Interview with Dr. Blanca Himes

By Andrea Acevedo, PhD - Postdoctoral Researcher at Penn

By Andrea Acevedo, PhD - Postdoctoral Researcher at Penn

On the final episode for the first season of “Caminos en Ciencia” we listen to Dr. Blanca Himes who describes her path starting in Colombia to becoming an Assistant Professor at the University of Pennsylvania (Penn). Dr. Himes was born in Bogota, Colombia but spent most of her childhood in the northern city of Bucaramanga, with some short stints in the US, where her mother is from. She started college in one of the most important public schools in Colombia, the Industrial University of Santander (UIS for its Spanish acronyms); however, due to funding issues in the public system, her first semester was constantly interrupted. Because of this reason she decided to move to the United States in search of better research opportunities. As is the case for many latino-american students, Dr. Himes decided to start her career in a community college (Palomar College).  There she could explore her interests in science while at the same time save money from tuition fees. She decided that studying physics would fulfill her passion to understand the laws of nature. She got accepted with scholarships at University of California San Diego (UCSD) to finish her B.S. in physics, while at UCSD she successfully balanced taking her classes, working to make ends meet, and exploring diverse research experiences (from oceanography to Imaging Magnetic Resonance). When she decided to apply for her PhD, she recalled a comment from a professor at the community college, who said: “If you were smarter you would be in MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and not just at the Palomar College”, so she applied to MIT and was accepted. The transition to study at MIT was filled of uncertainties and in many occasions “imposter syndrome” symptoms. However, she mentions that “that feeling of not belonging eventually you get over it”. This was the reason why she later became a faculty at Harvard, because she felt she earned that position. She moved to Penn four years ago as an assistant professor to lead a research group related to Asthma, and to understand better about respiratory diseases using biomedical informatics tools. Dr. Himes highlights that part of her success is to constantly reflect about who she is, what does she want, and advices the listeners to take time and reflect on their own lives. She also mentioned that for her is important to give the opportunity to early career students, and that she wants students to feel the happiness (almost like winning the lottery!) that she felt during her broad research opportunities in her trajectory.

As Colombia I can just say that Dr. Blanca Himes is a “Berraca (a person with great courage and talent)”, probably is a combination of 1) being raised in Bucaramanga (which is famous to have very courage people), 2) resilence to overcome obstacles (such the lack of money during school and wisdom on how to move through the academic world in the USA), and 3) her entrepreneurship to create her own way to success. 

Interview with Dr. Arnaldo Díaz

By Angel J. Santiago-Lopez, PhD Candidate in Bioengineering at Georgia Institute of Technology

By Angel J. Santiago-Lopez, PhD Candidate in Bioengineering at Georgia Institute of Technology

The path of Dr. Arnaldo Díaz Vázquez starts in Arroyo and Guayama, two highly interconnected cities bordered by the Caribbean Sea in southeast Puerto Rico. Growing up in Arroyo, Dr. Díaz benefited from the dedication of teachers like Milagros Rodriguez who instilled in him an appreciation for mathematics during high school. Like many of us, Dr. Díaz’s path was initially shaped by the expectations of society. Being a top student in a small town where more than 50 percent of the population lives below the poverty line meant only one thing: you must become either lawyer, an engineer, or a doctor. I, for example, took the engineering path. In contrast, with the goal of becoming a Doctor of Medicine (MD), Dr. Díaz went on to pursue a degree in Chemistry at the University of Puerto Rico at Rio Piedras (UPR-RP).

            The move from Arroyo to San Juan, where UPR-RP is located, is like moving from a small town in rural Georgia to New York City – Dr. Díaz recalls the transition as being difficult and overwhelming. At UPR-RP, the plan of becoming an MD was quickly shaken off after taking his undergraduate biology courses. Instead, he developed an affection for research in physical chemistry thanks to the MARC (Maximizing Access to Research Careers) program at UPR-RP. As a MARC Scholar, Dr. Díaz traveled more than 1,500 miles north of Arroyo to take part on a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) in the Department of Chemistry at Columbia University under the guidance of Dr. Virginia Cornish. Being this REU his first research experience, ‘01-Arnaldo Díaz seized the moment and performed at a high level to leave a lasting impression in Dr. Cornish Lab. In fact, throughout this interview, Dr. Díaz advised repeatedly about the importance of always putting maximum effort by adhering to a strong work ethic since “it is a way for making yourself known”. Indeed, his summer REU with Dr. Cornish eventually led him to the doors of a training opportunity at the interface of chemistry and biology as part of the Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics PhD program at Texas A&M University.

