This assistant professor of chemistry is focused on the two fronts in the fight against cancer: therapeutics and detection.
"But if something I worked on, someone I trained, or someone I interacted with helps with cancer I can leave here satisfied that I did my part," says Merino, a new assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry. His research is focused on the interplay between oxidative stress, DNA damage and cancer.
"I guess what I am saying is that I want to be part of the solution."
That drive started in early childhood for the native of South San Diego – "not the part where tourists go," Merino notes. He is the son of a father who "came to this country with nothing" from Mexico and worked seven days a week as a gardener. Accordingly, from the time Merino was 6 until he was 17, he helped his dad on weekends, pulling weeds out of gardens.
"I knew then I wanted an education," he recalls. "Funny thing is that when working in the lab, I use my hands all the time."
Merino, a good math student in high school, says he "fell into chemistry" as an undergraduate at the University of San Diego with the help of his advisor. At the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, his graduate research focused on DNA biosensors and nucleic acid footprinting methods. He received his PhD from UNC in 2005, following that up with a postdoctoral position at the California Institute of Technology.
A lover of large public universities, cities and urban areas, Merino thrived on UNC's athletics and culture – and is looking forward to more of the same in Cincinnati.
"Plus, I could afford to move downtown in Cincinnati," he says. That's a real plus for a guy whose idea of a perfect day off includes "a stroll downtown, an early Reds game with 70 degrees and a little breeze."
On the job, Merino finds there are two fronts in the fight against cancer. The first is therapeutics: "My lab will pursue milder, but just as effective, anti-cancer drugs. Hopefully, we can help make cancer therapy less painful. It's high-risk but so rewarding," he says.
The second front is detection. "The earlier your cancer is detected, the better for you," he says. "How tumors are formed is not fully understood but environmental toxins and everyday wear and tear lead to a type of damage termed oxidative stress. I want to investigate peptides modified by these stresses and, hopefully, use them as markers for cancers because they have been overlooked as a possibility."
Finally, he says, he'll "get started on understanding the root causes of cancer."
"Your body assembles huge machines made out of protein to accomplish tasks. It's a lot like a car factory assembly line," he says. "Protein 1 fabricates a part, Protein 2 colors the part, Protein 3 mounts the part in the correct place, and so on down the line. All these proteins are attached so that everything gets done in the correct order and time. I want to see if the connections between the proteins are disrupted in cancers."
As for his teaching style, Merino relishes good verbal communication. "I make things simple," he says. "That helps me in both teaching and research."
His memories of his own undergraduate days inspire him, too.
"You need help from a lot of people to be successful these days. No one does it alone," says Merino, who adds that his wife is "always there" for him.
"As an undergrad I was a bit lost. People say 'Go to college. Go to college.' So you get in and it's like, 'Now what?'" he says. "Upper-division undergraduates should know their profs – it helped me."