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A Hard-Fought Battle

A Hard-Fought Battle
Paul Roybal, seated, appears at graduation with professors Deborah Johnson and Robert Maxson.

When Paul Roybal began his Ph.D. work at the Keck School of Medicine of USC in 2003, he had the world at his fingertips. An incredibly smart student from a middle-class family in Los Angeles, he cared deeply about science and was dedicated to his research of pattern formation in the skull.

But shortly after joining the lab of Robert Maxson, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the Keck School, Roybal was diagnosed with a low-grade brain tumor. For five years he battled the disease while continuing to work on his degree.

Roybal passed away on July 26, just weeks after graduating with a doctorate in biochemistry and molecular biology.

“Paul inspired so many of us with the person that he was and his unrelenting passion for science,” said Deborah Johnson, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology and associate dean for graduate affairs. “He did so many things, for so many people, and with such grace. He was one in a million.”

Roybal’s thesis work focused on how patterns are established in the skull. He identified the molecular mechanisms that underlie cranial facial development and pattern formation in the skull.

“Everyone thought they understood how this happens, but Paul showed that the mechanism was different from what people thought,” said Maxson, who served as his mentor.

According to Johnson, Roybal added to the knowledge of how these patterns develop in a particular way in the skull. The findings will allow scientists to understand how certain mutated genes play a role in a number of birth defects such as parietal foramina and craniosynostosis.

“Paul’s work has helped us understand how these birth defects actually develop, which may lead us toward a cure,” said Maxson, who pointed out that Roybal’s research will be continued in his lab.

Throughout his Ph.D. studies, Roybal battled harsh side effects during nearly three years of chemotherapy treatment.

“It’s amazing how he managed to do what he did given how unbelievably sick he was,” Johnson said.

In March of this year, Roybal found out that his tumor had spread from one lobe to another and that there was no point in continuing chemotherapy.

“Paul told me he intended to work as long as he could,” Maxson said. “And he literally worked until he couldn’t walk.”
Despite finishing the work to complete his thesis, Roybal wanted to ensure that his work would be published. Most, but not all, of the work was done for publication when he passed away, and other students rallied to finish the work for him. His paper has been submitted, and Maxson feels confident it will be published.

“We get a lot of smart students, but what was unique about Paul is that he had so much heart,” Maxson said. “To be able to come in and work through the illness and care sincerely about the science… We should all be so fortunate to have something we really know is what we want to focus on for the last months of our life.”

When he wasn’t busy with his research, Roybal volunteered for a program that offered assistance to wounded soldiers and gave communion to the sick — even though he was much more ill than many of those he served.

“It’s a treasure to be able to find what drives you and your passion in life,” Johnson said. “This is what made him happy — helping people and feeling like he was helping move science.”

USC has established a Ph.D. award in his name, which will honor a graduating student who embodies the passion and intellect that Roybal possessed. Donations can be made to the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center at 1441 Eastlake Ave., NOR 8302, Los Angeles, CA 90033. Individuals also can call the Norris Cancer Center at (323) 865-0700 and indicate their gift is being made in memory of Paul Roybal.

A Hard-Fought Battle

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