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
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.