Commencement 2024: For biological sciences graduate, problem solving is a core skill

KINGSTON, R.I. – May 13, 2024 – For most of us, a botched do-it-yourself plumbing job that results in a flooded cellar would send us scrambling to call a pro. But for Alberto Paz, the would-be disaster only bolstered his confidence in his problem-solving skills.

Paz, born and raised in Providence, first came to the University of Rhode Island while still in Classical High School. He spent two weeks on campus in a program that had him doing experiments with chemicals, including some that could create fireworks. When he graduated high school, he became a full-time student in biological sciences in URI’s College of the Environment and Life Sciences.

He’s currently working with associate professor Ying Zhang in using metabolic modeling, meta-omics, and other data-intensive approaches to answering research questions in bioengineering and environmental microbiology. His research group develops open-source software and models for simulation of biological systems to achieve mechanistic understandings at molecular, organismal, and ecosystems scales.

Making information easier to access for everyone is important to Paz. That is why he focuses on bioinformatics, an interdisciplinary field of science that develops methods and software tools for understanding biological data. Professor Zhang allowed him to choose a project that interested him. He’s been working on it since summer 2023 and feels confident that if he continues on the path he’s taken, the work will eventually be published.

“The goal of any single type of lab, whether it be cancer, aquatics, anything, is to get your research across so it can convince other people as well,” Paz said. “I’m also interested in coding, with a focus on biology. I’d like to make information available for everyone, not just academics.”

He’s currently researching an organism called foraminifera, which is only found in the first centimeter of water in salt marshes. Paz hopes to be the first to sequence its genetic code, upload it, and determine its behaviors.

Paz says his life experiences have made him even more certain that he has a knack for problem solving. “From painting houses to tarring streets, to plumbing. I feel that having grown up with a proclivity toward fixing things and taking the unconventional route makes me a better researcher. I would like to encourage people to have a variety of experiences instead of boxing themselves into one area.”

He recalls a time when he and his father were renovating their house, including the plumbing. Paz looked over the project and, confident in his problem-solving abilities, persuaded his dad to let him take over one particular chore.

Things were going just fine, except for one thing: he had forgotten to turn off a valve. It wasn’t until the basement was flooded that he realized his mistake. Lucky for him his father didn’t blow his top. He just calmly told Alberto that he would have to clean the mess. Once that was completed, Paz returned to the task, this time fixing the problem as he said he would. The process took hours, but he’s still proud of the way it came out. “That one will always stick with me,” he said.

When he’s not doing home renovations, Paz likes going to the gym and playing volleyball. He also enjoys being with his sister Naomi when he goes home on the weekend. That’s also a time when he’s likely to enjoy a plate of mangú, a Dominican dish often eaten as a breakfast. “I grew up with it; it’s my comfort food.”

For Alberto Paz, challenging himself to excel at problem solving is a way of life. “Most people don’t know how hard I work, especially behind the scenes in research, setting things up to be successful. But I really like the freedom that challenges an evolutionary thought. You can’t be complacent. I like things that are very difficult.”

This story was written by Hugh Markey.