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STEM Story: Grace Aquino of Baylor University’s Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) and PYPHD

Why did you decide to pursue a PhD in Environmental

Sciences?

“My degree is technically in biology and biochemistry with

a minor in Latin American Studies because I took so

many classes as a undergraduate and I enjoyed Latin

American studies, so I just minored in it. I decided to go

into the PhD in environmental science not necessarily

because I was 100% sure of the environmental science

track, but I met my advisor in undergrad. Her name is Dr.

Erica Bruce. I worked with her as an undergrad. I was a

transfer student at Baylor University, but I worked with her

for about two to two and a half years, my junior and senior

year. I realized that I really enjoyed the work that she did,

so even though it is not strictly environmental science, we

are more so focused on human health and toxicology. It

just so happened to be that her lab is technically in the

environmental science department. With that said,

environmental science does encompass human health

and human toxicology. Long story short, I chose this field

because my mentor/advisor was in the field, I really

enjoyed our relationship/mentorship, and I enjoyed the

work that I did as an undergrad, so I decided to just

continue with it. It is not exactly the same of course

anymore. In fact, it has changed several times throughout

six to seven years that I have been with her or in this lab,

the Bruce Lab, but that is just the gist of it.


When did you get involved with research?

“It was summer 2012. I was going into my junior year. I

applied for an internship kind of on the whim because I

hadn’t done any research prior to that. I knew that I

enjoyed the lab work that I had done until that point and I

had some contacts from my previous school. I was a

transfer student at Baylor, so I had contacts at a different

school and mentors there that advised me or

recommended me to different programs. I went ahead

and applied to an internship which was at the University

of Guadalajara in Mexico. I did a bit of study abroad. It

was only two months in the summer. That’s my first

official sorta research internship that I had. After that, I

decided I enjoyed it enough. It was working with animals,

so we studied the effects of hibiscus on rats with

metabolic syndrome, so these are large kind of obese

rats. I enjoyed the medical research or biomedical

research enough that when I came back to Baylor that fall

I looked for a lab that was looking for interns or

undergraduate researchers. My involvement started about

halfway through my undergraduate years. I wish I had

started sooner. I was a sophomore, almost a junior.”


What opportunities at Baylor University do you believe have

contributed to your success?

“Baylor University does a really good job of integrating its

transfer students. When you are a freshman, you come in

and you have a welcome week and you have all of these

activities to sort of get you connected, but as a transfer

student, you can sometimes become a lone wolf or feel a

little bit isolated. I decided that I would take all the

opportunities given to me. I joined the transfer student

club. I was involved in that and through them I got

connected with other STEM students, not necessarily for

research but a community of other research oriented or

STEM oriented students. Then through them I actually

heard about the environmental sciences department and

other science departments at Baylor looking for

undergraduate interns, so it kind of was like a word of

mouth thing, but it also was like Baylor designated

information. I think it is yearly that they put it out. There is

this “Science Research Fellows Program” that started

recently, but before it started it was called something else.

It was like “Summer for Undergraduate Research” and so

I had heard about it and I decided to look up different

mentors or advisors that were interested in not just

lecturing or teaching but actually mentoring next

generation researchers. I remember Baylor doing a lot of

sorta that outreach mostly via email and then you also

had panelists. I remember panels where the advisors and

some senior grad students that had done research had

sat down and talked to you about what your plans were

for the future, so sort of like professional development or

career aspiration type event or opportunities where you

got to talk to people in STEM specifically female mentors,

advisors, researchers, etc. and educators in STEM from a

lot of the different studies we have at Baylor. I remember

talking to some of them in panels.”


“Another thing that I really appreciate Baylor doing is

hosting and also sending undergrads and also grad

students to conferences. There is a lot of opportunity for

funding and to apply for different funding outlets to go to

either an internship or to a conference. I remember I

didn’t get an internship funding, but I got several

conference money here and there, so I got to go to two

SOT conferences as an undergrad with my lab group and

then as a graduate student of course with your PI funds.

There are several avenues at Baylor that I think led to my

introduction to research and to sort of kick start my career

as a researcher.”


