AAAS Lecture Series on Women in Science and Engineering

Essay: Elba Serrano

Scientific and Professional Achievements, Honors and Awards

I am a tenured Associate Professor of Biology at New Mexico State University, a minority majority Hispanic Serving Institution located 50 miles north of the El Paso-Ciudad Juarez border metroplex. I received my undergraduate degree (with Distinction) in Physics with a Chemistry minor from the University of Rochester, and my Ph.D. in Biological Sciences from Stanford University with an emphasis in neuroscience and biophysics. I joined the faculty at NMSU in 1991 after completing postdoctoral research at Stanford University (Neurology and Biology Departments) and at UCLA Medical School (Physiology). I have been the recipient of a Ford Foundation Minority Postdoctoral Fellowship (1983) and the NMSU Donald C. Roush Award for Teaching Excellence (1999). Over the past 10 years I have served as a panelist for NSF and NIH and I currently am a regular member of an NIH IFCN study section. For reasons that will become apparent later in this essay, I have a lifelong interest in international science. Most recently, my international experience includes sabbatical leave as Visiting Scientist at the Ecole Normal Superieure in Paris (Laboratoire de Neurobiologie) and at the University of Heidelberg (Neurobiology). I will co-Chair a session at a Gordon Conference in Neurobiology at Oxford in August of this year (2002).

My research interests are varied and presently lie in the areas of communication disorders and sensory system (acoustico-vestibular) development. My large and diverse laboratory comprises principally undergraduate and graduate students, many of whom are among the first generation in their families to attend college. Together we established the first modern neuroscience laboratory at NMSU, an accomplishment that I consider one of my most significant professional achievements. Briefly, when I arrived at NMSU in 1991, no neuroscience research and few biomedical research programs were active at NMSU. With a $40,000 start up, an empty lab, some dedicated and enthusiastic young students, and several grants, we have developed a strong research program in neuroscience. Other neuroscience faculty have joined the department in the past 3 years. Research infrastructure has improved so dramatically since my arrival that I recently submitted a proposal for Neuroscience Research Enhancement to NIMH. If funded, this award will support faculty research initiatives in neuroscience, and in addition to other activities, will build a network with organizations in the surrounding community with central themes in neuroscience, brain, and mental health.

In my laboratory I encourage and use a multidisciplinary approach that matches the question with the technology. We routinely integrate methods from tissue culture, molecular biology, informatics, anatomy, and biophysics to answer questions about how sensory organs are formed and how cells of the nervous system acquire their electrical phenotype. From the technical standpoint, I am extremely interested in developing methodologies for the in vivo imaging of neurons and sensory cells, particularly those that use multi-photon microscopy to view processes in living cells and tissues. Over the years several agencies and organizations including the Whitehall Foundation, NASA, and the National Institutes of Health have supported my laboratory. At present, NIGMS/NICHD, NIDCD, and NASA fund our research. NM EPSCoR has encouraged my emerging interest in bionanotechnology.

I consider teaching and research to be irrevocably intertwined in academic life. As a young physics student I was inspired by the clear and entertaining introductory physics lectures of Nobel laureate Richard Feynman. My principal reason for accepting a faculty position at NMSU was the opportunity to work with a diverse group of students who shared my cultural background in a setting where research and teaching were important. For example, I have been able to serve as research advisor to students in the MBRS, BRIDGES, MARC and McNair programs. Of the 12 current members of my laboratory, 3 are Native American, 4 are Hispanic and 7 are women. I participate in many university wide programs such as the University Honors Program and the Graduate Program in Molecular Biology, as well as outreach activities designed for K-12 students and the Dine Community Colleges on the Navajo reservation. I have promoted curriculum reform by developing new courses in neuroscience and imaging, and I was the first and only member of my department to offer undergraduate and graduate courses in Science, Society, and Ethics. The latter have been enthusiastically received by students.

In the next stage of my career, I envision myself continuing to head a laboratory along the research lines described. However, I also intend to work toward developing research and educational initiatives that accentuate the connection between fundamental neuroscience research and the biomedical and other applications that arise from basic research. I intend to include international viewpoints and participants in these activities. I hope to motivate scientists, especially students and young researchers, to engage in dialogues with their surrounding communities and discuss what we do as scientists, why we do it and how science affects the quality of human life for all of us that share this planet.

