February Research Spotlight on D. Fernando Estrada, Ph.D.

D. Fernando Estrada largeTell us about your current career position.
I joined the Department of Biochemistry at the University at Buffalo as an assistant professor in 2016. I’ve always loved the combination of teaching and research and I’m grateful for the opportunity to do that now. Our lab is primarily interested in examining the functions of enzymes that help govern the availability of vitamin D.

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

There’s probably no single experience or decision that enabled me to reach my current position. I’ve had a combination of experiences that I would consider important. First, my particular career path included a seven-year tour of duty as an active duty Army officer. In hindsight, those years I spent away from science turned into a significant growth period for me. When I returned to science for graduate school, I felt I had gained important perspective and was a much better student and researcher than I would have been otherwise. I was also fortunate to have been involved in a training program while at the University of Kansas called the Madison and Lila Self Graduate Fellowship. This program seeks to develop graduate students outside of the lab in areas such as entrepreneurship, project management, negotiation, and communication skills, among others.

I have also been fortunate to be in training environments where I’ve always been encouraged to apply for independent funding. This was very important, because it allowed me to experience first hand the cycle of applying and re-applying for grant funding during a time when the stakes were low. Without this period, I don’t know that I would have had the confidence to fund my own research now, when the stakes are clearly much higher.

How did you first become interested in science?
I was definitely a late bloomer when it came to my interest in science. In high school and for most of the first two years attending a community college, I still didn’t know what it was that I wanted to do. I first became interested in becoming a science major when I took an organic chemistry course from a professor named Ron Albrecht. I remember at the end of the course, the last section covered biomolecules and it was easily the most fascinating to me. That’s when I knew what I needed to major in. But even then, I had a different career in the military before I started toward a career in science. I think there’s a conception out there that all scientists are struck with an early curiosity about the world and know right away that science is for them, but of course that isn’t true. Many people in science come to it on their own terms and in their own time.

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?

When I first transferred to a four-year institution as an undergraduate, I definitely took on more than I could handle. I was involved in student organizations, Army ROTC, and I held a part time job in addition to a full course load. As a result of being stretched too thin, my academics suffered. I graduated with a grade point average that I wasn’t proud of and that probably wasn’t competitive for most graduate schools. It also left me with some uncertainty about following science as a career. It wasn’t until after I had spent some time away from science in a different career path that I finally realized that my previous academic performance wasn’t due at all to my acumen, but rather to my inexperience in time management. When I returned for my PhD training, I was a completely different student and performed far better. When I look back now I realize that I probably wasn’t ready to pursue graduate school right away – I needed to step away and grow as a person first. I still feel this is an important lesson today that I try to keep in mind. Just because I am not ready to do something right now, doesn’t mean I won’t be at some point, so I try to keep my options open about the future.

What advice would you give to young persons from under-represented backgrounds who want to pursue a career in science similar to yours?
There is so much that I would want to pass along, but if I could distill it to one message, it would be this; don’t self-eliminate. An academic career path is fraught with rejection. Most experiments don’t give us the results we expect, most manuscripts don’t get accepted by journals on the first or second submission, and most proposals don’t get funded. It’s easy to get discouraged or to think you don’t measure up, and as a result it’s easy to take yourself out of the running for the graduate program or the job that you want, or to not apply for a funding opportunity that you may be competitive for. I feel this is more prevalent among young people from under-represented backgrounds.

Other people get paid to decide whether you do or do not make the cut or whether your ideas are worth funding. Don’t do that job for them by eliminating yourself before you even start. You may be surprised to find that you’re a good fit for that opportunity after all.

What are your hobbies?

I have two young children at home, so what free time I have I try and spend with them. We like to explore hiking trails in western New York (more people should know how naturally beautiful this state is!) or just hit the open road for a good old-fashioned family road trip.

What was the last book you read?

When I get the time, I still like to read novels. The last novel I read was a book called The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth. It’s historical fiction set during the Norman invasion of England. The author developed a shadow language to evoke feelings of a foreign land and a distant time. It was challenging to read at first, but a very good read that I highly recommend.

Do you have any heroes, heroines, mentors, or role models? If so, describe how they have influenced you.
I’ve been influenced by many people that I consider to be role models for different reasons. My parents have certainly been role models for me. They risked everything to emigrate from Mexico to start a new life in the US while my siblings and I were all very young. They didn’t speak the language or have a trade but they still managed to build a happy childhood for all of us. Today, on the occasion that I feel overwhelmed in my career or at home, I am reminded that my worries don’t compare to those of my parents, and suddenly it all feels eminently manageable. I am very grateful to them for that perspective.

Professionally, I have had the enormous benefit of working with and for some amazing people. The US Army has excellent leaders from the junior sergeant level on up, and I’d like to think that I’ve learned something from working with each of those soldiers. But I have also benefited from incredible mentorship in my PhD and postdoc positions as well. It’s nice to think that we all have confidence in ourselves at all times, but that certainly isn’t true. We all experience moments of doubt, so having had mentors that continued to believe in me (and still do!) has been immeasurably helpful. It’s true that good mentors continue to be valuable resources long after you’ve moved on to other positions.

What is it that keeps you working hard every day?
It’s definitely the thrill of discovery, and getting to share that feeling with other people, that keeps me working hard every day. I’ve learned that one good day in research can fuel all of the days in between when the rewards are harder to find.