October 2011

Research spotlight

I returned to school at age 29. This was the single most important decision I have made. When I started at Valencia Community College, I did not know how it would all end, but I knew the importance of obtaining a degree to better my life and myself. I decided from the beginning I would explore as many opportunities available to me and approach my education with an open mind. 

For example, I started out focusing on a mechanical engineering track. I then found out I not only liked chemistry but excelled at organic chemistry. The (National Institutes of Health) Bridges to the Baccalaureate program exposed me to biochemistry and undergraduate laboratory research. This led me to a position as an undergraduate researcher at the University of South Florida. I found my passion for science and research and pursued graduate school. While presenting my work at the 1999 ASBMB Conference in the Undergraduate Poster Competition, I met professor Cathy Drennan. Two extraordinary events happened during the poster competition: My poster was selected as session winner and professor Drennan recruited me to MIT.  

Looking back, I am a long way from mechanical engineering, but those skills help me in my research, as I have to design and build most of my experimental setups. 

How did you first become interested in science?  

I remember growing up and visiting Kennedy Space Center with my family. Between those visits and watching Jacques Cousteau on television, I knew that liked science, but, growing up, there was little opportunity to explore science. It was not until I returned to school that I revisited science as an interest. I remember two eureka moments that hooked me into science. The first one happened while taking my first organic chemistry class. I realized that molecules have three dimensions and that you can take advantage of these molecular structures to guide and design chemical reactions. The second one was when I ran my first PCR reaction. I had three water baths and a hand timer. I was holding my breath when I ran the DNA gel. The elation I felt when I saw the positive DNA band under the UV light changed my career path forever. 

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?  

Before I returned to school at the age of 29, I faced a number of failures: I dropped out of school at an early age; I had a failed marriage, and several unsuccessful business ventures. There were many times early on when I wanted to quit and do something else. The support from mother and sister helped me stay on course and finish my undergraduate degree. I cannot express enough how important my family, friends and mentors have been to me. I could not have reached my goals had it not been for their support and belief in my capabilities as a person and as a scientist.  

In failure are lessons -- hard lessons, but important lessons. Each failure forced me to examine my choices that led to the failures. This type of introspective thinking allowed me to learn and grow from each experience. It taught me not to be afraid to take chances. It also taught me to study and prepare myself as best as possible for decision that I made in life. 

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