Real-Life Alumni: Flora Rutaganira, ‘10 B.S., Postdoctoral Fellow, UC Berkeley

Flora Rutaganira

Flora Rutaganira graduated in 2010 with a Bachelor of Science in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

“Being an Aggie shaped my career path. I can say that I really appreciate the coursework—although it felt like a lot at the time—and the opportunity to participate in many different kinds of research projects.”

- Flora Rutaganira, '10 B.S.
by Lily O'Connor-Coates

Flora Rutaganira graduated from UC Davis with a Bachelor of Science in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in 2010. She is a postdoctoral research fellow at UC Berkeley, working in the lab of Nicole King, a professor of molecular and cellular biology.

Rutaganira studies marine organisms, which might hold the key to understanding the origin and evolution of animals. She also earned a Doctorate of Philosophy in Chemistry and Chemical Biology at UC San Francisco. 

Laying the groundwork for a career in academia

Rutaganira’s research explores the origin of multicellularity—organisms with multiple cell types—and animal development. Specifically, she studies choanoflagellates, the small, single-celled organisms found in oceanic or fresh water. Choanoflagellates are a close, living relative of animals and can help scientists learn more about the development of multicellularity in animals.

Rutaganira’s ultimate goal is to work in academia as a professor at a research university. Her interest in cell signaling was sparked at UC Davis, and she recognizes how important her undergraduate here was in preparing her for grad school.

“The training that I received at UC Davis in the classroom and through research prepared me well for pursuing academic research,” said Rutaganira. “Being an Aggie shaped my career path. I can say that I really appreciate the coursework—although it felt like a lot at the time—and the opportunity to participate in many different kinds of research projects. These two things were very critical for me getting into graduate school and proceeding on my academic research career path.”

She utilizes the skills she learned at UC Davis to study choanoflagellate signaling proteins. These signaling proteins are important because multicellular organisms require coordinated actions between individual cells to produce a singular response. The particular proteins Rutaganira works with are tyrosine kinases, which are enzymes known to help coordinate cell actions in animals.

“I hope to find signaling mechanisms that are important for the choanoflagellate life history,” says Rutaganira, “and in turn hopefully find insights into modern animal development,

As an undergraduate, Rutaganira wanted to pursue lab internships related to cell signaling. This lead to her lab internship with Professor Jared Shaw, Department of Chemistry, granting an opportunity to participate in real-life, ongoing research.

“I wasn't sure how to go about learning about research,” Rutaganira said, “So, I met with Ken Burtis, then Dean of the College of Biological Sciences, and he connected me with Dr. Shaw. I was really interested in working in Dr. Shaw's lab as he was using chemistry to understand biology which I thought was really cool—and still do!”

Choosing the best academic fit

As a prospective undergraduate student, Rutaganira found it challenging to select an area of interest in biology, so she researched many different majors and their career options. By the time she applied to UC Davis, Rutaganira was well-informed, and she selected the biochemistry and molecular biology major.

“I knew that I would have an interest on the smaller scale side of biology, so biochemistry and molecular biology seemed like a good major,” Rutaganira recounted, “Also from looking at other people’s career paths, it seemed like it was good for many different possibilities post-graduation.”

After spending four years on the UC Davis campus and years after that on other campuses, she recalls that UC Davis made her feel at home. According to Rutaganira, UC Davis is unique because of its ability to cultivate an atmosphere of both learning and fun.

When asked if there was anything she would change about her time here, Rutaganira wishes that she had taken more fun elective courses. She encourages students to experiment with general education classes outside their fields of study, as opportunities to study those topics dwindle as advanced research becomes more focused and specialized.

As someone who seized all sorts of opportunities to participate on campus, Rutaganira’s advises current Aggies to get involved.

She joined different clubs and organizations on campus, including the Sigma Phi Honors Society and Biology Undergraduate Scholars Program (BUSP). She also utilized the Student Alumni Association for its networking and career opportunities.

At UC Davis, Rutaganira received several grants, scholarships and academic awards, including the CLIMB Internship, President's Undergraduate Fellowship, Citation for Outstanding Performance in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, California Aggie Alumni Association Leadership Thompson Scholarship and the Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Research (Honorable Mention).

Though she’s accomplished a lot, Rutaganira doesn’t spend all of her time in the lab. When she isn’t working, she loves to explore California’s parks.

“I got a California Parks (Poppy) Pass this year, and it has been amazing seeing all of the great state parks we have in California,” Rutaganira said, “I’ve been doing lots of hikes and seeing many waterfalls.”