Can you tell me more about your current research and how

your research has an impact in society?

“I always appreciate people asking because more than

the actual science itself the bigger question is, “how is it

important and why should we care about this work?” In a

nutshell, I study how atmospheric pollutants, mainly

disease exhaust particles which are tiny nano-sized

particles or pollutants that float around in the atmosphere

and everyone is exposed to them over a lifetime

especially if you live in a large city or transited areas, but I

study how those particles affect brain cells namely the

blood brain barrier which I think are the coolest barrier in

the body because they literally keep everything that is

supposed to be outside the brain, outside the brain, kind

of like a goalkeeper. Then they keep anything that is

supposed to be inside the brain, inside the brain.”


“Another cell type that I study along with the endophilia

cells of the blood brain barrier are the microglia. Those

guys are kind of like the defenders of the brain, so

together they form sort of your first line of defense and

what is interesting about these cells is that when they are

healthy the rest of the brain is healthy. If these guys sort

of start to deteriorate, if the barrier becomes leaky or if it

is not functioning properly, then you can get

neurodegenerative diseases.”


“Another important association that I look into is exactly

how deep EP (exhaust particles) make that barrier leaky

and compromise that barrier and the microglia such that

down the line after so many years of exposure then a

person or a group of people might develop

neurodegenerative diseases including Alzhemiers. We

know there is a link to exposure to atmospheric pollutants

and Alzhemiers, and so the important question here, the

relevance of the work, is if I can understand or we as

investigators can understand how exactly the mechanism

of that pathogenesis or the beginning of that disease

happens then we can potentially restrict it, we can limit it

and we can advise either the treatment or disease or

prevention for disease. I think this is really cool too, in

terms of environmental science, is that we can actually

have an indirect regulatory power or authority over

regulations to be more protective of human health. We

essentially can influence regulatory or regulations of

atmospheric pollutants so that they are protective of

human health.”


“That’s sort of the big picture, ultimately, is to protect

human health by one, regulating atmospheric pollutants a

little better and two, understanding how the disease

happens, so that we can prevent it or treat it. All of my

work is very much benchtop science. We are in the lab

everyday, most of the day. It is not a problem for me. I

look at the cellular microscope. We run a lot of bio acids,

amino cytochemistry, so all of the big bio tools we use,

but I think environmental science and human health are

very much intertwined and that is one of the bigger

appeals to me of my project for my work.”


When did you learn you had a passion for environmental

science and human health?


“I don’t remember a specific instance where a lightbulb

went off and I said ‘Oh I love this.’ I do remember at a

young age having very good role models or I guess one

or two good science role models in my elementary school

and then also in high school. They never made me

question whether or not I could go into STEM. They more

so gave me a bunch of projects like the rest of the

students like science projects. They would make us look

at the typical leaf under a microscope or cell division

under a microscope. I remember looking at an onion root

or something under a microscope and painting it. The

painting came out really beautifully and I gave it to my

science teacher, Ms. Fisher which was kind of funny to

me because she loved to fish. I gave her the painting and

she told me that I would make a great scientist because I

paid attention to detail. I guess she was impressed by it.”


“ After that I kind of decided that I would look more into

cell biology. I enlisted into AP Biology. In that class, you

delved into cell biology, After that I realized I was good at

it. I really liked the material and so biology became sort of

my central focus or my central interest. That happened in

high school. I will say I grew up in Mexico. I grew up in a

beautiful tourist port, Puerto Vallarata. You should visit

one day if you can once the pandemic is over. Puerto

Vallarata is a tourist port, so I remember being fascinated

with marine life, but I feel like most kids are and I

remember going whale watching. At first, I wanted to be a

marine biologist, but then, at some point, my curiosity was

more so with things I could see through the microscope

and not macroscopically. Microscopic organisms are cells

and not macroscopically although I still love marine

animals.”


How has your identity/background played a role/ had an

influence in your career?


