Cristian Aguilar, Ph.D., (right) works with a student in a biology lab.
Cristian Aguilar, Ph.D., (right) works with a student in a biology lab.

Regenerating a Passion for Science and Music

by Nathan Foster

Cristian Aguilar, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Biology and Chemistry, discovered his passion for biology at a young age. As a child, Aguilar would research organisms and animals, how they functioned, and the environments where they lived. He was taken by the curiosities of sea creatures and marine life, aspiring to one day become a marine biologist. Yet, just a few years later, Aguilar fell in love with another subject – music.

“I come from a very musical family. I followed in my older brother’s footsteps when I started playing saxophone in fifth grade,” Aguilar said. “I played all the way through junior high. Once I got to high school, I joined marching band and began learning different instruments. Twice a year, I would pick up a new instrument. I would usually try to play whatever part the band was missing.”

After high school, Aguilar decided to pursue his first love – science. He attended Cal Poly Pomona for undergrad, getting his degree in biotechnology. Then he went on to grad school at UC Irvine, obtaining his PhD in developmental and cell biology. It was here that Aguilar began his research on regeneration by studying the axolotl, a Mexican salamander.

“The axolotl is pretty much the only adult vertebrate organism that has complete regenerative capabilities. If it loses a limb to injury, no matter how minor or major the injury, it regenerates or replaces whatever tissues have been damaged. It’s remarkable,” Aguilar said. “Humans have very limited regeneration capabilities. If we can understand how the salamander is able to accomplish these tasks at the cellular level, then we can tweak our healing abilities and improve upon them to develop therapies where humans have a better regeneration response.”

If this sounds like a sci-fi movie, there’s good reason behind that. While he was in grad school, Aguilar’s lab worked with Sony Pictures on The Amazing Spider-Man. Aguilar worked with actors Rhys Ifans and Emma Stone to show them how scientists studying regeneration would work in a lab. In the movie, Ifans’ character used regenerative science to grow back an arm, before ultimately turning into a giant lizard. Aguilar’s notes were featured in various scenes in the movie.

While it might not be to the extent of the movie, Aguilar said he thinks scientists will achieve a breakthrough in the next 10 years or so for human regenerative abilities to operate at a higher level, like the axolotl. Aguilar studies the salamander’s ability to form stem cells, and said this research represents a key intersection between his faith and his scientific study.

“As we work on improving human healing, something the Bible definitely instructs us to do in terms of alleviating pain and suffering, there are a lot of ways to do that, including stem cell technology. Stem cells are incredible cells. They have the capacity to become any other cell in the body, but where we get those stem cells can be problematic,” he said. “The axolotl’s cells are unique because they are adult cells that return to their stem cell form naturally. These organisms have been created by God to do this. Studying this particular mechanism is more amenable to my faith."

When he’s not teaching or researching, Aguilar indulges his other lifelong passion – music. As an undergrad, Aguilar volunteered as a marching instructor at his alma mater, Charter Oak High School. After graduate school and a few years of teaching at APU, Aguilar reached out to Charter Oak’s new band director, Joel Lopez ’07.

“After the first year of volunteering, Joel said, ‘You definitely have a knack for this. I want you to be the assistant band director.’ I said ‘Absolutely.’ I’ve been doing that for two years now,” Aguilar said. “The band had fallen on hard times. We helped them grow from a band that didn’t qualify for championships to a band that won silver last year. It’s been really good.”

To stay sharp, Aguilar also performs with APU’s Symphonic Band. Aguilar had to take this semester off due to a lab he teaches during rehearsal time, but he plans to rejoin the band in the spring, where he will play the euphonium.

“After graduating from college, I put my instruments away. It didn’t feel good to lose that part of my life,” he said. “To be in a group and play again, working on my musical expression is amazing; it’s exactly what I needed.”

This is Aguilar’s life. On any given morning, he may be teaching an upper-level biology course to college students, and just hours later, he is working with high school musicians to help them refine their craft. While many parents encourage their children to focus on just one thing, Aguilar recommends that students pursue their passions, no matter how different they may be from one another.

“It’s important to explore different areas because that’s ultimately what makes us complete as humans. I’m not just a scientist. Even though I love biology more than most, if I only focused on biology, I wouldn’t be happy,” Aguilar said. “I’ve been very fortunate to keep music as one of my art forms along with my scientific study. They inform each other and help to enhance my ability to do both. Music has a lot to do with creativity. It played a big role in me becoming a research scientist and trying to creatively approach scientific problems. My knowledge of science and biology has informed my musical ability too. When I play music, I’m conscious of how I’m manipulating my diaphragm to control my wind output, to make a certain tone, or cause a certain amount of vibrato. It’s a lot of little things like that which maybe most musicians don’t think about, but because of my biology training, I’m constantly integrating my scientific knowledge with my artistic performance.”

Nathan is a public relations intern in the Office of University Relations. He is double majoring in journalism and public relations.