HHMI’s competitive Gilliam fellowships support future life science leaders from underrepresented groups.
Four doctoral students at Brown are recipients of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s prestigious Gilliam Fellowships for Advanced Study.
The Gilliam Fellows Program supports graduates who are committed to advancing equity and inclusion in science and empowers them as future leaders in scientific fields through financial assistance for three years of doctoral research. It also supports faculty thesis advisers to enhance their mentorship skills and ability to develop more inclusive training environments.
Gilliam fellows receive an annual stipend of $36,000, a $4,000 discretionary allowance for professional development, and an institutional allowance of $10,000 toward tuition and fees. The fellowship also awards their faculty advisers $3,000.
The current fellows at Brown are Amanda Elyssa Ruiz PhD’24, Myles Bartholomew PhD’26, Mayra Bañuelos PhD’26, and Joseph Aguilera ScM’26 PhD’26. To date, 10 Brown students have received Gilliam fellowships; having four fellows at the same time recognizes the University’s outstanding research and dedication to advancing inclusivity across the scientific community.
A voice for change in academia
Amanda Elyssa Ruiz PhD’24 first signed up for a high school research program to bolster her college applications—but then she fell in love with science. The New York native loved the feeling of solving what felt like puzzles with limited tools, while gaining an understanding of mechanisms and pathways.
“It’s a side of science that, quite honestly, you don’t really see as a high schooler because you’re so early on in your training,” she says. “But being able to have this door open for me is the reason I continued pursuing science.”
At Barnard College, she studied in neuroscience and bioengineering labs, and wondered where her path might take her professionally. Was it simply the influence of a great mentor or a love for research? And could she fall in love with a different field? Then she became an undergraduate researcher in a xenotransplantation lab, modifying animal organs for use in human transplantation, at Columbia’s Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons.
“It involves quite a lot of engineering and monitoring of different immune responses because it could lead to the rejection of transplanted organs,” Ruiz says. “One other big fear is that there are viruses that can pass on to the host.”
Ruiz says the lab opened her eyes to learning more about infectious pathogens, and it helped that she always had an interest in zoonotic diseases. Now, at Brown, she works in the lab of Jonathan D. Kurtis ’89 PhD’95 MD’96, P’28, the Stanley M. Aronson Professor and chair of pathology and laboratory medicine, working on vaccine development. She studies the parasitic worms that cause the tropical disease schistosomiasis, and is exploring how some people develop an immunity to these infections and what it could mean for future treatment. Ruiz will defend this research as her dissertation this spring.
“We’re trying to understand, what are the protective immune responses against [schistosomiasis], and how can we harness those immune responses to generate a vaccine that gives long-term protection for people in endemic regions?” Ruiz says.
Ruiz, who is of Colombian and Guatemalan descent, says the Gilliam fellowship, which she received in 2021, is an important part of ongoing efforts to build a more equitable scientific community. She has grappled with the underrepresentation of students from minoritized backgrounds in the sciences and elite higher education spaces. She has contributed to DEI initiatives on campus as a former president of the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science’s chapter at Brown. Her experiences in academia, she says, reinforced the importance of dismantling structural and societal barriers in higher education.
“For me, I wanted to make sure to open doors for others in the same way it was for me,” she says. “I want to make sure they’re aware of opportunities that aren’t announced and make sure there are resources for them and how to capitalize on them.”
Ruiz has already accepted a postdoctoral position at Ragon Institute of Mass General, MIT, and Harvard, where she will continue her work in vaccine development, with a slight pivot to viruses. The Gilliam fellowship has already played a major role in her trajectory beyond Brown, she says.
“It also empowered me and made me significantly more confident in my path and skills,” she says. “It’s allowed me to see myself in science for the long term and I plan on being a professor. It’s really instilled the confidence in me to do that.”
Ruiz adds that as a professor with her own lab, she could pass on her knowledge and expertise to students with similar life experiences. For now, she is looking forward to collaborating and seeing how much change she and the other Gilliam fellows can bring to equity in science.
“The fellows at Brown are some of the most inspiring people I’ve met,” Ruiz says. “It shows you the beauty in student-led initiatives and how much change they’ll bring to the face of academia in the future.”
‘An opportunity to do amazing work’
Growing up in Houston, Myles Bartholomew PhD’26 got involved with scientific research at a young age, beginning with college-level lab work at Prairie View A&M University while he was still in high school.
“I had an amazing mentor that introduced me to microbiology and immunology,” he says. After that lab course, he was hooked. He participated in a summer research program at Brown in 2018 and 2019 as part of The Leadership Alliance, and worked with Alfred Ayala, PhD, professor of surgery (research), at Rhode Island Hospital, where he researched sepsis immunity. He enjoyed his biomedical research enough to pursue a PhD, and ended up in the lab of Richard Freiman, PhD, professor of molecular biology, cell biology, and biochemistry and of obstetrics and gynecology, which focuses on germline stem cells. Though he wasn’t familiar with this research area, Bartholomew says he found himself drawn to studying it.
“It was a topic that I never saw myself studying for five-plus years, but I’m glad that I’ve made that choice now, for sure,” Bartholomew says.
