AAAS Lecture Series on Women in Science and Engineering

Essay: Josefina Coloma

I was born and raised in Quito, Ecuador, a country with wonderful people and ecosystems but unfortunately plagued with the sequels of underdevelopment and poverty. Having had an interest in the Biological/Medical Sciences since I was a child, it was early on that I gained a vivid appreciation for the human impact of infectious diseases.

For an Ecuadorian woman, the scientific world is very limited. No advanced degrees in the biological sciences are offered other than medical training. The path closes after a "Licenciatura" or Masters degree and very few scientists are able to train abroad. Obviously, it was for me not only a great achievement but a very joyous event to obtain a Ph.D. in 1997 from the department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics at the University of California, Los Angeles.

I consider that professionally my main achievements are at two levels. First, at the scientific level, I have been able to contribute to the scientific community in the field of Molecular Immunology, particularly in the design of novel recombinant antibody molecules. This field is very important for the development of better delivery systems for therapeutic drugs targeted to diseases like cancer and Alzheimer's. My work during my graduate and post-doctorate years with Dr. Sherie Morrison at UCLA was published in several peer-reviewed publications and international scientific journals. In addition, some of this work resulted in US patents and have served as the basis for the production of drugs that are used therapeutically.

Most recently, my work on dengue virus with Dr. Eva Harris at UC. Berkeley has focused in developing a system to study the intricate mechanisms that regulate transcription/translation and that are key elements of the viral cycle and pathogenesis of this medically important Flavivirus. In this laboratory the approach to conduct infectious diseases research combines a strong laboratory component that investigates the molecular basis of viral pathogenesis with close ties to field sites in endemic countries. As a result I have closely participated in collaborations with laboratories in Central and South America in the development and implementation of more cost-effective reagents for dengue diagnostic applications.

The second plain that I consider a success in my career, is at the human/social level. I have been fortunate to train and transfer my knowledge to scientists in the developing world. Through workshops and conferences organized by a group of young scientists interested in transferring technology and knowledge, I have been able to build research capacity where it is needed. These efforts inspired the creation of the Sustainable Sciences Institute, a non-profit organization led by Dr. Harris and in which I am an active board member. As a result we have long lasting and active collaborations with scientists and diverse institutions in several d eveloping countries including Ecuador.

I received my first award, upon graduation from the Universidad Catolica in Ecuador, with the degree of Licentiate in Biological Sciences after 4 years of studies and a year of thesis (Honors graduate SCL, 1988). Later on as a graduate student at UCLA I was a recipient of several awards based on academic achievement: Centocor fellowship, Chancellors' fellowship, Warsaw family award, NIH minority fellowship. But the most rewarding was the one awarded to me by the American Association of University Women who named me Graduate Woman of the Year in 1996 in recognition of my international work.

In my life I've had many challenges because of my interest in Science. First, in Ecuador due to the lack of advanced degrees I resolved to further my knowledge and training through courses and conferences funded by the government and NGO agencies. I attended international training courses in molecular and cell biology and antibody manipulation in Guayaquil, Bogota Colombia, and Havana, Cuba.

The second challenge came later on, when I came to the US. for a summer internship at a small research company, invited by a scientist who had worked in Ecuador and whom I met at an international conference. After working a few months I was invited to join in the staff, and quickly I became part of the exploratory group. I knew that I had to get a more advanced degree to fill in the shoes that I was getting into but I had no clue how. After the GREs and a long chain of events, mentors, good will and coincidences I was able to open a path in the scientific world in this country. Meanwhile my family and friends back in Ecuador, supported me with all decisions but could not give me any advice.

I was very fortunate to have entered a field that was new, exciting and where not only I met great scientists but also great human beings. I always found someone for support, encouragement and guidance. First Dr. Jim Larrick, my first mentor at Genelabs and the person who invited me to the "summer" internship (1989). He quickly showed me the tools needed to navigate through the aggressive, fast pace of a laboratory in a "startup" biotech company and helped me understand the rules of the "game" of the scientific world. A couple of years later it was Dr. Sherie Morrison my graduate advisor, who triggered a turn of events in my life. After a random visit to her lab and a 10-minute talk with her, she invited me to join in her group, first as a technician and later as a graduate student. Dr. Morrison gave me all the elements and freedom needed to help fulfill my scientific curiosity in a fun and creative way and modeled for me how a scientist develops and changes lives in the academic world. As a woman and a leading scientist in her field she was a tremendous role model.

In my opinion challenges are present everywhere and are part of becoming better and maturing in all aspects, and I have never taken them "personally". Those that have been more evident and surprising in my life have been related to the cultural differences, the education and learning systems in different places. In addition, the high level of scientific endeavor, constant updating of work and publishing needed to establish a position in the academic world in the US always struck me. It is very different from what I frequently encountered in other countries, where age, gender and political connections get you further. The high standards are always reminders of the demands of the scientific world and keep me focused in trying to achieve excellence.

The greatest challenge in the academic world for me has been the feeling of isolation and disconnection to the "external" world. Although I love bench work, research, and publishing, my true satisfaction comes from training people in less deserved institutions and in trying to bridge the "first world science" with the "third world" problems. In 1993 another person changed my life. While I was a graduate student I met Eva Harris at a congress in Cuba. She also was a graduate student at UC Berkeley and was presenting a poster about her work on technology transfer and use of simplified molecular biology techniques to diagnose infectious disease in Nicaragua. She was the person that made possible my dream of doing something in my country. In 1994 and 1995 together with other volunteer scientists from the US and Latin America, we taught two AMB/ATT (Applied Molecular Biology, Appropriate Technology Transfer) courses to 50 Ecuadorian scientists on six infections diseases. In the year 2000 I joined Dr. Harris's laboratory as a postdoc/ lab-international program manager/. In January 2002 I returned to Ecuador to give a hands on course at the Institute of tropical medicine /Ministry of Health, on molecular diagnosis and epidemiology of dengue amidst a major dengue epidemic. I consider that I am still growing as a scientist and that I am in the process of fulfilling the two components of my scientific and humanitarian interests.

It is only fair that I also acknowledge the support of my husband Dan and my two kids, Alejandra (5) and Simon (3) who have made this journey even more exciting and meaningful.

 

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