to identify parts of the genome that cause disease (or are associated with increased risk of disease).

When did you first become interested in the field of Biology?

I always really enjoyed my science classes, but I liked other subjects too. I think it wasn’t until I took a human genetics class that I considered it as a career path. I never had any interest in medical school, but I was fascinated by the idea of finding the root cause of disease. I realized that if you could do that, your chances of effective treatment vastly improved, which is a critical component of precision medicine (Obama’s 2016 Precision Medicine Initiative provides $215 million in funding…so clearly I was on to something back in the day!)

At what point in your studies (or even before your studies) did you know you wanted to pursue biology as a career – more specifically genome sciences?

At freshman orientation weekend at UW I decided to register myself as a “pre-engineering major”. In retrospect, I am not sure I fully understood what engineers actually did but I liked that it sounded fancy. I started down the pre-engineer path taking calculus, chemistry, physics, and finally biology. My theory on why the administrators buried the biology courses deep in the prerequisites is that they were saving the best for last. I couldn’t get enough.

Now, I’ve seen your resume. The path to becoming a genome scientist is no small feat! In addition to your time at the University of Washington and Duke University (where you received your PhD), you developed biology and chemistry curriculums for high school students, worked as a Research Mentor and Teaching Assistant at Duke, contributed to numerous publications, not to mention your own extensive neurodevelopment research. (Phew!) At any point, did the demands of your career path intimidate you?

{Laughs} When you put it all in one sentence “Phew!” is right. I could use a nap now. But yes, I was definitely intimidated at various points, in particular with some of the “boys club” aspects of the scientific community.


Did you have any particular concerns/insecurities along your journey? How did/do you overcome them?

When I was younger, I used to feel so much anxiety over taking tests that I would occasionally vomit. I worked through that, thankfully, by developing meticulous and robust study habits. Tenacity can sub for confidence in a pinch.  Today I collaborate with, and present in front of, some of the top minds in genetic research… there are moments when I’ve felt intimidated, sure… but then I remember that I’ve done the work, I know my stuff, and I’m here for a reason.

What was/is your go-to source that keeps you inspired to follow your passion during moments of hesitancy or doubt?

Most days, I love what I do. Other days, I wake up dreading a day of meetings or busy work that cloud the end goal. On these days, I remind myself of the bigger picture…that my work offers hope to patients and that my findings will eventually improve the lives of individuals with neurological disease.

Can you think back to a particular unexpected setback or mental block you had to overcome in your work? What did you learn from it?

In graduate school, I discovered the gene responsible for a rare form of microcephaly. I worked for years to decipher what this gene was doing and how mutations in it caused such a severe neurological disease. I had triple checked my work, and then checked it again. We were ready to submit the manuscript for publication, when my thesis advisor asked me to repeat the only molecular biology experiment I had not performed myself.  A male postdoctoral researcher in my lab, whom I respected very much, had performed this experiment. So I set out to repeat this experiment with the help of my friend Andrea, a neurobiology graduate student. After at least four attempts, we never replicated his results but all four replicates consistently showed the same result. After each attempt, I would be baffled and ask Andrea (and at least three other professors) how we could have “messed up” and where something may have gone wrong. Finally, Andrea looked at me and said “at some point you just have to trust that we know what we are doing, we have consistently found the same result, and what we have done is right”. I will never forget that…it made me realize that I can and I should trust myself. It turns out that, sometimes, I am the expert. Without fail, the most successful “experts” I know, always trust what they know. They can question themselves and their hypotheses (a good scientist always does) but when you know it, you know it, so trust it.

Can you think back to the professional accomplishment you are most proud of, and tell us what you took away from the experience?

It might sound obvious…but I am most proud of having completed my PhD. I am proud of the body of work it encompassed and all that I learned about science and about myself in the process. Lesson learned: Work like a mother.

What personal quality of yours do you think has proved most helpful in your career up to this point? Why is that, you think?

