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