At Mesa Verde, admiring the archeological sites of the Ancestral Pueblo people.
First experiences in science
I was born and raised in Puerto Rico. The mountainsides of central Puerto Rico (Barranquitas) were the breeding grounds for my curiosity and love of the natural world and biology. I went to Colegio San Ignacio for high school, and during the summers I benefited enormously from participating in minority research programs that allowed me to explore my interests in science. One of my first research projects was on the medicinal properties of plantain sap (Mussa paradisiaca) in the treatment of tuberculosis. It is an observation stemming from herbal remedies commonly used in the Caribbean. In our biological assays we found the plantain sap had biological activity against tuberculosis, but, many years later, I am embarrassed to admit I have not followed up on that observation (anybody interested?). For what it is worth, the project won the international science fair and I got a trip to Alabama and Argentina out of it. I am still waiting for closure though...
College and Grad school
During college (Harvard University) I continued to explore my interest in science and the interplay between science and issues of social justice: I spent my summers doing ethnopharmacological research in the rainforests of Central America. My research centered around documenting, preserving and testing the use of medicinal plants among the indigenous groups of the watershed area of the Panamá Canal. These wonderful field research experiences included lots of great traveling, medicine-man style. I also met the best biology teachers I have ever had in some of the indigenous people I worked with. Some of the research done during those summers was published in the Journal of Anthropological Research, and some was used by my sponsor (the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panamá) in a book about ecologic sustainability in the watershed area of the Panamá Canal.
I graduated with a BA in Biology from Harvard University. Near graduation I was debating whether to go back and do more field research with the Smithsonian, go to graduate school or go to medical school. It was during that time that I was lucky to meet Mariano Garcia-Blanco, a professor at Duke University who became my mentor. I worked in Mariano's lab for a year while I sorted out my career goals, and the experience was so positive soon afterwards we were submitting a paper on my work and I formally joined the Duke PhD program.
I obtained my PhD from the University Program in Genomics and Genetics (UPGG) at Duke University while working with Dr. Sally Kornbluth at the Pharmacology and Cancer Biology Department. In the Kornbluth lab I combined bioinformatics, molecular biology, biochemistry and cell biological approaches to answer questions critical for understanding the molecular mechanisms of apoptosis, a physiological process tightly linked to cancer. It is a little known fact that I studied for my qualifying exam in a federal prison, after doing civil disobedience for protesting the Naval bombing in Vieques (nothing like Federal prison to make you focus on your studies). I passed the qualifying exams upon my return to Durham and, a couple of papers later, I obtained my PhD in Pharmacology, Cancer Biology and Genetics.
Neurobiology and C. elegans
Influenced by mentors such as Haifan Lin and Elwood Linney at Duke, I became fascinated by developmental questions. I audited a course in neurobiology at Duke organized by George Augustine and David Fitzpatrick. It is one of the best courses I have taken, and I soon became very interested in developmental neurobiology. I became particularly interested in the mechanisms by which complex neural structures, such as the brain, precisely develop and how this precise innervation influences behaviors. After exploring the possibility of working in several model organisms, I decided to focus my studies in the nematode C. elegans. This decision was heavily influenced by a great conversation I had with Cori Bargmann during my postdoc interview, and by the beautiful work done by my mentor, Kang Shen, in his studies of synaptic specificity while at the Bargmann lab. So I joined Kang's lab at Stanford, and worked on developing tools that allowed me to visualize synaptic specificity in the nematode brain, specifically in the thermotaxis circuit. You can read about our work and this system in the rest of the website. Upon completion of my postdoc, I joined Yale University School of Medicine as an assistant professor, and now I am procrastinating on grant-writing by working on this profile.
Promoting diversity in science
Besides research, I am very interested in promoting diversity in science. The scientific community is an international community. Some groups, nationalities and men have traditionally been more participatory, not because they are better suited for science, but because historical and economical reasons have limited the participation of other ethnicities, countries and women. However, I believe science belong to humanity at large, and that we should all be able to participate and benefit from the knowledge that is generated. I also believe that science stands to benefit tremendously from bringing people with diverse viewpoints and backgrounds. I am therefore interested in identifying and eliminating the roadblocks that have traditionally prevented underrepresented groups, at a national and international level, from participating in science. Although my interests lie in diversity in general, for the time being I have focused on Puerto Rico, because it is where I am from, and because one must start somewhere. I am part of a non-profit scientific thinktank (Council for the Advancement of Puerto Rico Research and Innovation) interested in these issues. CienciaPR is one of the initiatives we have spearheaded, with the idea of helping nucleate a community of scientists interested in diversity in science.