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Lydia Contreras, Ph.D.

L.Contreras_lgTell us about your current career position.
I am an assistant professor of Chemical Engineering at the University of Texas-Austin. I am also affiliated with the Institute for Cell and Molecular Biology, the Biophysics Program and the John L. Warfield Center.

What are the key experiences and decisions you made that have helped you reach your current position?
A key decision was to attend graduate school after college. It was there that I learned how much I enjoyed research.

How did you first become interested in science?
I attended a summer program (Summerbridge at Riverdale) during the summers after 6th, 7th and 8th grade. This program was taught by college students and I remember how excited I was to be dissecting sharks and frogs and to have good conversations with other young people about science. This positive experience was reinforced by excellent science teachers. Two in particular were my high school biology and chemistry teachers, Mrs. Findley and Mr. Mercier with whom I spent a significant amount of time learning and doing additional projects outside the classroom. Both of them were key in reinforcing my own confidence in following a scientific path.

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? 
The beginning of my freshman year in college was highly discouraging, especially when taking introduction to physics. I was overwhelmed with a much larger course than I had been used to (coming from a much smaller high school) and not getting an A or B in that class was highly disappointing. I did a lot of self-analysis as to what things I could do better and started to become more proactive, reaching out to my professors and TA’s when I needed help. I also realized that I had come to believe somehow that I couldn't’t do the course. After identifying several things that led me to believe that I was essentially “giving up”, I worked on completely shifting my frame of mind. I realized I needed to be more proactive, confident and driven in finding my own way…so I started acting like I belonged there and as a true physicist!  I started reaching out and getting help from my professors and TA, doubling the study time, searching for other students that I could study with and applying myself to devoting hours and hours of my time to this subject. One small success in quizzes and exams brought others and helped me to increase my confidence. I was able to excel during my second semester physics class and overcome this initial hurdle.

What advice would you give to young persons from under-represented backgrounds who want to pursue a career in science similar to yours?
My main advice is to believe early that they belong in the position that they dream of. Once you have a vision of where you see yourself and believe that it is your place to be there, it is much easier to find the drive, motivation and persistence to get there. It is also important to realize that there are many people that are willing to help navigate this path. As such, it is important to take advantage of these resources by being humble (and confident) enough to ask for help from those that have already done certain things successfully. I truly believe that trying to achieve any major goal in insolation can be highly discouraging, as any career has many ups and downs. Another key piece of sustaining the motivation is to not loose sight of how powerful a career in science can be. We can truly make a difference in the world and to the lives of many people and I find it important to continually share this sense of duty with our family and friends as often they are our biggest supporters.

What are your hobbies?
Besides my work, I really enjoy outdoor activities. I like to jog, hike, kayak and camp. I also love dancing, latin music and to spend time with friends and family.

What was the last book you read?
The last book I read was “Better” by Atul Gawande.

Do you have any heroes, heroines, or role models? If so, describe how they have influenced you?
I don’t know that I have one hero or heroine. I definitely get a lot of inspiration from many ordinary people that  have dreams that keep them fighting  and work hard everyday trying to make better the lives of their families, children, students, patients, or anyone else around the world.

What is it that keeps you working hard and studying science every day?
Feelings of gratefulness for God, family and the many people that have helped me to get to where I am. I also get a lot of drive from my commitment to my students and from the enormous joy I get from learning, discovering new things, and giving back in any way I can to impact human lives. 

Contreras has received an NIH Postdoctoral Fellowship in Infectious Diseases, NSF IGERT Fellowship in Mathematical Nonlinear Systems, and a Merck Engineering and Technology Fellowship Award. Most recently, she was named a Department of Thrust Reduction Agency (DTRA) Young Investigator (2011-1013), an Innovative Early-Career Frontiers of Engineering Educator (by the National Academy of Engineering) (2011), and a Keystone Symposia Fellow on Molecular and Cellular Biology (2011-2012)

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