            Dr. Díaz is currently the Assistant Dean for Research Training Programs, Director of Research Training Programs and Adjunct faculty of Pharmacology at the University of Pennsylvania (Penn). However, he mentions to Kevin and Enrique that his plan following his PhD was to complete a postdoctoral training at Penn that would facilitate his transition into industry. Yet, following his postdoc at Penn, Dr. Díaz opted to take on a role that would allow him to recruit and mentor underrepresented minority students (URMs) as part of Penn’s Biomedical Graduate Studies Office. His personal goal: become a resource and guide for URMs interested in postgraduate education and research training. To accomplish this goal, Dr. Díaz worked closely with Penn leadership to establish the Office of Research & Diversity Training. In his current role at Penn, Dr. Díaz oversees the summer REU, postbaccalaureate, and postdoctoral research programs.

            In the closing remarks of this episode of “Caminos en Ciencia”, a recurring theme in the Puerto Rican diaspora emerged ─ the desire to contribute to the island while living in US mainland. Dr. Díaz reminded us that one can positively influence Puerto Rico from different trenches and do not necessarily have to be living in the island to make a difference. In fact, there is still a long way ahead for creating a culture in Puerto Rico where becoming a scientist is presented as a viable career path. As Díaz mentions, “most of the challenges I faced still persist” alluding to the lack of information about postgraduate education available to students, teachers, and family members in small communities like Arroyo and Guayama.  However, I can attest that for those of us walking now through this path, it is reassuring to have figures like Dr. Díaz as role models.

 “I have a constant desire. Of infinity. Don’t be surprised! It is an obligation to walk forward.”

- Juan B. Huyke, Distinguished writer, educator, and politician from Arroyo, Puerto Rico

Interview with Dr. Jessie Villanueva

By Ricardo Linares, MD/PhD Candidate at Penn

By Ricardo Linares, MD/PhD Candidate at Penn

In this Episode of “Caminos en Ciencia”, Wistar’s professor Dr. Jessie Villanueva shares with us her journey of becoming an independent investigator and reflects upon her training in her home country, Peru, and some key experiences that shaped her decision to pursue a career in science.

Dr. Villanueva grew up in Lima, Peru in a family that values education and helped nurture her initial interest in science. She fondly recalls that what initially sparked her interest in science was a small microscope she received as a Christmas present. She would look around for any sample to closely examine it under the microscope lens. Later in high school, her scientific interests were strongly influenced by reading the works of Charles Darwin, James Watson, and Konrad Lorenz. After finishing high school. She grappled with the idea of pursuing science as a career, because of the common misconception, especially for those of us who grew up in Latin America, that the only way to pursue a career in science is to become a medical doctor. This was the case for me as well growing up in Peru. Dr. Villanueva was able to learn more about the path of becoming a researcher by attending career panels and talking with scientist at different stages of their careers.

Convinced that she wanted to pursue a career as an investigator, she decided to study biology at Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heredia, where she received her Bachelor of Science. She told us her first laboratory experience was working with Drosophila melanogaster, or fruit flies as it is commonly known, studying basic principles of heredity and chromosome segregation. The amazing experience she had in the lab was pivotal in her formation and convinced her beyond any doubt that we wanted to dedicate her life learning about the molecular underpinnings of the genetic code and the instances when these processes go awry, like in cancer. As she was considering applying to graduate programs abroad, an opportunity presented to work as a research technician studying liver cancer in Pittsburgh. She welcomed this opportunity and left her family and friends in the pursuit of her dreams. Leaving family and adapting new a new culture with a new language was a challenge, but she was able to overcome these and many other challenges that presented along the way thanks to her personal drive and her strong desire to succeed.

Once in the United States, Dr. Villanueva went through several transitions, from Pittsburgh to University of Miami, where she received her doctoral degree, and then to University of Pennsylvania where she received her postdoctoral training. During these transitions, one of the key things that help her is having a strong support network and a strong Hispanic community abroad that always made her feel like home. As I immigrant myself, I can speak for the importance of having strong support system, whether it is friends or family, that will ease those difficult and unavoidable times when one feels homesick.

Dr. Villanueva is now an assistant professor at Wistar and her laboratory studies the molecular pathways deregulated in melanoma, a type of cancer that develops from the pigment-producing cells known as melanocytes. She explains that most melanomas are caused by BRAF mutations, and several therapies already exist for this type of melanoma. However, up to 20% of melanomas result from activating NRAS mutations and, although they are generally more aggressive and associated with poorer outcomes, therapies for this type have remained limited. Dr. Villanueva studies the molecular mechanisms of drug resistance in melanoma with hopes that insights gained from her work will contribute to identifying vulnerabilities in melanoma that could be therapeutic targets.

