Natacha Ruiz

Assistant Professor, Ohio State University Department of Microbiology

It was a picture book, read when she was 8, that helped set Natacha Ruiz, 41, along the path she travels today. The story, she recalls, is about a child skipping school, climbing a tree, falling--cutting himself in the process--and washing his wound in a “nasty” pond. “So then you see the bacteria, they were like this monster coming in, and you see how the body starts to combat this infection that this kid has. I was totally fascinated by that.”

Ruiz, a native of Spain, spent her junior year of high school as an exchange student in Kansas and returned to the Sunflower State for college. She graduated from the University of Kansas with a bachelor’s degree in microbiology and chemistry before going to graduate school at Washington University in St. Louis, where she earned a Ph.D. in molecular microbiology and microbial pathogenesis. Next up was Princeton University, first as a post-doctoral researcher, and then as a research molecular biologist.

In 2010, she came to Ohio State University, where she serves as an assistant professor in OSU’s Department of Microbiology. Ruiz says she left the research-only tenure-track position at Princeton because she wanted to teach. Columbus was a draw both personally, in terms of the lifestyle and amenities the city had to offer, and professionally. “I liked dealing with undergraduate students,” says Ruiz.

At OSU, Ruiz is continuing the work she began at Princeton, using genetics to ask fundamental questions about bacteria. “Basically, in a big-picture setting, we want to know, ‘How does a bacterium build itself?’ What we’re looking at is the equivalent to the ‘skin’ of it,” says Ruiz.

For those rusty on their high school biology, bacteria generally can be divided into two classes: gram-positive or gram-negative. Ruiz and her researchers are using Escherichia coli, better known as E. coli, as a model organism for all gram-negative bacteria. E. coli has two membranes, with a mesh layer called peptidoglycan between them. Ruiz and her research team hope to discover how to inhibit the formation of the outer membrane, which would allow antibiotics to penetrate the bacteria and wipe out the foodborne illness. “That’s how antibiotics, you know, work, some of them anyway, by preventing an essential process from happening,” she says.

Ruiz, says Tina Henkin, a professor and chair of OSU’s Department of Microbiology, is “attacking a question which has been open in the literature for a very long time, and no one has been able to get to the answer, so it’s a somewhat high-risk project in that sense. But I think if anybody’s going to do it, she’s going to do it. She has great training and willingness to go after hard problems.”

In February, Ruiz’s research got a shot in the arm when she was notified that her grant application to the National Institutes of Health for peptidoglycan research had qualified for funding. As of early March, a funding amount had not yet been determined.

Reprinted from the April 2012 issue of Columbus C.E.O. Copyright © Columbus C.E.O.