Challenges, Strategies, Events, and People

I have always worked in male dominated fields, and few of my colleagues have shared my Hispanic ethnic and cultural heritage. As a physics undergraduate I was one of about eighty majors that included two women and no minorities other than myself. In my home department of 19 tenure-track faculty, four are women and I am one of two tenured women faculty members (the other is our Department Head). When I am invited to speak at conferences, typically 20% or less of the speakers are women and when I attend meeting presentations in my field (such as the biophotonics sessions at SPIE meetings), perhaps 10-20% of the attendees are women. I have grown accustomed to being the only minority scientist in attendance, although this was a source of great discomfort earlier in my career. As a Hispanic woman scientist, I am constantly asked to serve as role model and minority participant in research and educational venues. I personally consider these activities an important responsibility. However, they add to my professional work load and are rarely recognized by my majority male (and sometimes female) colleagues as a legitimate academic or professional contribution.

I believe all of us, regardless of gender or ethnicity face many individual challenges in our fields. In my case, I have had to overcome my profound alienation from a university system where I saw few individuals that shared the cultural values I acquired in my upbringing as the eldest daughter of a traditional working class Hispanic family. Even now I feel that my rationale and views on academic issues are very different from those of my peers. Those that know me can attest to the many extraordinary and random events that have severely and adversely affected my professional development and I will mention just three of the most significant that occurred at different stages of my career. First, at the end of my fourth year in graduate school as I was nearing completion of my degree, my advisor was denied tenure and left Stanford. Since he did not invite his students to join him at his new institution, I accepted a position as a research associate and completed the experiments for my thesis on weekends at Hopkins Marine Station. Due to this disruption, I finished my degree three years later than normally expected. Second, as I was beginning to apply for academic positions, my postdoctoral advisor at UCLA, Dr. Susumu Hagiwara, abruptly passed away. Therefore I entered the faculty job market without the obligatory "padrino" as advocate. Third, at the beginning of my fourth year as an Assistant Professor at NMSU, my laboratory was destroyed by an electrical fire of unknown origin. I completely rebuilt my lab while upholding my regular teaching load of three courses per year.

I have come to view every difficulty as a creative opportunity for personal and professional growth. I believe that "challenges" are part of what make life interesting and often say to my students: "every stone in our path will become a stepping stone for our success". Overcoming adverse situations requires development of strategies based on personal inner strength together with practical and realistic understanding of institutions and people. I am motivated to persevere in the face of adversity by the awareness that while the context for scientific investigation may be flawed, the act of scientific investigation is profoundly exciting and meaningful. Furthermore, I have encountered wonderful allies among my colleagues, advisors, and students. They have come from many backgrounds and disciplines, but all are passionate about their research and committed to responsible conduct in science. I believe that it is essential to have a broad base of professional support. In my case, the Society for Neuroscience, the Ford Fellows, the ARO, and SACNAS have provided an exceptional forum for networking with other scientists that has proved invaluable for academic survival and professional growth. I credit my students, colleagues, teachers, postdoctoral advisors, and friends for any achievements that may be attributed to me because they have provided support and encouragement along every step of the journey. Above all, I credit my family, because they are the foundation of my character and values. And finally, I have found that perspective and clarity are enhanced if balanced by activities outside the scientific arena. Specifically, over the years I have gained insight from the philosophies of the martial arts of Asia and Brasil.

Interest in Sharing Experiences with Foreign Colleagues

I was raised in an international context and presently live in the US-Mexico border region. I was born in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. My father was a career sergeant and Viet Nam veteran in the US military and we were posted to new assignments on a regular basis. By the age of five I had lived in Puerto Rico and Central America. After a year in Ft. Lewis, Washington, we moved to Taiwan where we lived until I was eleven. I attended another five different schools outside the US before graduating from Nurnberg American High School. The DOD system provided me with a superb education that allowed me to compete academically for admission to colleges beyond my family’s economic means (I was a National Merit Scholar and recipient of a Bausch and Lomb Science Medal). Since then, I have lived in England, France, and Germany, and I have spent shorter periods of time in Mexico, Japan, Italy, and Brasil. I always have lived within multiple cultures surrounded by many languages, and I have a deep appreciation for the varied lifestyles and viewpoints of other nationalities.

Like many other idealistic young students I was attracted to science in part because of the hope that science could improve life for all human beings. Over the years I have become increasingly troubled by the unequal access to science and technology in our own country and the complex implications of scientific advancement for society (for example human cloning, biopiracy, genetic engineering, and bioterrorism issues). On an international scale one cannot fail to be concerned with the growing disparity between the benefits of science and technology to citizens of the first world as compared with those of the third world. I also am very aware of the cultural biases and difficulties faced by women in Latin and other cultures where expectations regarding women's roles in the workforce and the home can be more narrowly circumscribed. I would welcome the opportunity to participate in an international forum where all contributors could exchange experiences and form networks and collaborations based on mutual research and educational interests.


 

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