From International Student to Latina Scientist in the Biotech Industry - Dr. Perez-Paramo

I immigrated to the US from Mexico as a Fulbright scholar to pursue my Ph.D. in Pharmaceutical Sciences and Molecular Medicine. I remember feeling out of place and overwhelmed. As I look back, the unknown has always been present. I’d say that it’s a natural part of life. We always have so many questions, but not enough answers. In high school I knew that I loved math, chemistry, biology, and health classes and that I wanted to pursue something related to health sciences, but had no idea what that meant in the real world. I was a first-generation college student, which meant that I had little to no idea as to how to navigate college. Without a doubt, my academic journey was guided forward for two major reasons. First, I took advantage of internships as often as possible. And second, I learned to ask for help from like-minded individuals who provided support along the way. It may sound simple, but it changed my life forever.

The real world happens outside the classroom. Everything inside the classroom matters greatly, but added experiences will allow you to gain valuable perspectives. Internships definitely helped me answer questions about my interests, how to navigate college and my career path. In addition, internships provided hands-on experiences that helped me understand how science worked. We learn new terms and concepts inside the classroom, but the way you can apply them is endless once you seek to understand how they work around us. Teachers, professors and counselors will notice you, but you have to interact with them and earn strong grades. There are no shortcuts around dedicating time and effort to reading and studying. I was invited to take part in internships during high school and college because I had a strong GPA. It was their way of knowing that I was committed to doing the work.

"The real world happens outside the classroom. Everything inside the classroom matters greatly, but added experiences will allow you to gain valuable perspectives."

Internships also taught me what I didn’t want to do for the rest of my life. In Mexico, we are trained as phlebotomists and laboratory chemists. I enjoyed working with patients, but also realized that I didn’t want a very repetitive job where I was doing the same thing every day. The beauty of chemistry and science in the real world is that there is something new or different that can be tried or learned every day. I started doing summer research programs that really helped to confirm my interest in science and more importantly my passion to do research to improve people’s health. As a result of my last internship, I found my first job as a research assistant for one of the advisors I worked with during the summer. These experiences help me to decide that I wanted to pursue a career in the pharma/biotech industry.

Initially I thought that I needed to succeed by myself and that I would figure thing out eventually, but I was wrong. I think that having people to talk to and rely on definitely helped with finding resources that helped me along the way. Looking for help when you need it is essential, at the beginning and along the way. For example, one of my counselors in high school suggested that I consider pursuing a BS in Chemistry. After reviewing the program, it really sparked my interests and decided to go for it! It was simple advice at the time, but it led me down the right path. Honestly, college only gets harder and learning to ask for help is extremely important. Asking for help simply means asking lots of questions. I think that talking to people and asking questions always helped me. I'm not a shy person which allowed me to ask questions all the time. Don’t focus on people who don’t want to help, find the ones that are willing to have conversations about your questions and interests.

"Honestly, college only gets harder and learning to ask for help is extremely important. Asking for help simply means asking lots of questions."

I relied on good mentors and more experienced friends once I traveled from Mexico. I had headaches every day after classes, projects, and exams. I often raced home to blast Mexican music or play a soap opera, just to take a break. It was a challenge because of the change in culture, language, and lifestyle. I also had to become accustomed to new norms. We are all Latinos in Mexico. The concept of being a Latina in science in the US and all the bias that comes with being a part of that minority group was new to me. In the beginning, it hurt and irritated me. Later I learned that I could really make a difference if I transferred all that energy into something that will help advance Latino representation in STEM. I started volunteering in recruiting efforts, job shadow days, high school days, scholarship and workshops. I started getting involved in local and national student organizations that help me learn about leadership and organizational skills. This also led to many fun experiences with new friends and just like I did in college, I started exploring job options once I graduated. All of this was possible with the help and guidance of other people, which also happens outside the classroom.

I was fortunate to always have a family who supported my dreams. For those of you who are in pursuit of your dreams, I hope that my path can give you some direction. First, explore different opportunities through internships during your academic career to help you make informed decisions about what comes next for you. Second, ask questions, talk to people, find mentors who can share inspiration and resources with you. Third, join student organizations that will give you a sense of community and help you develop soft skills that are often not taught in school. We need to pay attention during class lectures and read the chapters, but it will be up to you to experience the academic world outside the classroom to put important pieces together. Lastly, remember that we are resilient, strong, and passionate. Let's use that to our advantage and don't let anyone define what you can or can't do. Push forward no matter what. I’m living my dreams as a Latina scientist in STEM, and so can you. Si se puede!