She leaves us with the advice that we should find something that we are passionate about, whether in science or elsewhere, and to try really hard to pursue that passion, no matter how ambitious it may be or how unsurmountable the obstacles may seem, because - she says -  “we all have the capacity to succeed”.

Interview with Dr. Sergio Quezada

By Macarena Tejos Bravo, Biochemist, MSc. in Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile

By Macarena Tejos Bravo, Biochemist, MSc. in Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile

Dr. Sergio Quezada’s interest in science developed during his childhood, as is the case for many scientists. Additionally, the great opportunity to live abroad at an early age allowed him to face important challenges, such as language and cultural barriers. These experiences enriched his childhood and were key motivators in his life decisions.

His interest in immunology stems from one of his undergraduate professors and mentors at the Pontificia Universidad Católica in Chile. This professor was one of the first to recommend Dr. Quezada to pursue graduate studies abroad since he saw a great potential in his ideas. This is how Dr. Quezada moved to the US and started his graduate work at Dartmouth Medical School. A major challenge he describes during this time, and one that many Chilean scientists face when moving to the US is limited fluency in English.

Dr. Quezada moved to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center where he developed his postdoctoral studies in the field of cancer immunology in the lab of Dr. James Allison. During this process he describes working very independently thanks to a supportive mentor, who allowed him to develop a project in immunoregulation in cancer. His experiences underscores the crucial role mentors and advisors play in developing the future generation of scientists and the importance of allowing emerging scientists to work and develop independent thought and projects.

Currently, Dr. Quezada leads a laboratory in the University College London Cancer Institute in the United Kingdom. He describes his research as being very translational, at the intersection of basic science and clinical studies, which he believes are key to the development of new drugs and therapies against cancer.

From his story, I gathered that Dr. Quezada’s “Camino en Ciencia” was marked by important friendships who have become his collaborators in the present. Key highlights of Dr. Quezada’s pathway are 1) its important to be open to meet new people and gather new ideas in the sciences 2) promoting interdisciplinary collaboration and teamwork leads to innovative solutions 3) Don’t be afraid to pack up and follow your passion. Together his lessons are crucial for developing new opportunities and advancing science in the future.

Interview with Dr. Raquel Castellanos

By Kimberly Veliz - PhD Student in Cell & Molecular Biology at Penn

By Kimberly Veliz - PhD Student in Cell & Molecular Biology at Penn

Dr. Raquel Castellanos was born in the Bronx, NY as the eldest of five to immigrant parents from Puebla, Mexico. Her parents were the first from their town to journey to the United States in the hopes of having a better future for their family. Dr. Castellanos was raised with a love for her culture and people and was taught that the key to a better life is through education. She did well in school and became the first in her family to go to college. Dr. Castellanos decided to attend St. Francis College in Brooklyn, NY and oblivious to the vast career opportunities in science, she studied science with the idea of becoming a doctor. During her second year in college, her organic chemistry professor urged her to apply to a summer research program, which opened Dr. Castellanos’ eyes to more that she could do in science.

Upon graduation, Dr. Castellanos took a year off to be with family as her sister was ill. After taking a year off, Dr. Castellanos did a two-year post-bac in Columbia University in the same lab she had been in for her summer research. She then did her PhD in Albert Einstein College of Medicine where she worked studying DiGeorge syndrome in Dr. Berenice Morrow’s lab. Following her PhD, Dr. Castellanos did a post doc studying neuroblastoma in a new lab at Albert Einstein. During this time Dr. Castellanos developed a passion for mentoring students and creating programs that would provide opportunities to minority communities. She is inspired and proud of all the students she has mentored and strives to provide support for students to grow and flourish. She wants students to know that they deserve and earned their right to be where they are, and they need not be ashamed of where they come from but rather find strength in it. Dr. Castellanos now works as Assistant Director for the Office of Research and Diversity Training at Penn where she supports undergrad, post-bac, grad, and postdoc students. 

Interview with Dr. Darel Martinez

By Vanessa Fleites - PhD Candidate in Neuroscience at Penn

By Vanessa Fleites - PhD Candidate in Neuroscience at Penn

Dr. Darel Martinez comes from the Center of Molecular Immunology (CIM) from Habana, Cuba through a collaboration between the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the Cuban Academy of the Sciences. He is currently working in Dr. Carl June’s laboratory, focusing on learning about CAR-T cells immunotherapy with the hopes of taking this technology to Cuba. 