“ I am half Asian and half Mexican, so I call myself

Mexiasian. As an Asian minority which I just learned this

term we are a type of model minority, so the stereotype is

being smarter. However, being a woman is that you are

not as smart. I find that both stereotypes are not

pervasive in my life, but I found several instances where I

was assumed to be smarter than my peers because I was

Asian. In my opinion it is not just smarts, but also it is

dedication. I worked hard for all of my classes, none of

my classes were easy As. I always got picked to answer

questions first and it felt almost as if they thought I knew

the answer not because I was Asian, so this might be me

misconstruing things, but I also felt that they assumed I

was good at Chemistry or good at math or good at

Organic Chemistry because of a stereotype. Whenever I

would answer the question they were like ‘Yes!’,

‘Exactly!’, ‘Great job!’, but then my peers would answer

similar questions.”This might be me overthinking things

but I remember a situation where I answered a question

wrong and I was told, ‘Oh good job. That is okay.’ or ‘You

will be fine on the exam.’ or ‘You will do good on the quiz.’

It was a wrong answer which I guess is encouraging, but

then a peer of mine, he was a male, answered right, but

then the teacher who was also Hispanic said to him, ‘Oh

you will do better next time.’ It was a correct answer, but it

was not sufficiently correct. I do not know necessarily how

to take that whether I was Asian or a woman that he

assumed that I automatically was good or correct and my

peer wasn’t but that was one instance.”


“I will say that I had one situation recently within the last

couple of years where I was told that I had to start

thinking as a real scientist. That had never really

happened to me. I do not know if it was because this

professor is from a different generation not to make

excuses, but he is from a much older generation and if

you do not go by the hierarchy of academica and agree

with all of his suggestions he takes that as a sign of you

not being the right type of scientist or right type of

professional. I did not say anything at the time because I

kind of was taken aback, but I also did not know what to

say. I have been in grad school for three years, so maybe

I am not a real scientist. It kind of made me question

whether or not I was. He did apologize. I do not know if he

meant it to be offensive, but that is one thing I remember

distinctly and I think again that has more to do with the

stereotype that women aren’t as good scientists or can’t

balance work life.”


“I am also a step mom and I remember constantly being

asked by other girl grad students how I manage to do all

my work and also parent, but they do not ask the male

incoming grad students that are fathers how they

manage. It is micro. I do not let it bother me. Then again, I

do not think it is a pervasive thing in my life, but I am sure

that it is definitely still a problem especially in an

academic and university setting. Those are the three

examples I can think of of my background influencing

people’s perception of being as a scientist.”


What advice do you have for girls interested in environmental

toxicology and want to explore more on this field?

“I think the best piece of advice I received as an

undergrad going into STEM or deciding to major in

biology and biochemistry and do research in grad

school/as a career is by Dr. Dana Diana Dean. She is my

absolute favorite teacher of all times. She told me, ‘You

do not have to be the expert in the room or the smartest

person in the room, but you do have to be the person that

learns the most.’ I just thought that was just such a

beautiful expression of what science is because you are

never an expert at anything really, so feeling like you

need to be the expert at all times, always and in every

situation around people or in the room is just draining. A

lot of science, especially academia can be very ego

driven. She was just telling me not to compare myself to

other scientists and focus on furthering my development

and my learning because that is ultimately the goal of

science. The goal is to learn so that you can help others

and you can hopefully progress society or help a societal

need. My advice would be the exact same I got from Dr

Dean is to not be so hard on yourself and to not compare

yourself or strive to always be the best or the expert in the

room meaning don’t compare yourself, but always strive

to learn the most when possible. If you can apply that

mentality not just to STEM but to any career, I think a lot

of the heat that you feel from competition or from pride or

ego around you, you can just shake off and not let it move

you. Then, you can be much more spread headed and

focused on your journey and not on everyone elses’ and

feel much more peace because then you are not worried

about what people think of you whether it is a group of

people or a single person. You are not doing work for

people as in, you are not doing work to please people you

are doing the work because you care about fixing a

problem or care about the people you are trying to help,

not the people who are trying to judge you necessarily.”


Interviewed by: Zora Beaty

Graphic by: Smyrna Davalath




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