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UC Faculty Awards 2020: Alvaro Puga

Alvaro Puga honored with George Rieveschl Award for Distinguished Scientific Research

Alvaro Puga says researchers don’t make “discoveries.”

“We find,” he says. “It means we did the work and fixed a problem.”

Puga, a professor of environmental health in the College of Medicine, has spent his career finding out why certain cells do what they do.

“We are all organisms that come with a complex set of instructions needed to develop; those instructions are given to us by our genome,” he says. “Exposure to environmental agents can interfere and cause improper functioning of the genome. This is the basis for my work.”

Alvaro Puga in his lab

Alvaro Puga, winner of the 2020 George Rieveschl Award for Distinguished Scientific Research, working in his lab in February. Photo credit: Colleen Kelley/UC Creative + Brand

Throughout his career, nearly 30 years of which has been at UC, Puga has “found” the impact of the chemical compound dioxin on the development of cardiovascular disease and the toxicological effects of metals, like chromium, on DNA —  only a few of his accomplishments.

“My lab has uncovered, over the years, that dioxin, which is a chemical now found in every living organism, binds to a certain receptor in people and impacts the development of the embryo, even from the time the organism is in utero,” he says. “We can’t reverse the exposure to dioxin, but knowing how it affects the system, we can uncover how other agents like it might impact the function of our genes and help us stop disease development before it starts.

“Research is like opening a box, where you find another box inside, with another box inside it. Our work is never done; we never get to the bottom of the box.”

“Research is like opening a box, where you find another box inside, with another box inside it. Our work is never done; we never get to the bottom of the box.”

Alvaro Puga

It’s this tenacity and love for his work that has earned Puga UC’s 2020 George Rieveschl Jr. Award for Distinguished Scientific Research.

“Dr. Puga’s vision of biomedical research is broad and inclusive,” says Mario Medvedovic, professor and director of the Division of Biostatistics and Bioinformatics within UC’s College of Medicine, who nominated Puga for the award. “He has been an early adopter of new technologies and research areas and an outstanding and supportive collaborator. Through these collaborations, he had a profoundly positive influence on research programs of his colleagues, including my own.”

Puga is not only recognized at UC by colleagues but also is known nationally for his contributions. He is an elected fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science as well as the Academy of Toxicological Sciences.

Alvaro Puga with his student in the lab

Alvaro Puga in the lab with one of his students in February. Photo credit: Colleen Kelley/UC Creative + Brand

And when he’s not making scientific strides in the lab, he likes to spend his time finding new recipes in the kitchen.

“I used to scuba dive as a pastime; now, I enjoy cooking,” Puga says. “I’d compare research to cooking, with different ingredients in the right amounts combined to successfully create a dish.”

“I judge abilities in the lab by how well someone can cook,” he says, with a laugh. 

Featured photo by Colleen Kelley/UC Creative + Brand. 

Video link: https://www.youtube.com/embed/yx6CceOtxQw?rel=0

UC Faculty Awards

UC is saluting the 16 winners of our 2020 All-University Faculty Awards in a three-part series in UC News weekly through April 22. Beginning April 23, all winners will also be showcased on the Faculty Awards website.