Dr. Martinez comes from a humble background. Both his parents are engineers and always instilled in him the importance and value of an education, which led him to become a curious child that always read anything he could get his hands on. This is very typical of Cuban parents. My grandparents encouraged an education for my mother and my parents did the same for my brother and I. Dr. Martinez pursued a free education in science after realizing his love for it and attained his doctorate degree. This came after participating in many STEM competitions, particularly after representing Cuba in an international chemistry competition.

CIM is well-known for the first successful vaccine to treat lung cancer. This therapeutic vaccine has been given to individuals whom do not respond to any other treatments. Even though with limited resources in Cuba, Dr. Martinez details how Cuban scientists have to be creative when deciding what tools to use to be able to answer their scientific questions. Innovation like this is possible due to collaborations among institutions in Cuba, as well as their collaborations with other countries, like the one formed with Penn. Researchers are sent to other institutions in intervals of 3-6 months to learn new techniques to bring back to Cuba. 

It is striking that although there are miles between Philadelphia and La Habana, graduate students still experience the similar frustrations in science, including institutional bureaucracy and having “9 experiments out of 10 that fail”. I agree with Dr. Martinez that one really has to love science to push through these failures. Part of the graduate school experience is learning to have grit in the face of these obstacles and persevere. At the end, the reward outweighs the failures if it’s truly one’s passion. 

Interview with Gretchen Alicea

By Eric Rodríguez - Undergraduate Student at UPR-Ponce

By Eric Rodríguez - Undergraduate Student at UPR-Ponce

This podcast covers the scientific journey of Gretchen Alicea, Cancer Biology PhD candidate at the University of Science (UScience). Born in Bayamón, Puerto Rico, but raised in the town of Ponce, she went to high school at Liceo Ponceño and got her undergraduate degree from University of Puerto Rico at Ponce. After obtaining her Bachelor of Science, due to the lack of resources and opportunities she moved to Tampa, Florida and started working as a research assistant at the Moffitt Cancer Center. Then she moved to Philadelphia to her doctoral studies in the Cancer Biology Graduate Program jointly administered by the The Wistar Institute and UScience. At The Wistar Institute, she is conducting research on melanoma with Dr. Ashani Weeraratna. Her thesis project focused in understanding how aging change melanoma progression and therapeutic resistance. As a mother, she described how difficult was to raise her son away from all her family in Puerto Rico, however, her biggest motivation to continue her scientific training is her son.

 Gretchen also speaks about the struggles her and her family had to endure after the catastrophic hurricane María had made landfall on Puerto Rico. After the hurricane passed, she was not able to communicate with her parents and she was very desperate. For this reason, she wanted to raise funds for Puerto Rico because she felt it was the only thing that she could do being away from her family. During the fundraising for Puerto Rico, she was able to hear from her parents, it was very emotional for her. It gave her the motivation needed to organize more fundraising activities to help Puerto Ricans in need. Her initiative received a lot of support from students from the Wistar Institute and from the University of Pennsylvania. A couple months later, she was able to visit her home island and see how it stood after hurricane Maria struck. She was happy to see that even after the catastrophic damage, the Puerto Rican people were happy.

 Hearing Gretchen’s story moved me. We come from the same home town and it makes me happy to see people from Ponce leading lives of great success. It also makes me glad to see how she arduously worked to help the people from Puerto Rico. I witnessed how the hurricane wiped out the whole island. It was a terrifying experience for everyone who was here. However, seeing how our people remain happy and hopeful is an example of how resilient we are. I invite you all to listen to this story!

Interview with Nicole M. Robles-Matos

By Melina Pérez-Torres - Undergraduate Student at UPR - Rio Piedras

By Melina Pérez-Torres - Undergraduate Student at UPR - Rio Piedras

Nicole M. Robles-Matos is a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania (Penn). Coming from Naranjito, a city at the center of the island, she did her Bachelor of Science (B.S.) in Chemistry at the University of Puerto Rico in Rio Piedras. She was part of the Maximizing Access to Research Career (MARC) Program funded by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), which helped her develop as a researcher, as well as to acquire several scientific skills.  As part of this program, we write a Jr. Thesis of our desired research area and elaborate the project as a practice to prepare you for graduate school. During high school, she was involved in science fairs and she also did research in “El Yunque” (national rain forest in the island) where she found an interest in science. During her organic chemistry course, she was inspired by Dr. Ingrid Montes who guided her into research with Dr. Jose Prieto. In addition, the MARC program provided her mentorship and support during her B.S. that guided her into two research opportunities during the summer of 2015 and 2016 at Rutgers University and Penn, respectively. I also participated in a summer internship at Penn called Summer Undergraduate Internship Program (SUIP). During my SUIP experience, as Nicole pointed out, Dr. Arnaldo Diaz and Dr. Raquel Castellanos guide us through this experience by providing seminars, conferences and 1-1 meetings to make sure we were succeeding in the research and presentation of our work throughout the summer. 

