Thursday, January 4, 2024

Cancer-free for 20 years, Derek Rodriguez turns setbacks into success

Cancer-free for 20 years, Derek Rodriguez turns setbacks into success


DECEMBER 6, 2023 — At a young age, UTSA doctoral student Derek Rodriguez was diagnosed with Rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare type of cancer that forms in the body’s soft tissue and most often affects children. Since then, he’s been determined to make something good come out of his personal experience – something with a far-reaching impact.  

He chose science.

“Turn your issues into your strengths; it’s kind of my motto,” Rodriguez said. “Being diagnosed with cancer at eight years old and achieving remission sparked my interest in science. It drove me to want to understand the biology of these diseases that impact our lives.”

A first-generation college graduate, Rodriguez earned his bachelor’s degree in biology with a minor in chemistry from Texas State University then his master’s degree in biology from UTSA in 2019. He will cross the stage again this fall with his Ph.D. in translational science.

“Someone helped me, and I am now going on my own journey to help others.”

Rodriguez debated whether to take the medical or research route, but ultimately “fell in love” with research because, as he puts it, “I feel like I can contribute something for the greater community as a whole, instead of individually.”

When he decided to pursue his Ph.D., he started with a remote program in biomedicine from an online school that just wasn’t the right fit. It was UTSA professor Jose Lopez-Ribot, associate dean for research and graduate studies, who introduced Rodriguez to the Translational Science Ph.D. Program, which is one of several multidisciplinary and transdisciplinary degree programs offered by University College. The doctoral program is a joint effort offered by UTSA, UT Health San Antonio, UT Austin and UT Health Houston School of Public Health.

“He encouraged me to apply, and because of him I got into a program that he said would be more suited for what I wanted to do,” Rodriguez said. “And here I am now. Three and a half years later, I’ve completed the program, and I was able to get the best experience out of it because it wasn’t remote. It was more tailored to individuals who wanted to marry medicine and science together.”  

Rodriguez’s doctoral research and dissertation was conducted in the laboratory of Astrid Cardona, department chair of UTSA’s Molecular Microbiology and Immunology program. With her guidance and mentorship, Rodriguez focused on gene therapy mechanisms to prevent retinal damage and blindness underlined in diabetic retinopathy. He made it a priority to identify biological avenues that could potentially be translated to human and patient therapies, encompassing a breakthrough in a community of individuals suffering from the eye disease.

It took time for Rodriguez to realize that research was the path for him, but he’d always known where that path would lead, and for him it led to science. It was a journey he made with ongoing support. Rodriguez contributes his drive for an education to his mother, and so many others who encouraged him along the way.

“I contribute all of my successes to all of my mom’s sacrifices,” he said. “She’s drove me to be more school-oriented and to value an education because that meant success and it was invaluable. I also attribute my success to having such a great support system of family and friends, my mentors, and my pediatric oncologist who I am still in contact with.”

“Someone helped me, and I am now going on my own journey to help others,” he said.

Rodriguez has a lot to celebrate this year with graduation around the corner, but he also recently hit another milestone in his life. In August, he marked 20 years of being cancer-free. Both are accomplishments that fuel his optimism.

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He hopes others will see what he’s been through, the challenges he’s overcome and the dedication it took to persevere. He wants to be an example and encouragement for others, especially for those who share similar life experiences.

“In America, less than two percent of individuals hold Ph.Ds. and of those individuals, about eight percent are Hispanic or Latino,” Rodriguez said. “Through my accomplishments, not only can I showcase my Hispanic community, but also the LGBTQ and cancer survivor communities. I feel like I wear a lot of hats to where I can stand up and say, ‘It’s possible.’”

Michelle Gaitan

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of The University of Texas at San Antonio.

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University of Texas at San Antonio receives ‘transformational’ $40M gift

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