Guatemala is a country famously known by its beautiful landscapes, diverse population and world class coffee. However, most recently, Guatemala has appeared on the news as one of the countries where large scale international migration is occurring. As a Guatemalan, it is difficult to hear about the many reasons for migrating, but it is a fact that for many years, Guatemalans have been looking to start a better life for their families outside the country. In this episode of Caminos en Ciencia, we highlighted the story of Dr. Karina Gonzalez-Herrera, a native Guatemalan scientist, whose parents travel to the United State, looking for a better future. She has a Ph.D. in Biological and Biomedical Sciences from Harvard University, where she is now the Assistant Director of Diversity and Minority Affairs.
Dr. Karina Gonzalez-Herrera passion for science started when she was in high school when a Professor told her once that she would become Dr. Gonzalez-Herrera, and these words became a dream come true. In this episode she describes how her curiosity for learning more in those early years of high school guided her career path to become the scientist she is today. Her story is incredibly inspiring, not only for Guatemalans, but for all women in Latin America who are not always encouraged to practice scientific careers because local governments do not prioritize funding for research. Dr. Gonzalez-Herrera always wanted to learn about the things she couldn’t see. She also describes that not only chemistry became her favorite subject in high school, but she also fell in love with genetics. Her interest and passion even inspired her dad. She shares in this episode how biology and genetics was all she could talk about at her home, so her dad had to read about cancer and related topics to share the same interest with her and continue the conversation.
Since high school, her dad emphasized that the only way she could improve her life and overcome poverty was with education. With the love and support from her high school teachers and family, she decided to pursue a bachelor’s in science at California State University San Marcos (CSUSM). However, her immigration status and fear for deportation were always a concern for her and her family. Despite this, she enrolled and actively participated in programs like RISE (Research Initiative Scientific Enhancement) and was mentored by her professors and other scientists in CSUSM. Before finishing her degree, the life and career of Dr. Gonzalez-Herrera was threatened by deportation procedure. As an undocumented immigrant, she remembers experiencing anxiety because she did not know if it would be possible to have a scientific career back in Guatemala. With the support from her then mentor, Dr. Thomas Wahlund, she got offered an opportunity to stay in the United States to pursue her master’s degree. Sadly, professor Dr. Wahlund passed away while she was working on her master’s degree, but another professor in the same lab promised Dr. Gonzalez-Herrera that she would support her throughout the whole immigration process. A year after obtaining her master’s degree, she was called to court to face deportation procedures but gratefully she was able to stay in the United States to continue her life and career goals. Soon after, with her mom’s encouragement, she applied to Graduate School and successfully got accepted to Harvard University. She defines that the key element for success is hard work, love and support from her family and guidance from mentors. Although she is still passionate about science, she also finds purpose in helping international students who need guidance to pursue a career in science. This is how she gives back to the community. She is a true inspiration for scientist and the Latina women, not only for her perseverance, but for her commitment to pursue a career in molecular biology despite all limitations by her immigration status.