In addition to her scientific career, Nicole also shared the difficulties of that first year of graduate school living away from her family during hurricanes Irma and Maria. Being present in the island during these two hurricanes was a challenge not only in the lab, but also on the day-to-day tasks of getting water, food and gasoline and at the same time making sure that other family members were safe; that’s when you realize how resilience and united Latin families are. I can’t imagine going through that experience of not hearing from your families for weeks. However, having a strong Latin community within the university like Penn, I imagine, must have helped in supporting each other during that difficult first semester.  Finally, she encourages us to find mentors and programs that will support your research interest and guide you during your career as a scientist as well as to never give up and think positive during the graduate school application process and later during your Ph.D.

Interview with Dr. Jorge Henao-Mejia

By Paula Agudelo Garcia, PhD - Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Pennsylvania

By Paula Agudelo Garcia, PhD - Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Pennsylvania

In this episode you can listen to Dr. Jorge Henao-Mejia, an Assistant Professor of Pathology at the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Henao-Mejia was born in Medellin, Colombia, where he graduated from medical school at the Universidad de Antioquia; a public university that as he highlights is one of the most valuable aspects of higher education in Latin America. Initially inspired by the book the Cell by Bruce Alberts, Dr. Henao-Mejia decided to start a career in science,  his interest in scientific research prompted him to start graduate School at Indiana University where he faced  what he calls a bittersweet situation, as a Latin American student  he was fortunate and grateful for the vast amount of resources he had in U.S. to conduct his research but at the same time he was dealing with the struggle of leaving his family and friends and getting to know a new and very different culture. This type of ambivalent situation is common to most Latin American students and scientists who move to U.S. in order to pursue their scientific careers, due to the lack of resources in Latin American countries but at the same time leave their families and culture which as he says represents ono of the biggest challenges of this decision. Other challenges that he finds are the competitive nature of the scientific field, where you are exposed to rejection by your fellow scientists and you have the need to reinvent yourself and your ideas constantly. However, is this same aspect that also motivates him to keep researching and moving forward. His biggest advice for all the students and young scientists out there is to work hard and give your best, you need to work harder than your lab mate he says and you will reach your goals. 

Interview with Valeria Reyes-Ruiz

By Natalia Aponte-Borges - Undergraduate Student at UPR-Río Piedras

By Natalia Aponte-Borges - Undergraduate Student at UPR-Río Piedras

Valeria Reyes-Ruiz is a first-generation student studying microbiology at the University of Pennsylvania. She began her PhD in 2014 when she moved from Puerto Rico to Philadelphia after completing her Bachelor of Science in microbiology at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) at Humacao. Similarly, we both come from the humble town of San Lorenzo and enjoy microbiology. Coming from a rural home and dealing with limited opportunities, her journey inspires me to continue my path towards PhD. Valeria currently works at Dr. Sunny Shin’s lab researching Salmonella and Legionella. Her fascination for microorganisms stemmed from curiosity and desire to find answers to health problems. She was puzzled by microbes’ ability to have drastic effects on their host’s health despite their size. Now, her research allows her to obtain answers to scientific questions related to host-pathogen interactions.

 Valeria aspires to be an example for people like her to pursue graduate studies. She strongly believes in the students on the island and their abilities regardless of the lack of resources. As a student at the UPR - Río Piedras, I agree and also wish to increase stem representation in my field. She hopes to become a principal investigator, influenced by her own mentors that showed her the value of teaching and providing science and leadership opportunities. As any Boricua or Latinx, she faces the challenge of being away from her family, which are her main support. As a member of the diaspora, she struggles with the uncertainty of returning. However, she one day wishes to give high quality science opportunities to students in Puerto Rico. Finally, her advice is to have self-confidence and ask for help when you need them. She emphasizes the importance of having a network to connect, collaborate, and obtain future opportunities. As a senior, I appreciate these words of wisdom in my path to graduate school.