Bartholomew expressed uncertainty at applying for the Gilliam fellowship. He was uncertain about the timing of the opportunity, and wanted to step into more leadership and service roles devoted to addressing inequalities in science and medicine—but this dedication and pursuit is what ended up turning him into a great candidate. Mark Johnson, PhD, the graduate program director for molecular biology, cell biology, and biochemistry, and Andrew Campbell, PhD, professor emeritus of medical science and former dean of the Graduate School, encouraged him to apply in 2022.
That decision has paid off, Bartholomew says, and he’s hoping to leverage his newfound connections with a network of “absolutely brilliant people” as he continues his stem cell research.
“I don’t even think I knew how big of a deal [the Gilliam fellowship]was at the time. It’s an opportunity to do amazing work in different aspects of your career,” he says. “It puts me in a really interesting space in terms of what I think is possible for myself and where I can take my research. We haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of this elegant biology that is happening in the stem cell field.”
For now, Bartholomew will continue pursuing his passion for industry, stem cells, and academia, but says he will always have a place in his heart for medicine.
“I think that they’re all very intertwined and I plan to have an impact on all of those spaces,” he says. “I’m passionate about my field, equity, and academia, and anything I can do to make science more accessible is what I’m going to do, for sure.”
From the law to the lab
For Mayra Bañuelos PhD’26, her path to the lab of Emilia Huerta-Sanchez, PhD, associate professor of ecology, evolution, and organismal biology, and Brown’s Center for Computational Molecular Biology wasn’t a straightforward route. Bañuelos grew up in Ensenada, Mexico, in a family of mariachi musicians. She once worked at a law firm, helping survivors of domestic violence. Eventually she found her way to San Francisco State University to study mathematics. While she wasn’t entirely sure about the kind of research she wanted to pursue, she did have a rough idea from her legal work.
“I knew I wanted something related to the legal aspect of research, and do something that was important to the community,” she says. “Thankfully, there was a professor, Rori Rohlfs, PhD, who was working on forensic genetics. They needed someone with a mathematical background to help, but I had no idea what that research might look like.”
The project examined short tandem repeats, which are sections of DNA used by law enforcement to identify individuals. Her lab sought to determine whether these forensic markers don’t reveal anything other than identity markers, as technology and work on the human genome has progressed substantially since the 1990s when it was in its infancy. Their findings suggested that forensic loci might reveal expression levels and potentially medical information.
“I fell in love with science, research, and genomics,” Bañuelos says.
At Brown, Bañuelos is researching the classification of archaic segments in the modern human genome. She is also working with the National Autonomous University of Mexico to examine how genetic variation has changed over time in admixed and indigenous Mexican individuals.
After some encouragement from mentors and previous fellows, she applied for the Gilliam fellowship, though she didn’t think they would select her given she had already been selected for the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program. So when HHMI awarded her the fellowship last year, “I was extremely excited and shocked,” she recalls.
Bañuelos plans to take advantage of the networking opportunities with other fellows and HHMI scholars and the sense of community she was pleased to discover. She’s also looking forward to the virtual conferences and talks from fellows in different stages of their careers, and the stipend for career development.
For those who might second-guess their abilities or qualifications, Bañuelos has a simple piece of advice.
“If people have any doubts, just apply,” she says. “You won’t regret it.”
A path to precision medicine
Joseph Aguilera ScM’26 PhD’26 grew up in Oxnard, CA, and is a first-generation college student. At the University of California, Santa Cruz, he studied bioengineering and set his sights on becoming a physician, but changed his trajectory after the premature death of his father. However, after taking a job as an undergraduate research assistant, he quickly took a liking to working in a lab.
“The fall before I applied to Brown, I attended a SACNAS conference and met a lot of students from here,” he says. “I was mainly looking for community, and that feeling of belonging. The way the students depicted their experiences with science and biology, I knew I was 100 percent going to go there.”
Aguilera’s interests lie in precision medicine—essentially using someone’s unique genetic code to influence aspects of their health care, like medicine or treatment plans. Working in the lab of Erica Larschan, PhD, graduate program co-director for the Center of Computational Molecular Biology, he uses multiomics and machine learning to understand gene expression in flies, and he has been watching developments in AI closely. He says Ruiz, the 2021 Gilliam fellow, has not only been a “huge rock” during his time at Brown, but also one of the main voices suggesting he pursue the fellowship.
“During that time, she was awarded the fellowship. I was curious about what it was and what it meant,” Aguilera says. “Seeing what she got out of it, and stressing the sense of community and scientists there, made it something I wanted to be a part of.”
He says it was deeply humbling to be selected for the fellowship, in 2022, and it gave him a sense of direction in his career path. “I was insanely surprised, but it’s also an indication that I’m on the right track, especially as it felt like my whole trajectory was like feeling my way around a dark room,” Aguilera says. “I had no idea where I was headed, so this was a good indicator that I was doing something right and should probably keep doing it.”
For now, Aguilera still aims to advance precision medicine, perhaps as a postdoc or in an industry role. He is still exploring opportunities, which is something that has only been bolstered by the HHMI fellowship, as professors both at and outside of Brown are enthusiastic to talk about his research and potential collaborations.
Aguilera emphasizes he is just one part of a larger effort to foster an inclusive and productive scientific community.
“[The Gilliam fellows’] journeys have been incredible and inspirational in many ways, and it has been a privilege to say I can be a part of that work,” he says. “It makes me more excited to keep working hard and see what we can do next.”