Alum "Feels At Home" Pursuing Doctorate At Notre Dame

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When selecting a PhD program, Alejandro Lopez-Ramirez ’14, MS ’20 was drawn to one university in particular – because it reminded him of Dominican.

“One of the main reasons that drew me to the University of Notre Dame was that it felt like home,” Alejandro says. “By that, I mean that the way Notre Dame leads and teaches reminds me of Dominican.”

The El Camino High School graduate originally selected Dominican’s undergraduate science program because of the opportunity to begin working in a research lab as a first-year student. He admired Dominican’s holistic approach to education. 

“Dominican not only focused on our grades but on us as people and on our mental health.”

At Dominican, Alejandro was mentored in the sciences by Dr. Kristylea Ojeda. Their research in the Department of Natural Sciences and Mathematics involved cloning and characterization of genes using a bacterium known as Rhizobium etli CE3. Their research led him and his lab members to attend the National Conference of Undergraduate Research in 2013.


Outside the sciences in the School of Health and Natural Sciences, Alejandro spent two years serving as a board member of the Associated Students of Dominican University, a role that taught him about both leadership and event planning.

“Because of my time in ASDU I also participated in LeaderShape,” he recalls. “This was possibly the most enlightening summer I had because of all of the new techniques and experiences that I could apply in being a leader.”

After graduating with his bachelor’s degree in 2014, Alejandro knew that he wanted to eventually return to research. However, he was keen to develop his leadership skills. This determination took his career in a unique direction.

“I was inspired by a very close friend of mine, Lizeth Martinez ’14. Lizeth fought for my spot at the local funeral home,” he says. “Even though I was only an apprentice at the time, I thought that the work and compassion of funeral directors was endearing. I don’t believe this job directly affected my career decision but it did convert me into a more empathetic and detail-oriented person.”

After earning his funeral directors’ license, Alejandro worked as a funeral director for five years. Eventually, the time was right for him to return to research.

“I knew that going back to Dominican would be the best choice due to the affiliations with the Buck Institute for Research on Aging and BioMarin,” he says. “Both companies, especially the Buck Institute, are well known for their research in aging and of course in neurological diseases.”

The empathy and attention to detail he drew on as a funeral director are skills he uses daily as a lab manager and research associate in the Ellerby lab at the Buck Institute, which focuses on understanding the fundamental mechanisms that lead to age-related neurodegenerative diseases and identifying new therapeutic targets for these diseases.

 “I perform a lot of stem cell experiments which would include expanding, passaging, and differentiating cells into a wide variety of neural and glial cells,” says Alejandro, who research now is focused on rare neuro-metabolic diseases in Dr. Kasturi Haldar's lab at Notre Dame University, “I also perform a lot of behavioral and drug characterization projects in mice.”

In 2020, Alejandro successfully defended his master’s thesis, “Modulating Matrix Metalloproteases and Inflammation in Huntington’s Disease.” 

While he already was interested in pursuing a PhD before enrolling in the MS program, Alejandro says that working at the Buck Institute solidified that desire. His long-term goal is to be a principal investigator. Whether it is in academia or industry is yet to be decided.

“The accomplishments and contributions I had performed at the Buck showed me that I CAN tackle a PhD.”

His advice to undergraduates interested in a similar career path is to gain as much research experience as possible.

 “I would advise undergraduates to gain research experience. Not just the research at Dominican but to reach out to labs,” Alejandro says. “Oftentimes I know some students would say `I didn’t know they took in undergraduates.’ But, it is very common to take in undergrads, you just need to ask.”

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