On the common outside UNLV’s Life Sciences Building, a couple of students glide by on skateboards and many more bask in the warm sun, reading or texting. It is an idyllic April scene, and a lot of talk around campus is about spring break and the Final Four. But step inside, enter an unassuming laboratory, and there you’ll find Horacio Guerra absorbed in a far more serious — some might even say life-and-death — endeavor. The 22-year-old Honors College undergrad is part of a team of UNLV researchers who think they just might be on their way to finding a cure for AIDS.
Guerra, a senior, is working with other students and post-doctoral fellow Christy Strong in Professor Martin Schiller’s life sciences lab. The team has created a synthetic protein that is expected to clear HIV from infected cells. Guerra recently presented the research at the National Institutes of Health in Washington, D.C. It is currently being tested with HIV-infected cells in a Petri dish.
Their research has potential to be a major scientific breakthrough. For Guerra, the experience of working in Dr. Schiller’s lab has been a major breakthrough on a personal level too. It changed the course of his studies and his future.
“When I was in high school [at Palo Verde High School in Las Vegas], I thought I’d become a doctor, like my father,” he explains. “But when I got to UNLV and started volunteering in a lab, my interest in scientific research took off.” By the time he turns 30, Guerra hopes to be running his own biomedical research lab.
Guerra is a recipient of the prestigious STEP-UP Scholarship from the NIH, the Linfa Wright Scholarship at UNLV, a Millennium Scholarship, and an EPSCOR research award from the National Science Foundation. “The scholarship support has given me the opportunity to dedicate a lot of time to my lab work instead of having to earn money for my education at an outside job,” he says. “More scholarship funding would be very beneficial to the campus, to UNLV’s research labs, and to discoveries that can make a difference to the world.”
Back when he had more spare time, the soft-spoken Guerra earned a black belt in the martial arts, an interest he’d like to revisit when his schedule allows. “The martial arts require a lot of focus. You can’t get sidetracked by distractions. The same is true of scientific research. Both are challenging.”
Whether or not the research being done in Dr. Schiller’s lab today will lead to a cure for AIDS in the future remains to be seen. Either way, reflects Guerra, their work is advancing science. “Even negative results give scientists new insights. Sometimes the best results come from something that fails.
“What doesn’t work leads to new knowledge,” he adds. “That is what is so challenging, and so gratifying, about basic science. Things eventually click.”