Juan Alfonzo - The Science of Persistence and Dedication
By Ligia Lundine
"If you are an artist, scientist or a philosopher,
everything is hard and takes work if you want to be successful"
1980, Juan Alfonzo came to the United States from Venezuela
with the intention of studying English for a couple of months.
Today, 25 years later, with a Ph.D. in microbiology from the
Indiana University, and a successful and prolific scientific
career in several institutions (including the University of
California in Los Angeles and here at Ohio State), he recalls
those days with a nostalgic smile on his face. After finishing
his bachelor's degree at Indiana with a major in microbiology,
Alfonzo knew he wanted to pursue an advanced degree in science.
Despite his strong desire, things were not easy in the beginning.
In order to stay in Indiana, he worked for one year at a bakery
and it was precisely there when opportunity knocked at his
door. Only one week before the business declared bankruptcy,
Alfonzo ran into one of his former professors, who happened
to buy bread at the bakery. This professor offered Alfonzo
a job as a lab technician, marking the starting point in his
The impact that a professor can have in our lives is a recurring
element that weaves the threads of our careers. As a chemistry
student at Indiana University, Alfonzo was tremendously inspired
by Prof. Walter Konetzka, who taught an introductory microbiology
class. After one semester of taking Konetzka's class, Alfonzo
changed his major from chemistry to microbiology, and he knew
he had found his professional passion in life. Konetzka taught
more than 11,000 students during 37 years of his academic
and research career, and inspired many students, including
Alfonzo and other successful scientists.
With a promising scientific career in front of him, Alfonzo
had several options after he finished his doctoral degree
at University of California in Los Angeles. He was invited
to 14 universities to give job talks and present his research.
When it came to make the final decision, Ohio State stood
out among another six institutions. Alfonzo said the main
reason why he joined Ohio State was the potential to work
in the university's renowned Department of Microbiology, specifically
in the area of RNA biochemistry.
| An analogy to understand
- The DNA could be compared with the hard drive of a computer
where all the genetic information is stored. But having
the information just sitting there can do very little.
- The information needs to be translated into a form that
can be transformed into a function. That function is a
- To achieve that, a decoder is required, and this decoder
comes in the form of tRNA (transfer RNA) which could be
compared with a CD from a hard drive.
- Then the CD is put into a CD player and not until then,
the information can be used.
- What Alfonzo studies is the "CD" or tRNA,
a device that is able to transfer the information from
a hard drive into a form in which work can be done.
and his team of researchers, which includes a group of Ph.D.
students and post doctoral scientists who have decided to
join his lab, work with DNA¹ and RNA²
from parasites. The latter are protozoan, microscopic organisms
that cannot be seen with the naked eye. Alfonzo and his group
are interested in exploiting the differences between parasites
and human beings for the purpose of providing therapies for
the diseases these parasites cause.
As a message to the Latin@ community at Ohio State, Alfonzo
recalls a quote from Aquiles Nasoa, a Venezuelan poet: "When
you write to eat, you don't eat and you don't write."
Alfonzo says: "You better do things for the right reason,
if you are going to write, it should be because you like to
write. The eating takes care of itself." During his career,
Alfonzo has noticed that few Latin@ students and even students
in general show much interest in science. He has heard comments
from his students complaining about the fact that science
seems to be too difficult and too demanding. But Alfonzo states:
"In every field of knowledge, if you think it will not
take a lot of work, you have been a little bit misguided...
everything else being equal, every discipline takes work."
¹DNA: Deoxyribonucleic acid that carries genetic
information in the cell and is capable of self-replication
and synthesis of RNA. Source: www.dictionary.com 2005.
²RNA: Ribonucleic acid: A polymeric constituent
of all living cells and many viruses, consisting of a long,
usually single-stranded chain of alternating phosphate and
ribose units. Source: www.dictionary.com 2005.