His career is all in the timing

Published May 01 2018

D. Fernando Estrada

At the University at Buffalo in New York, D. Fernando Estrada, an assistant professor in the biochemistry department, and his lab study the structure and function of class 1 cytochrome P450 enzymes, with special emphasis on those that affect vitamin D availability.

Estrada earned his associate’s degree at Dodge City Community College, his bachelor’s in biochemistry at Kansas State University and his Ph.D. in biochemistry at the University of Kansas.

In this month’s Research Spotlight, he talks about finding his way to science, serving as an officer in the U.S. Army and a becoming an academic researcher. The interview has been edited for length, style and clarity.

How did you first become interested in science?

I was definitely a late bloomer. 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. 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.

 

What key experiences and decisions got you where you are?

 

First, my particular career path included a seven-year tour of duty as an active-duty A rmy 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 also have been in training environments where I’ve always been encouraged to apply for independent funding. This was very important, because it allowed me to experience firsthand the cycle of applying and reapplying 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.

  

When faced with failures, 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 Ph.D. 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.

 

About the Research Spotlight

American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology’s Research Spotlight highlights distinguished biomolecular and biomedical scientists from diverse backgrounds as a way to inspire up-and-coming scientists to pursue careers in the molecular life sciences. Eligible candidates include Ph.D. students, postdoctoral fellows, and new or established faculty and researchers. To nominate a colleague for this feature, contact the education department.

What advice do you have for underrepresented students interested in a career like yours?

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 not to apply for a funding opportunity that you may be competitive for. I feel this is more prevalent among young people from underrepresented backgrounds.

 

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.

 

Who are your heroes, mentors or role models?

My parents certainly have been role models for me. They risked everything to emigrate from Mexico to start a new life in the U.S. 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 U.S. 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 also have benefited from incredible mentorship in my Ph.D. and postdoc positions as well.

What 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.