Dr. Semarhy Quinones-Soto – Microbiologist

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What do you enjoy the most about your STEM career/field?

I love my job! Currently, I am a Lecturer in the department of Biological Sciences at Sacramento State. I also serve as the Associate Director for the CSU-LSAMP Statewide, and I serve as the Research Coordinator for the Science Educational Equity Program. I am also the faculty advisor for the SACNAS Chapter at Sacramento State. Every day, I get to work with students (inside and outside the classroom) and that is the most rewarding aspect of my job. I am fully committed to promoting activities and opportunities for underrepresented students in the STEM fields.

What obstacles have you overcome in your career/college journey?

 While I am not the first member of my family to attend college, I am the first (and only) member to pursue and receive a PhD degree. After completing my BS in Microbiology, I moved to California to pursue a PhD in Microbiology at UC Davis. Up to this point, my life had been relatively easy going. I had emotional and financial support of my parents. And, I had lots of friends in Puerto Rico. Friends I grew up with since I was 5 years old. In order to pursue my graduate degree, I had to leave behind everything I knew and go venture on my own in unknown territory.

For the first time in my life, I was facing difficult challenges with little support. I was homesick. I had never lived away from my family and I missed their comfort. The culture shock (while expected) hit me hard. I could not find my favorite foods on the local stores. My mom mailed me “care packages” with some of my Puerto Rican favorites, like coffee and cooking condiments. Most of the time I felt lonely. I did meet wonderful people throughout my graduate years, but there were times where I would go several days without talking to another person. On top of my personal life changes, now I had to attend science classes taught in English. Although I was fluent in English, my entire education had been in Spanish. Taking science classes in English was like learning a third language, and I still had to learn the course contents. I found myself taking blind notes in the classroom, translating my notes at home and re-learning the terms in order to understand the lecture objectives. Luckily, I quickly learned the English scientific terms and I was able to communicate my thoughts with ease by the end of my first year as a graduate student.

Graduate school was not easy. One week’s lecture in graduate school seemed to cover the content learned over an entire semester of a similar course at the undergraduate level. This meant, classes were fast-paced and I had to do a lot of self-teaching at home. A big part of pursuing a PhD degree is to work full time as a researcher on an independent project directed to write a thesis at the end of your graduate education. I had numerous failed experiments, which made me question my career choice every day.   But no matter how bad things were, I always said to myself “just give it one more day”. This was my motto until my last day as a graduate student.

What is your chosen STEM field?

I am a microbiologist. I use bacteria as model organisms to understand how cells adapt when grown under prolonged stressful environments. When a cell is exposed to prolonged stressful conditions (selection), it acquires genetic changes (adaptive mutations) that alleviate the effects of stress. These adaptive mutations are responsible for the development of new genes and novel phenotypes within a species, such as multi-antibiotic resistance strains, the avoidance of pathogens to host’s defenses, and the acquisition of new metabolic functions. In general, genetic adaptation is central to many aspects of life, including the progress of infectious diseases and development of cancer.

Why did you choose this field?

I am from Humacao, a medium-size city on the southeast coast of the Spanish-speaking island of Puerto Rico. I lived in Humacao until I was 23 years old when I moved to California to pursue a graduate degree in microbiology. While I was growing up, both my parents had a huge influence on my development as a biologist, although they did in different ways.

My father loved exploring local marine life. From a very early age, he would take me snorkeling and taught me about the diverse and fragile marine ecology. This is where I learned about various life forms, such as sea urchins, tropical fish and starfish, and the habitats they call home. Through my father, I gained my deep respect and appreciation for zoology and biodiversity.

My mother worked at the University of Puerto Rico, Humacao (UPRH). She taught biology lectures and prepared materials for several microbiology lab courses. Preparing the materials for a microbiology lab takes a lot of care. Since the labs use specific microbes, like E. coli and Salmonella, she must make certain everything is clean from contaminants (other bacteria and fungi). In addition, she must be cautious when handling bacteria to avoid contaminating herself and others. My mother taught me how to properly work in a microbiology lab. Every afternoon after school, I would help her prepare the media (food) to grow bacteria, I would organize the tools the undergraduate students would use in their courses and I would help clean the materials. These lab experiences led me to pursue a degree in Microbiology.

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