Student to pursue immunology studies at Oxford

FIU undergraduate student Jose F. Orta  has been granted a prestigious Frost Scholarship to study at the University of Oxford in England for one year.

Orta, who will graduate with bachelor’s degrees in biology and chemistry this summer, will pursue a master’s in integrated immunology at the world’s second-oldest university starting this fall.

Jose Orta poses with local children in Peru during a MEDLIFE at FIU trip in 2010.

Jose Orta poses with local children in Peru during a MEDLIFE at FIU trip in 2010.

“It feels great,” Orta said. “I’m a bit scared because it’s a new experience and it’s the first time I’m going somewhere else alone. But it will be a great experience. Oxford is one of the top universities in the entire world to do biomedical research, so this is great.”

At FIU, Orta worked as research assistant in the lab of Rita Mukhopadhyay, a professor in the Herbert Wetheim College of Medicine, for two years. Orta studied the role of the sandfly’s aquaproin gene as the transmitter of the leishmania parasite.

Leishmaniasis is a disease that causes ulcers in the skin, mouth and nose, as well as fever, low red blood cells, and an enlarged spleen and liver. Infections in humans are caused by more than 20 species of the parasite and at least 93 sandfly species are proven Leishmania transmitters worldwide.

According to Orta, the parasites are mostly found in tropical and sub-tropical areas, including but not limited to parts of Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, Venezuela and India.

“Risk factors for becoming infected with Leishmaniasis include poverty and malnutrition, which is why I became so interested in studying how it is spread,” Orta said. “There aren’t many or very efficient medications available to treat it, and most of the people affected don’t have access to healthcare to begin with. If we invest in research, we can create preventive measures and develop new drugs that cost less in order to treat it.”

Born in Cuba, Orta left the island for Venezuela at the age of eight with his mother and siblings in 1997. By age 15, Orta had graduated from high school and had been accepted to medical school at the Central University of Venezuela, the oldest university in the country and one of the oldest in the Western Hemisphere.

In 2007, Orta and his family immigrated to the United States. Orta spent a year at Miami-Dade College learning English and working toward his associate’s degree, before transferring to FIU. As the former president of MEDLIFE at FIU, he and nearly 20 FIU students traveled to Peru in 2010 and to Ecuador in 2011 to provide underprivileged families and individuals with primary medical care and education services.

Orta has presented his research in a number of conferences, including Worldlesih, an international congress on leishmania and leishmaniasis. He is also the co-author of “Trypanosomatid Aquaporins: Roles in Physiology and Drug Response” which was published in the journal Diseases in 2013. Upon completing his master’s, Orta hopes to enroll in medical school in the United States. and ultimately pursue a career as an oncologist.

“Jose is intelligent, sincere and hard-working,” Mukhopadhyay said. “I often put my students in the spotlight at lab meetings and push them to meet challenges. Jose has persevered and has met those challenges without hesitation. He is highly motivated. I know he will do very well in biomedical research.”

The Frost Scholarship Programme funds current students of the State University System of Florida to study one year, full-time master’s courses in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) subjects at the University of Oxford. Funded by the Phillip and Patricia Frost Philanthropic Foundation, the program will offer ten scholarships each year for the next five years. Students interested in applying for a Frost scholarship should contact the FIU Office of Undergraduate Education.