Tell us about your current career position.
I am an associate professor and chair of chemistry at Kalamazoo College. I teach introductory chemistry, biochemistry, medicinal chemistry, and a course on antibiotics. In addition I advise and mentor our undergraduate students. For the past ten years I have served as faculty advisor to a student group I created named Sisters in Science, whose mission is mentoring at every level; every year, Kalamazoo College science majors pair with 5th and 6th grade female students at local public elementary schools in a big sister – little sister style program. I also initiated a UAN chapter here, and I serve as faculty advisor to that group as well. In my research lab I work with and oversee the work of my undergraduate research colleagues who conduct research on three main projects. For the past three years, I have served as departmental chair, which has been a rewarding and challenging part of my job. As a member of the ASBMB Minority Affairs Committee, in collaboration with the Education and Professional Development Committee and the Undergraduate Affiliate Network, I started and chair the new HOPES (Hands-on Opportunities to Promote Engagement in Science) committee of the ASBMB. For the past two years we have conducted a workshop at the ASBMB national meetings that brings junior high and senior high school teachers and scientist together in conversations about developing partnerships.
What are the key experiences and decisions you made that have helped you reach your current position?
I was born in Panama, Central America, to unmarried parents and with very little guidance and support for education. Regardless, I have always loved learning, and do to this day. Education was something I did for me and that no one could take from me. I immigrated to this country when I was in 8th grade, and I have to say that it was my art and math teachers then who saw my potential and told me that I could do whatever I wanted to do and be whomever I wanted to be. My science path continued from there, and while in high school I was convinced that I “had to be a doctor (medical doctor that is).” Naively, I agreed. However, being around ill people all the time was just not for me, so after completing my biology degree at Rutgers University, I took a part-time job at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ) and fell in love with biochemical research. This I did for four years, until my boss encouraged me to enroll in graduate school and pursue a PhD, which I completed in Medicinal Chemistry. Never in my wildest dreams did I envision teaching at an undergraduate institution and that I would love every day of it. My students keep me young and alert.
How did you first become interested in science?
I have to say that I have always been interested in science, especially science at the interface of biology and chemistry. I have always liked looking at the intricacies of how living things work, at the molecular level. I often tell my students that to me “biology without chemistry makes no sense and chemistry without biology is work."
Were there times when you failed at something you felt was critical to your path? If so, how did you regroup and get back on track?
I think this is going to sound like Déjà vu, but my failures continue to be due to over-extension and procrastination. I have this tendency to over commit to things, but it is usually due to my innate wanting to be of help. I get extreme pleasure from being in service to others (and I don’t mean this to be pompous). However, I then tend to get overextended and find myself overwhelmed, which then causes me to procrastinate. I know what you are thinking, overextended and procrastinate? Not a good recipe for success. And I agree. My biggest failures therefore come from having to rush to get things done (I do get them done), but not always giving them 100%. Fixing this is currently my work in progress. As they say “acknowledgement is the first step to recovery.”
What advice would you give to young persons from under-represented backgrounds who want to pursue a career in science similar to yours?
Stick to your guns. Listen to EVERYONE and use advice as your heart tells you. Definitely follow your heart. Don’t be afraid of failure, we learn the most from those. Read and learn as much as you can and as often as you can. Take advantage of every opportunity. Be true to yourself. Be honest and fair. Develop a mentoring network; find mentors that can get you through good and bad times and that will not sugar coat things for you, and become a mentor to others for you will grow from that experience as well.
What are your hobbies?
I am a total crazy sports fan. I love first and foremost, baseball. I can go to a baseball game every day of my life and be happy. I live college football season, and basketball during March madness. I really love black and white photography, and part of my work in progress described earlier, is to make time and room in my life to take that up again.
What was the last book you read?
I am currently re-reading “Swimming Against The Tide” by Sandra L. Hanson. I hope to dedicate the rest of my life to make a positive impact on pre-college science education. This book is a telling of African American girls' experiences while becoming scientists.
Do you have any heroes, heroines, or role models? If so, describe how they have influenced you?
There are so many people that inspire me that it is hard to name them all. However, public school teachers are inspiring. To know that they hold our futures in their hands is inspiring. My eighth grade math and art teachers were heroes. They saw potential in a little scrappy girl from Panama. The memory of my mother, who died when I was four, keeps me going. And my uncle Val, who I recently had an opportunity to thank, is a hero of mine.
What is it that keeps you working hard and studying science every day?
The truth is that my job to me is not work. I LOVE what I do every day, and I wake up every day looking forward to it. As I said earlier, I love to learn, and I can honestly say that I learn something new every day. I get to learn with young people and share my love of learning with them, I get to mostly decide what I do and when. For now, life doesn’t get better than this.