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The Unplanned Science Journey of a Latina Professor - Dr. Romero-Olivares

I am a profesora, but I didn’t think I could ever become one. In high school I was lost in not knowing what school was for or what my future could look like. I even considered not attending college because of the same reasons. This may sound simple but my ideas about my future changed because my teacher in high school saw my interest in Ecology and Biology. I did not know that Biology could be studied as an official major in college, but the simple introduction helped me make future plans and also helped me reflect upon where my interests came from. I became really interested in pollution when I was in elementary school, but I’d forgotten. Also, my dad would take me outside the city on the weekends. We spent many hours walking around the desert, and although I didn’t like doing that at the time, I think the exposure to nature made an impression on me. As I look back, I realize that those experiences were the beginning of developing an interest for the environment. For these reasons, I decided that I wanted to pursue a career in Biology with the overall goal of understanding and protecting the environment.

Mom was also a factor in my decision making because not going to college was not an option. She didn’t have the opportunity to go to college, which meant that it was very important for her that I attended college. My parents were confused when I told them about studying Biology in college because we didn’t know any Biologists and it was unclear what Biologists do for a living. I didn’t have answers to their questions, but I wanted to push forward anyway. I had to be okay with them not understanding. Understanding my curiosities and following my interests once I was in college was very validating for me. I was not sure about my future, but I was sure about what I liked studying. This helped considerably as I struggled with a few classes. My strategy to do well in college came from knowing myself. I’ve always been the type of person that learns by reading. I have a very difficult time paying attention in class and listening to lectures. Because of that, I always made sure to read the chapters the professors were covering in class. I also took ongoing notes outside of class, in the library or at home. If professors provided notes, then I made sure to look at those notes and read about them a bit more in my textbooks. Because I read the chapters, what was going on in class began to make more sense.

There is no way around studying a lot, going to office hours and asking questions. Doing all the homework and assignments is part of understanding complex topics and developing confidence. Overtime, I became a good student, but still almost failed a couple of classes because part of being a good student requires managing life outside the classroom, which can be difficult at times. Distractions are our worst enemy. I had to take a few “recovery exams” that were called “extraordinario”. It’s like a final exam, and your final grade depends it. The pressure was there, and it wasn’t fun. When I realized that I was struggling with a class, I came up with a study plan to prepare for the “extraordinario” and studied hard to make sure I would pass. Different classes are hard for different reasons, but the goal is to adjust and find a way to survive the most challenging courses. I was slowing gaining confidence. This led to contemplating grad school and becoming a professor someday. Although at the time I didn’t fully understand what that meant, my mind was set.

How do I become a profesora? It was my second year of college when I decided to ask one of my professors what do I had to do to be a professor. This is when I found out that I needed to go to grad school and earn a PhD. I honestly didn’t even know what a PhD was at the time, but after that conversation I started to look into it. I didn’t understand that PhD students learn to do research. During my last year as an undergrad, I started to learn more about research and about careers in academia. I became an undergrad in a couple of labs helping PhD students with their research, which was the beginning of my own research experience. I became part of a program called “Verano Científico” and after that, I pretty much knew I wanted to go to grad school, but was still unsure what I wanted to focus on. Eventually things fell into place by reading and asking questions. I considered my options and decided to pursue a masters and study the ecology of fungi in deserts.

My academic journey was in full motion. I earned my way into a PhD program which was challenging in many ways. However, I was very lucky to have a supportive advisor who could lead me to become the scientist that I am today. Researchers are problem solvers who use data analysis to come up with conclusions. One of the most impactful experiences I had involved me messing up my data analysis. It was multiple times. My advisor caught my mistake every time, which made me feel bad. It felt even worse by the third and fourth time. I was worried that my advisor was going to get angry at me or think that I wasn’t good enough to continue my work. I sent her an email and told her I was mentally exhausted, confused of the analysis, and that I felt I was a very bad scientist. The next day she asked to speak with me, which made me so nervous. I’d already heard plenty of stories from other grad school friends that were mistreated by their advisors. They were yelled at and often insulted. Most of them are no longer part of academia. My conversation with my advisor was unexpected, but important to me. Instead of scolding me, she told me that making mistakes was normal and that becoming a good scientist takes time. Shy reminded me to focus on the learning process and she was there to help me become a good scientist. That experience demonstrated the importance of kindness in academia. Such encouragement made me feel like I belonged in academia. I was lucky in that all of my advisors, all women, have treated me with kindness.

Overtime, my advisors became my mentors and role models. I look up to all of them as they all supported me in unique ways. Not only academically, but also at a personal level. This level of support has been critical in my academic journey. As young students we are in an uncommon environment. We question our paths because Mexican woman in academia are not very common, especially in STEM. In fact, I’m often the only one in the room. Feelings of isolation and inadequacy at any level of education go away as you seek support alongside people who will support and inspire you. They’re reminders that you are never alone, but you must find them. I relied a great deal on other Latinx professors and networks such as the Women of Color in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (WoCinEEB) and SACNAS. These are extraordinary organizations filled with people who will support, guide, and inspire you. There are many more organizations, which means that it is only a matter of exploring them to figure out which one motivates you.

I’m the first and only scientist on both sides of my family. Most of my family members had never met a scientist, which meant that my family was often confused as to why I kept going in school. They’ve made sense of my journey as an academic and scientist, and although they may not fully understand exactly what I do, I do know for sure that they’re very proud of me. The walks in nature did appear to have a lasting impression on me. I pursued a bachelor’s in Biology, a master’s in Molecular Ecology and Biotechnology, and a PhD in Biology at the University of California Irvine. My work as a soil microbiologist keeps me better understanding life at the ground level. I am fascinated by the work I do because soil is life, and life in soil are mostly microbes. Most of our food sources come from the soil and if we don’t understand microbes in soil, we are putting ourselves in danger. This literally means that our life depends on soil! I’m most attracted to microbes, especially soil fungi because they are biologically complex and unique organisms that interact and affect soil. The work we do in the lab I lead is important, not only because we study the effects of climate change on earth, but because I also seek to contribute to a changing academic culture, which is currently very white and very privileged. Most importantly, I would also like to be a role model for Latinx students. For these reasons, I’m just getting started and not going anywhere.


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