When she was a child, Paloma Ruiz ’22 would often spend long summer days immersed in a book. She treated a pamphlet of reading recommendations from the library like a checklist to be completed, and she was determined to finish every title listed. These lengthy reading sessions sparked an interest in writing and literature.
“My dad is a scientist and I think my parents hoped I would study science, so maybe all the writing and books was my way of rebelling,” Ruiz said with a laugh. “But staying in touch with my artistic and literary side has always been very important to me.”
As she grew older, though, Ruiz realized she had both a knack and a love for science and math. Working with her father in high school gave her hands-on experience in a lab, which she found exciting. A summer session at the Governor’s School of North Carolina exposed her to theoretical math and nudged Ruiz toward studying quantitative biology, which is now her major at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Ruiz came to Carolina with a scholarship from the Chancellor’s Science Scholars program, which offers merit-based financial support, opportunities to participate in cutting-edge research, professional development, leadership training, mentorship and other programming designed to pave the way for academic success and future achievement.
“CSS has been an amazing support system,” Ruiz said. “My class has been through a lot at UNC with COVID and everything, and it means a lot for me to be able to rely on the people in the CSS program.”
Reading through a list of Ruiz’s scholarly accomplishments, one might assume that she traded her literary bent for a singular focus on science and lab work. A Phi Beta Kappa inductee, Ruiz was a recipient of the prestigious Goldwater Scholarship, a national program that recognizes excellence in science, mathematics and engineering. Ruiz is also an assistant at the Strahl LabOpens in new window at the UNC School of Medicine, and she participated in the highly-selective Broad Summer Research Program through the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.
But her academic accomplishments as a budding scientist do not tell the complete story of Ruiz’s journey at Carolina. Despite her busy lab schedule and demanding biology course load, Ruiz is also a creative writing minor and has stayed true to the literary side that led her to self-publish a fantasy novel that explored Aztec and Mayan culture and allowed her to examine her own Mexican-American heritage.
Ruiz has also taken on several campus leadership roles. She has served as a Resident Advisor with Carolina Housing, Lieutenant Governor in the Residence Hall Association’s Community Government body, and a volunteer with Mi Pueblo UNC. Ruiz has also served as a STEM mentor for 8th- and 9th-grade students from underrepresented backgrounds through Carolina ADMIRES. She is currently president of her sorority, Pi Beta Phi, and has worked hard to keep the chapter safe during COVID-19.
“I think part of being a scientist is having writing and communication skills, so the writing and involvement in leadership roles are helpful,” Ruiz said. “You have to communicate your ideas properly and have the confidence to share them with the world.”
Ruiz will apply to Ph.D. programs this fall, and is considering genetics or cancer biology as her academic focus. As she contemplates next steps, she remains cognizant of the foundation that the Chancellor’s Science Scholars program provided.
“A lot of students of color and minorities in STEM can slip through the cracks,” Ruiz said. “More than anything, I think CSS shows students like me that we belong in science and we deserve to be here.”