GradImpact: Veteran Continues Service By Studying Human Genetics

    UC San Francisco graduate student and military veteran Raul Torres says he enlisted in the Army National Guard when he turned 18, primarily because he saw it as a way to be financially independent during college and graduate debt-free. It was 2003, the beginning of the Iraq War, but, he notes with a half-laugh, that was only supposed to last a couple of years. 


    He was deployed to Bagdad almost immediately upon graduating from the University of Texas at Arlington in 2008.  His squad was in charge of convoy security, ensuring that needed supplies and personnel got from Bagdad, the main point of entrance to the country, to various military outposts.  He counts himself lucky, as his unit didn’t encounter any roadside bombs or heavy fire, although other units doing this same kind of work often did. “You knew what could happen, so the anxiety never really went away, but you did fall into a routine and learned what to expect.” During his service, Raul was also involved in emergency response stateside, notably during Hurricane Rita in 2005 in his home state of Texas.


    Having finished his service commitment in 2009, Torres enjoyed a new sense of freedom. “Having a disciplined, structured way of doing things works well in the military and in science,” but, he says, “in the military you are always forced not to ask why, not to question the way things are done. It’s necessary because of the heavy consequences that can result if you question orders or the mission, but it’s also antithetical to scientific thinking, which requires you to constantly ask why or how you might do something differently.”


    As an undergrad with a dual anthropology and biology major, Torres had done field work in ethnography and archeology, but not research in a biology lab. So, after Iraq, with the ultimate goal of getting a PhD, he applied to post-bac programs and landed at the University of Chicago, where he did research in human genetics. With this experience under his belt, he was accepted into the Biomedical Sciences doctoral program at UCSF.


    In Ryan Hernandez’s Lab at UCSF, Raul has been studying the complex interaction of linked selection and demography on generating patterns of diversity across the genome and looking at how such patterns contribute to variation within and between different human populations.


    A life-long interest in both evolutionary history and social history imbues Raul’s ambitions as a researcher. “In revealing population-specific patterns generated through evolutionary forces, it may become possible to better leverage genetic data to benefit specific populations, for example, and decrease health disparities in those that are understudied. More than anything, I want to have a positive impact on marginalized communities,” he says.


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