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Driving the Research

Ann Therese Dela Cruz RamirezGrowing up, Ann Ramirez really wanted to be a doctor. But she also held a fascination with math, specifically with how math can be used to create tools and engineer solutions to problems.

She’s found a way to pursue both, having earned a bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering from the New Jersey Institute of Technology and now working toward a Ph.D. in bioengineering at the University of Maryland.

“I figured that biomedical engineering, bioengineering in general, was such a great way to combine my two passions,” says Ramirez. “It’s just really cool to be able to solve a problem within your body using engineering solutions.”

The problem Ramirez’s doctoral research is looking into has to do with structural changes to lymph nodes in the human body and how such changes relate to the functionality of the overall immune system.

“When you get really sick, they get inflamed, your lymph nodes expand, and the structure of your lymph node actually changes,” she explains. “As you age, a lot of our lymph nodes have gotten through a lot of sicknesses. They’ve been inflamed a bunch of times, so they’ll get really stiff. If you [look at] old people or even very sick people, they don’t have very great immune systems. We are kind of hypothesizing that a lot of it has to do with the overall structural changes.”

To do this work, she’s looking outside of UMD to learn new techniques that even people in her own lab are not familiar with, says Ramirez’s dissertation advisor, Dr. Katharina Maisel, an assistant professor in UMD’s Fischell Department of Bioengineering.

Maisel calls the fifth year Ph.D. candidate a driven researcher and a mentor for others in the lab.

“I think the thing that I’ve really appreciated about her is that she’s just not really afraid of the challenge and trying something that is totally different,” Maisel says.

Ramirez, who is Filipino American, says she’s been fortunate throughout her life.

She was fortunate to have attended a diverse and inclusive undergraduate institution, never having to worry about the way she looked or her cultural background.

She was fortunate to have found a doctoral research department that does well in trying to bring different cultural backgrounds onto campus.

And she’s been fortunate to have parents who’ve encouraged her and a sturdy support system behind her.

“In my eyes, no one ever really doubted me in a way that affected me,” Ramirez recalls. “I was just privileged enough that I was able to just push through [challenges] and not let it affect me, because I had such a great support system.”

She says that her support system – made up of her parents, graduate school friends, and friends outside of academia – has been crucial to her journey and her well-being.

“Grad school is so difficult. It can be isolating at times,” Ramirez says. “Finding friends who are in the same boat as you in grad school, so they understand where you’re coming from and the different stresses that you’re experiencing, but also having friends outside of my grad school bubble to get me out of the headspace of school, has just been so great for my career.”

Finding the “little joys” that make graduate school memorable and worth the effort also helps as she continues her studies. One of her small joys in an otherwise daunting doctoral pursuit is being able to serve as a mentor outside of her lab.

This past semester, that effort took shape in the form of tutoring second-graders at Springhill Lake Elementary with reading and comprehension. It’s a way to give back to her community, Ramirez says.

After she graduates, Ramirez wants to manage a team of researchers. And given that she didn’t see many Filipinos getting Ph.D.’s growing up, she also wants to be an example for others who look like her, regardless of what career path she eventually journeys down.

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