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NIH Recognizes Gabriel Velez during Hispanic Heritage Month

Sep 24 2018

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20/20 Blog

Palo Alto, CA — The National Eye Health Education Program (NEHEP) is recognizing outstanding Hispanic researchers, physicians, and health care professionals as part of the 2018 National Institute of Health’s Hispanic Heritage Month Celebrations. The scientists featured are helping to fulfill the National Eye Institute’s (NEI) mission to understand, prevent, and treat blinding eye diseases. Gabriel Velez, an M.D., Ph.D. student working in the Mahajan Laboratory at Stanford University, was one of thirteen scientists from across the country to be honored. 

With his perspective as a Puerto Rican American, Gabe has taken leadership roles in mentoring underrepresented undergraduate and medical students both at Stanford and the University of Iowa. He readily acknowledges the importance of good mentors during his own academic career.

“Having great mentors contributed significantly to my intellectual and professional development,” he emphasized. “There have been many great professors, teachers, and clinical instructors who have helped to shape my career up to this point. I feel fortunate to have a Ph.D. mentor who challenges and supports me, but who I also get along with.”

Velez is an integral part of the Mahajan team studying the structure and function of the calpain-5 (CAPN5) protein and its role in the development of Autosomal Dominant Neovascular Inflammatory Vitreoretinopathy (ADNIV), a rare blinding eye disease. This rare eye disease is important because it mimics a number of other common eye diseases. 

Using protein crystallography methods, Velez is working on generating an atomic resolution structure of the disease protein that can help design small-molecule inhibitors that could cure CAPN5-associated diseases. He won a prestigious National Institutes of Health F30 grant to pursue experiments to determine the structure of CAPN5. 

“Gabe’s skills as a scientist are outstanding - he is a natural at the bench and the computer, but even more impressive is his enthusiasm, hard work, and productivity,” said Dr. Mahajan. Velez has more than twenty-seven peer-reviewed publications.

The NEI is putting special emphasis on Hispanic eye health during Hispanic Heritage month, September 15th to October 15th, by promoting the theme“Celebra tus bellos ojos” (Celebrate Your Beautiful Eyes). They are getting the message out that Hispanic people 40 and over have a 50 percent chance of getting type 2 diabetes, which can lead to diabetic eye diseases including diabetic retinopathy, cataracts, and glaucoma. They also emphasize the good news, which is that you can protect your eyes by getting regular eye exams, knowing your family’s eye health history, eating right, staying at a healthy weight, and exercising.