Ralph Hazlewood

Ralph Hazlewood

Ralph Hazlewood immediately knew he made the right choice attending the University of Iowa for graduate school.

“At the University of Iowa, you get that sense coming off the plane that this will be a good training environment,” Hazlewood says. “I got accepted to an Ivy League school, but I choose the University of Iowa mainly because of the Genetics Program.

“Although it’s tough to turn down the Ivy League, at the end of the day it's about what’s best for you. Your research will speak volumes for you. That’s one big reason why I chose the Genetics Program at the University of Iowa.”

The UI’s Genetics Program strives to enhance its students to become top leaders in the field. Faculty develop their students’ independent critical thinking skills, research excellence and productivity, collaboration, and scientific integrity.

Hazlewood, born in St. Croix, Virgin Islands, was interested in human genetics, an area in which Iowa has many talented faculty researchers, and became the first graduate student to join Professor John Fingert’s laboratory. Fingert studies inherited eye diseases, like glaucoma, and age-related eye diseases.

“I built a rapport with him right off the bat. He’s a very personable guy,” says Hazlewood, who earned his Ph.D. at Iowa in May 2015. “I don’t think I could have asked for a better mentor. I lost my mom during graduate school and he was just unbelievable. He was more than a mentor, almost part of the family.”

In Fingert’s lab, Hazlewood studied the genetic basis of optic nerve disease. He investigated the role of the MMP19 gene in causing Cavitary Optic Disc Anomaly (CODA), a disease that shares many features with glaucoma. This research may implicate other genes or biological pathways that are involved in more common diseases of the optic nerve such as low pressure glaucoma.

“(Fingert) was really instrumental in having me be independent and able to take risks. He allowed me to bring different research techniques to the lab and utilize those techniques,” Hazlewood says.

Hazlewood is currently a postdoctoral research fellow at Vanderbilt University. He was invited back to the UI campus by the Genetics Program in November to meet with graduate students and faculty.

Recruitment fellowship helps Hazlewood

Hazlewood was a dedicated worker in the lab, but he also found time to connect with scholars in many UI departments, thanks in large part to the Graduate College’s Dean’s Graduate Research Fellowship.

The Dean’s Graduate Research Fellowship promoted recruitment of outstanding students who were underrepresented nationally in their graduate discipline areas.  

“The Dean’s Fellowship was a good opportunity for me. I was exposed to a lot of different resources, like being on a first name basis with Graduate College Dean John Keller,” Hazlewood says. “The fellowship allowed me to be immersed in the culture here at the University of Iowa. It allowed me to step outside of my element in my own department and also connect with a lot of different people around campus. The fellowship also provided me funds to travel to different research conferences and present my work.”

Interdisciplinary training offers big benefits

Being in the UI’s Ophthalmology Department, Hazlewood received interdisciplinary training, learning about genetics, biomedical engineering, and physiology. He has applied his diverse research repertoire to his postdoctoral position at Vanderbilt. Hazlewood is continuing his study of the optic nerve, glaucoma, and genetics in Dr. Rachel Kuchtey’s laboratory.

“I am investigating the molecular mechanisms of glaucoma in several animal models with optic nerve disease,” Hazlewood says. “I am also working on a translational research project to determine the efficacy of novel therapeutics in reversing and/or preventing glaucoma pathology.”