In a laboratory on the first floor of the Biology and Life Sciences Building, biology professor Darius Balciunas maintains tanks filled with thousands of freshwater zebrafish, each one about the size of a thumb.
For several hours a week during the past two years, senior biochemistry major Ralph St. Luce has conducted research in the lab, studying the genes of the zebrafish, an organism with the ability to regenerate its heart.
“The coolest aspect is definitely gene editing,” St. Luce said. “You can order a sequence of DNA from your computer…inject it into a fish embryo and a couple months later, bam, you have a fish with that DNA in its genome.”
St. Luce first recognized his talent for science at the age of 15 while studying at the British School of Lomé, a boarding school in the African country of Togo. Originally from South Florida, St. Luce went to the boarding school because his mother wanted him to explore the world.
Only after coming to Temple did St. Luce realize he could combine his love of science, medicine and business.
“I just gravitate toward it,” St. Luce said. “I like health care entrepreneurship and innovation. … But it wasn’t until I started my research here at Temple when everything just clicked.”
At the height of the spring semester, St. Luce spent 10 to 12 hours in the lab a week studying a protein coding gene, TBX20, in the developing hearts of zebrafish. The gene is one of several that students are studying to determine what exactly controls the heart’s ability to regenerate.
“It’s almost a similar process of if you get stabbed and it heals,” St. Luce said. “You can’t cut the heart in such a way that it stops circulating blood, but if you cut a piece, it will regenerate.”
“We want to apply this research to human biology one day,” he added. “Although zebrafish look very different from humans, a lot of the internal processes are similar.”
St. Luce has worked in Balciunas’ lab since Spring 2016.
“Ralph is a brilliant student,” Balciunas said. “He’s really focused and has done a fantastic job.”
On his days off from lab work, St. Luce has volunteered as an EMT for Temple University Emergency Medical Services, a student-run emergency response group.
“It’s exciting,” St. Luce said. “The police lights are all around, people are watching you to see what you’re going to do. Obviously the goal was to make sure the patient is OK…but it’s an adrenaline rush.”
After graduating with a distinction in research and magna cum laude honors, St. Luce will spend his summer conducting heart research at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, where he also will enroll this fall to begin an MD and MBA dual-degree program.
“I’m so happy,” St. Luce said. “I remember staying up long nights studying. It’s nice to have recognition that after all that hard work, it pays off.”
Later on in his career, he hopes to return to Africa and apply his medical knowledge and entrepreneurship to open health care facilities there.
“I lived there for too long and got too close to not go back,” St. Luce said. “It’s an obligation in some way or another. When people go [to Africa] for a week they say, ‘Help the people,’ but that’s a very downward view on the continent. When you live there, it’s a different experience.”
St. Luce feels some visitors to Africa impose a “colonial” mindset on African nations. His desire to return however, comes from his love for the continent.
“I want to go back and be involved in health care in some capacity,” he added. “I’m not a savior, but I’ll try my best to help those who need it.”