January Research Spotlight on Adela Cota-Gomez, Ph.D.

Adela Cota-gomez headshotTell us about your current career position.
I am an associate professor in the department of Medicine and division of Pulmonary Sciences and Critical Care Medicine at the University of Denver – Anschutz Medical Campus. I am also the program coordinator of the undergraduate summer research program, Graduate Experience for Multicultural Students, GEMS.

What are the key experiences and decisions that have enabled you to reach your current position?

Many experiences have shaped who I am today but by far the greatest one was witnessing my parents sacrifice for the future of their children. When I was 9 years old, my parents made the difficult decision to uproot us from our home country (Mexico) and immigrate to the United States for the sole purpose of giving me and my siblings greater opportunities to develop the potential that they saw in us. I was old enough to understand the sacrifice that my parents were making. Seeing how hard it was for them to leave their own families behind in order to give us a chance at a better life was life-transforming. I resolved, then and there, to go as far as I possibly could, make them proud, make their sacrifice count and lead as full, happy and rewarding a life as I could. Every decision since than has been with that goal in mind and I’m glad to report that I have done it, I can’t think of a more exciting and rewarding career than mine and I lead the life that I resolved to over 35 years ago.

How did you first become interested in science?
As a child, I was always intrigued by nature, especially living things. In junior and senior high school, biology and chemistry were my favorite subjects so when I went to college I majored in biology. Like the vast majority of biology majors, medicine seemed like the most obvious career choice. However, when I started shadowing doctors in clinics and hospitals I quickly realized that I hated patient interactions, medicine was most definitely not for me! I was scared and disappointed in myself and had no idea what else one could do with a Biology degree. Luckily, I had a great college counselor who pointed me in the direction of research. The following summer I participated in a SURF program and that was when I fell head-over-heels in love with research. I have not stopped doing it ever since.

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?

At the end of my post-doctoral training I was offered a tenure-track faculty position in a primarily teaching university that was attempting to increase their research portfolio, I was attracted to the idea of developing new programs that I thought would open a lot of doors for me, so I accepted the position. Three years into that teaching position, I realized that I was not going to be able to carry out the type of research that I wanted to because the university did not have the research infrastructure and grant processing office that I needed in order to perform translational research. Also, the teaching load was very heavy and the release time was not sufficient for the intensity of research that I wanted to do. While I thoroughly enjoyed teaching, I was not willing to do it at the expense of research. I realized that I had deviated far away from my original career path. Luckily, I was able to re-group and get back on track largely due to the commitment of the professional network that I had built over the years. Thanks to those connections, I secured a tenure-track position at the University of Colorado – Anschutz Medical Campus and have since risen through the ranks. I’m very grateful that I had a caring and supportive professional network that helped me get back on path.

What advice would you give to young persons from under-represented backgrounds who want to pursue a career in science similar to yours?
As early as possible, find a mentor or mentors that will help you navigate the various challenges and stumbles along the career path and who will also celebrate your successes. Think of them as your professional “parents”, they should be the center of your network of support. Stay in touch with them always, use them as a grounding stake and allow them to help you.

What are your hobbies?

I love books and movies, in that order. My favorite way to unwind after a long grant writing period or a particularly unsuccessful lab day is to curl up with a book and a glass wine. My favorite are fiction novels, especially science fiction and fantasy, my favorite author is Stephen King, I can get lost in his “worlds” for hours.

What was the last book you read?

“The Gunslinger”, the first book in the Dart Tower Series by Stephen King. I read it ahead of the recent theatrical release of the Dark Tower movie.

Do you have any heroes, heroines, mentors, or role models? If so, describe how they have influenced you.
I admire all my colleagues and collaborators, I feel a strong kinship and solidarity with them, and they are the ones who best understand my motivations, drive and struggles.

What is it that keeps you working hard every day?
The satisfaction of my research discoveries, the idea that no one else in the world is doing exactly the same thing that I do.