Brenda Melano and Sebastián Cruz-González receive 2023 Genentech-UCSF School of Pharmacy Diversity Fellowships

Brenda Melano and Sebastián Cruz-González, both UC San Francisco graduate students, were named the 2023 recipients of the Genentech-UCSF School of Pharmacy Diversity Fellowships in the program’s inaugural year.

Melano and Cruz-González, who are pursuing PhDs in pharmaceutical sciences and pharmacogenomics (PSPG) and biological and medical informatics (BMI), respectively, were each nominated for the fellowship by their faculty mentors and program directors.

“We want our PhD graduates to have the experience and perspective needed to engage in leadership pursuits, whether in academia or industry, and it’s vital that we open these doors to students from diverse backgrounds.” said Ryan Hernandez, PhD, director of the fellowship and co-vice dean of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the School of Pharmacy.

This summer, Melano and Cruz-González will spend three months carrying out independent research projects at Genentech, a member of the Roche Group and a founder of the biotech industry. They will gain exposure to new areas of research, scientific methods, and collaborators, as well as the working environment of private industry.

“Our young stars have so much potential to solve the biggest challenges in biomedicine, particularly if they can navigate a variety of professional contexts,” said Kathy Giacomini, PhD, BSPharm, dean of the School of Pharmacy. “I’m excited to see the impact that Brenda and Sebastián will make in their careers and in driving the field towards greater equity and inclusion.”

Using genetics to defeat cancer

Brenda Melano grew up in a rural, Latino community near the Monterey Bay and became captivated by the complexities of cancer biology in her high school AP biology class.

“I credit my biology teacher, who would go on long tangents about interesting topics in genetics, for giving me that curiosity to stick with science,” said Melano.

She is now studying osteosarcoma (bone cancer) from an evolutionary perspective, developing new computational tools to identify cancer drug targets and ultimately improve the efficacy of existing therapies. She is jointly mentored by UCSF faculty members Hani Goodarzi, PhD, and Alejandro Sweet-Cordero, MD.

“Brenda is truly dedicated to her science,” said Sweet-Cordero. “Wherever she goes, she will bring the creativity and commitment needed to advance the field and also make science a tool for social justice and equity.”

Many members of Melano’s community have suffered from cancer, fueling her passion for developing better approaches to cancer treatment. As a budding expert in computation and pharmacogenomics, Melano is keen to build tools that can break medical stalemates with any complex disease.

Beyond her research, Melano also envisions a career that builds on topics near to her own educational experiences, including mentorship of young people from underrepresented backgrounds who might have never considered science as an available option.

“Many underrepresented minority [URM] students enter college a step behind because of the lack of funding and resources in communities of color, like the one that I came from,” she said. “Right now, I try to mentor and really be there for URMs and women in my graduate program, but I also want to think about what I can do for these students at much younger ages.”

Computing new solutions for equity in medicine

As an undergraduate at the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras, Sebastián Cruz-González envisioned becoming an anesthesiologist or a neurosurgeon. Knowing that a scientific background would be useful for a medical career, he joined a research laboratory and quickly learned to use genomic tools to study regeneration in sea cucumbers.

Then, Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico. The island-wide power outage that followed destroyed Cruz-González’s research samples, but from this disaster came an opportunity: his advisor encouraged him to try his hand at a bioinformatics project, noting his knack for computation.

“That started my entire path,” said Cruz-González. “I realized this kind of work was actually really interesting, even more stimulating for me than what I thought medicine would be.”

Cruz-González is now studying the relationship between biological aging and DNA methylation in admixed populations, like Puerto Ricans and African Americans, aiming to understand how such biological aging influences rates of diseases like Alzheimer’s. He is mentored by Tony Capra, PhD.

“Sebastián is deeply motivated to ensure that the benefits of personalized medicine are available to diverse individuals no matter their ancestry or backgrounds,” said Capra. “He is committed to providing opportunities in science for others who come from similar backgrounds and to make science a more welcoming place for all.”

Looking back, Cruz-González can trace his skill with bioinformatics to a childhood “surrounded by computers,” as well as a father who believed that technology, and computers in general, would be a driving force for progress in the world.

The turn to bioinformatics was “serendipitous,” he said. Yet it has also enabled him to connect his intellectual talents with his determination to make health care accessible to—and effective for—all populations, especially given that most approaches in personalized medicine were designed to work in people with European ancestry.

“The science that I’m doing has special value, because I have skin in the game. This directly relates to my health in the long term, and the health of my children in the future, my grandchildren, and so on,” said Cruz-González. “With this fellowship, Brenda and I have an opportunity to build a path forward for other people like us, to see that these are spaces that belong to everyone, regardless of their ethnicity, their trajectory in life. We can all do great science and make an impact on people’s lives.”


School of Pharmacy, Department of Pharmaceutical Chemistry, Department of Bioengineering and Therapeutic Sciences, BMI, QBC, CCB, PSPG, Bioinformatics, Biophysics

About the School: The UCSF School of Pharmacy aims to solve the most pressing health care problems and strives to ensure that each patient receives the safest, most effective treatments. Our discoveries seed the development of novel therapies, and our researchers consistently lead the nation in NIH funding. The School’s doctor of pharmacy (PharmD) degree program, with its unique emphasis on scientific thinking, prepares students to be critical thinkers and leaders in their field.