To Undocumented, Latinx, & Underrepresented Students Considering a Career in Science -Pia R. Salazar

Life as an Undocumented American is much like a career in scientific research - both have taught me not to be scared of the unknown and find creative solutions to unexpected obstacles. Growing up in Peru surrounded by the Andes and the Amazon, I was first drawn to science by a desire to understand how these incredible ecosystems exist and thrive. My parents encouraged my curiosity and to give me and my siblings a better future, they made the difficult decision to migrate to the United States when I was 10 years old. Unfortunately, everything changed when unexpected events rendered my family undocumented shortly after arriving in the United States. Like most undocumented immigrants, my parents worked several jobs to support our family. They navigated through fear and discrimination in their workplaces and sacrificed their personal aspirations, while still somehow finding time to be caring and present parents. Their sacrifices remind me of where I came from, ground me, and motivate me as I now pursue a PhD in Cell Biology. I hope that in sharing my story, other young undocumented students may also see a path forward in STEM for themselves.

As a young undocumented immigrant, I quickly learned that most undocumented students face overwhelming professional and financial barriers when pursuing higher education. Studying hard and getting good grades is not enough for an undocumented student to be able to go to college. Additionally, most undocumented students do not share the truth about their status with teachers or mentors for fear of being reported to the authorities. Nonetheless, I was already fascinated by biology in high school and took advanced courses in science and math to strengthen potential future college applications. Without knowing about my status, one of my teachers recommended that I apply for a full-ride scholarship to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and I earned my high school’s nomination to be able to apply. I went through several rounds of interviews until I became a finalist. However, I was not awarded the scholarship in the end, and it was devastating because I knew that this was my only real opportunity to be able to attend a school like UNC.

My parents and high school counselor worked so hard to help me apply to other schools and try to find alternatives, but I had little to no options due to having to pay out-of-state tuition out-of-pocket and being unable to legally work (undocumented students do not qualify for in-state-tuition or financial aid/loans regardless of how long they have lived in any given State). It was then that I received a phone call from UNC letting me know that while I was not awarded the scholarship I originally applied to (it turns out I was not eligible to receive it due to my status, ignorance is bliss?), based on my application/interviews they still wanted me to attend UNC. In a surreal moment, I learned that I had earned one of two nominations for another scholarship at UNC which fully funded my pursuit of a biology bachelor’s degree despite my undocumented status. While I am very aware that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity and does not represent the reality of the lack of opportunities available to undocumented students, I also learned an important lesson from this experience: you never know who is watching when you are working hard, even against seemingly impossible obstacles, to accomplish your goals. Every opportunity, failure, interaction, person, can become an advocate for you and your goals.

At UNC, I pursued field research to study wildlife in their natural habitats with research groups at UNC and UC Berkeley. These early research experiences reinforced my passion in biology and my goal to become a scientist. Additionally, it was at UNC where I first met other openly undocumented friends who were unafraid to advocate for better policies for undocumented people in the US. Emboldened by their bravery, I became a leader in an organization aiming to increase access to higher education for all students, regardless of legal status. I learned then the importance of representation in all academic spaces: Since I was the only undocumented Latina, I knew pursuing a biology degree at UNC, I felt it was my responsibility to represent undocumented Latinx communities in academia while also representing scientists in undocumented Latinx communities. Scientists can also be advocates! I have since remained committed to mentoring and advocating for underrepresented students in and out of a university setting.

After graduation, the fortuitous implementation of DACA allowed me to finally obtain legal status and opened opportunities I had no access to before. To learn new skills and explore other scientific fields, I decided to pursue a biotech internship studying stem cell therapies to treat chronic lung disease. Like the wildlife-habitat interactions that first drew me to science, I quickly became fascinated by how cells communicate with each other to balance health and disease. Here, I fortunately found mentors who truly nurtured and believed in my potential as a future scientist and became one of the lead researchers developing a stem-cell based therapy to treat neonatal lung disease. The very first time I considered pursuing a PhD was when my research mentor Dr. Sarah Hogan, told me I was capable and would succeed in a PhD program. She had the patience and talent to teach me both how to pursue robust research and learn to believe in myself as a scientist. Simply thinking about pursuing a PhD can be overwhelming, so having others believing in you is critical - find mentors who care about you as a scientist and as a person, they are invaluable!

Now, as a PhD Candidate in Cell Biology at Duke University, I study how our brain develops properly and how these developmental processes are disrupted in neurodevelopmental diseases in the laboratory of Dr. Cagla Eroglu. Our brain is the ultimate black box left in understanding what makes us, us, and is the target of some of the most devastating diseases affecting people today. Cell biology makes up the building blocks of life and without a deep understanding of how our cells orchestrate the development, growth, and health of our brain, we cannot solve problems of neurological disorders. Of particular interest to me, we know that imbalances in energy metabolism have been associated with neurodevelopmental diseases such as epilepsy and schizophrenia. Therefore, my focus is in understanding how mitochondria, the energy powerhouse of the cell, control the development of non-neuronal cells in our brain called glia, and how these glia then shape proper synaptic connectivity in our brain. I aim to become an independent investigator in a research institution where I can continue to study mechanisms of brain development and develop therapies for neurological diseases while mentoring young, underrepresented scientists.

With my advisor’s mentorship, I was very fortunate to receive the Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship in 2020 and the HHMI Gilliam Fellowship in 2021 to support my research. Finding and joining the PD Soros and Gilliam communities has been very impactful for me as a Latina scientist - it is crucial to see other people that look like us in the roles we hope to fill one day. The PD Soros and Gilliam communities are made up of talented, driven, immigrant, and underrepresented scientists that inspire me to continue to embrace all aspects of my background in academic spaces. Because I am passionate about the importance of community and mentorship of underrepresented students in STEM, I am co-director of the Graduate Student Engagement and Community (GSEC) program in Cientifico Latino. This is a phenomenal program and resource for any aspiring STEM graduate students trying to find mentors to help you navigate graduate school.

My determined pursuit of a career in scientific research despite obstacles has been my most formative experience in my life. To my fellow undocumented/Latinx/underrepresented students considering a career in science: find devoted mentors, continue to work hard, and believe that even when things seem overwhelming, you can become a scientist. You will doubt yourself from time to time (I still do! Hello impostor syndrome), fail sometimes, but do not let doubt or previous failures prevent you from trying again. Always apply for that university, program, scholarship, internship, and fellowship - you are capable, qualified, and more than deserving.