Wheaton alum awarded NIH Oxford-Cambridge scholarship

Jillian Riveros ’22
Jillian Riveros ’22 works on an assay to measure protein concentration in the Hotamisligil Lab at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. (Photo courtesy of the Sabri Ülker Center)

Jillian Riveros ’22 seeks to develop drug to address heart attacks and strokes

Jillian Riveros ’22 will have the opportunity of a lifetime to pursue her doctoral degree at University of Cambridge this fall after receiving a prestigious National Institutes of Health (NIH) Oxford-Cambridge scholarship.

The award, given to just 20 students, offers dual mentorships at the NIH in Maryland and at the University of Cambridge or the University of Oxford in England. The scholars program is a highly individualized and accelerated doctoral training program for outstanding students committed to biomedical research careers. Awardees partner with two mentors to perform a single, collaborative dissertation project.

Through her research, she hopes to produce a drug that could prevent recurrent heart attacks and strokes. Both medical emergencies, according to Riveros, are caused by a sudden restriction or reduction in blood flow (ischemia). Once blood flow returns to the organs (reperfusion), tissue damage—or ischemia-reperfusion injury—occurs, which increases the likelihood of a second attack.

“What research has shown is if you inhibit the production of reactive oxygen species (ROS) during reperfusion after inducing a heart attack in a mouse model, then you’re able to prevent the injury,” Riveros said. “My goal is to better characterize how ROS and calcium uptake influence one another and contribute to ischemia-reperfusion injury.

“Hopefully, by further understanding the role of these two different molecules, I can figure out how to make drugs that can prevent the injuries caused by ischemia-reperfusion, and therefore, prevent heart attacks and strokes from happening again.”

Riveros, who was a first-generation college student, Posse Scholar and Barry Goldwater Scholar—currently works as a research assistant at the Harvard School of Public Health.

The biochemistry major from Queens, N.Y., said her undergraduate education at Wheaton College allowed her not only to learn at her own pace, but also to be unafraid of failure.

She cited Associate Professor of Chemistry Christopher Kalberg and Professor of Chemistry Jani Benoit as two of her most influential mentors.

“One of the main things that Wheaton did was help me to gain confidence in myself,” Riveros said. “Professor Kalberg showed me how to pursue the study of science and how to really persist. I worked with him very closely for my thesis and there was a lot of failure and figuring out next steps.

“I got a good understanding of what it’s like to be in science, but also to have it not be in such a high-stakes environment where I couldn’t afford to fail. He allowed me to explore different avenues and trust my science.”

Riveros said that she was disappointed to be unable to study abroad while at Wheaton due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but her recent scholarship has given her the opportunity to travel. Riveros’s mother, who passed away when she was 15, always wanted her daughter to study in England. Riveros said this full-circle moment is a dream realized.

“When I was younger, I told my mom I wanted to be a doctor because I wanted to find cures,” Riveros said. “She would always tell me ‘yes, wherever you need to go, whatever you need to do, we’ll do it.’”

Riveros currently mentors students at Wheaton who are looking to apply for the Goldwater scholarship. One of her main messages for students is not to get discouraged if you don’t succeed on the first try.

“Applying for scholarships isn’t easy and you don’t always get them,” Riveros said. “I want to remind people to be persistent and keep pushing through and keep applying even if you don’t get it the first or second time. If it’s really your dream to do something, then don’t stop.”

—By Scott Enman ’15