Tough question… may I give two answers? Tenacity and generosity. I’ve already spoken about the upsides of a strong work ethic, but generosity may be as important because it allows me to build allegiances and collaborate effectively with a wide array of people.

Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give your undergraduate self?

Work hard. Play hard. Fight for the grades you deserve. Believe in yourself. Follow your gut. Take risks. Advocate for yourself.

What is it about your passion that gets you out of bed in the morning?

Curiosity and the opportunity to help people.

What do you hope to have accomplished 5 years from now?

I hope to have discovered multiple novel risk genes for autism and have completed my postdoctoral work. I am still not sure what I want my career to look like after that but I will either be running my own lab or playing a vital role for a company working in the field of genomic medicine. Also, still bringing it on the soccer field.

What does a typical work day look like for you?

I’m up early and love my private coffee hour…I usually flip on the radio for the morning news while checking work emails, then personal emails, and maybe check instagram. Then I face the reality of getting dressed, I’m required to cover my legs and feet for lab (not my favorite look considering my wardrobe is 90% skirts and dresses) so I compensate by accessorizing. On my commute I listen to news, a pod cast, or music as my mood dictates. Once I get to work, I prioritize my to do list (I’m a big fan of wunderlist) and then work, work, work. I frequently attend seminars where other scientists present their research (it’s a great way to keep myself thinking about outside ideas). We also have lab meeting once a week where a member of my lab presents their current project and we all give them feedback.

We can’t have any beverages or food in the lab area, so I usually sit in the lunchroom with my lab mates and either read a research publication or send some emails while eating my lunch. Human genomics projects are highly collaborative, so I frequently have afternoon meetings with collaborators or one of my interns. Then back to work! Before I know it….ooops look at the time… and I rush out of lab to play soccer, go for a run, or take an exercise class at the UCLA gym. I love cooking, so if I come home with enough energy left I’ll cook something healthy or make a big salad. A lot of nights I do a bit more work or related reading. I try to decompress by reading a fun book or watching a short TV show. Then I go to sleep for cellular regeneration!

What advice do you have for those who are on the verge of getting into a competitive career?

This is for the LADIES. Work hard, stay gracious, get what’s yours…preferably in writing.

Any fun facts about life as a genome scientist that most people probably don’t know? (Apart from… well… the science of genomics.) 

Oh-umm. Hmmm. The fruit fly geneticists get away with giving their fly models (flies lacking a gene of interest) rather crass names. For example, the flies that fail to develop external genitalia were named “Ken and Barbie” and the fly that showed increased sensitivity to alcohol was named “cheap date”. The human geneticists can’t get away with it…but hey at least we get to figure out why people have red hair, widows peaks, and freckles.

L.A. Lady Culture

Favorite area of L.A.? I would have to say WeHo (or West Hollywood for you newbies). It is such a walkable area and after dealing with traffic all week, it’s a nice break to be able to explore my neighborhood on foot and find hidden gems around every corner.
Favorite eatery? Hamburger Mary’s is just up the street from me, and they host Legendary Bingo on Wednesday and Sunday nights, featuring their famous “Drag Queen Bingo Hostesses”. A portion of the proceeds from Bingo goes to charity too, so it’s pretty amazing.
Menu item we must order from there? A hamburger, duh.
Favorite Happy Hour? If I ever leave lab early enough to try one, I’d love some suggestions.
Favorite Weekend activities in the city? Brunching, hiking, playing soccer, cooking, and hanging with friends.
Audio of choice when sitting in traffic? NPR in the morning. Booty shakin’ jams twenty-four-seven.
Place or thing you want to do most in L.A., but haven’t yet? Ride the Ferris wheel on the Santa Monica Pier.
Biggest L.A. guilty pleasure? Rewarding myself for “hiking” in “the hills” by buying a $10 pressed juice.

-Elizabeth Ruzzo, Postdoctoral Scholar at UCLA

What advice can you share for going after a demanding and high-stakes career? Tell us about it below and share this with someone you know who thinks you can’t be successful and have a li’l fun too!