Case Study: Ana

My name is Ana, and I am a Hispanic woman in a STEM field. I was born in El Paso, TX but raised in Cd. Juarez, Mexico. I graduated from the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) with a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry and a master’s degree in chemistry. I started my Ph.D. in environmental engineering in August 2016 at Arizona State University (ASU) and joined Dr. François Perreault’s research group. Our research focuses on the application of nanotechnology for water treatment. Particularly, my current research aims to understand the safety and sustainability of carbon nanomaterials for environmental applications.

I am passionate about conducting research to find original and innovative technologies that have promising applications to solve and counteract the environmental difficulties we face as a growing society. I would also like to focus in the developing field of nanotechnology and expand our understanding, improve existing technologies, and advance new methods and practices in water treatment facilities.

I joined ASU with two main objectives: 1) Join Dr. Perreault’s group and develop further understanding regarding the interactions of nanomaterials with living organisms and 2) Join the Nano-Enabled Water Treatment (NEWT) ERC to collaborate with experts in the nanotechnology field across multiple universities. It all started when I was a master’s student in Texas, where my advisor Dr. Jorge Gardea-Torresdey mentioned that he was collaborating with professors around the country to create an ERC that would deal with nanotechnologies to treat water. This immediately caught my attention, and I wanted to be a part of it. Although my research at the time focused on the effects of metal oxide nanoparticles in edible plants, I thought NEWT would be a great place for me to learn about new applications of nanotechnology.

UTEP, ASU, Rice University, and Yale University are all part of NEWT. Learning about how an ERC is created, and witnessing the collaborative work that happens across schools, certainly motivated me to attend ASU and pursue a degree different from what I had a background in. Once at ASU, Dr. Perreault encouraged me to participate in NEWT meetings and events even at an early stage in my degree. These opportunities allowed me to become very familiar with the center, its mission, its research goals, its diverse and inclusive culture, and most importantly, the fellow students, faculty, and researchers that were a part of it. I have been involved in the Student Leadership Council since my first year, and I served as the vice president, the president, and eventually the treasurer throughout my graduate studies. Additionally, I got to collaborate in projects with NEWT members from all schools. I focused on the safe design of nanomaterials for the environment and I received a great amount of support and feedback from researchers who are experts in the field.

I work in Dr. Francois Perreault’s lab. My research focuses on the structure-function relationships of nanomaterials (NMs) and some of their applications in environmental engineering. The overall goal is to investigate NMs of different surface chemistries and assess their interactions with biological models, evaluate the weathering impact and degradation parameters to improve polymer coatings, test their efficiency for contaminant removal and provide further understanding in the safe design of nanomaterials. I work with graphene oxide (GO) and its derivatives like graphene or reduced GO and assess how changes in GO’s surface chemistry alters its interactions with multiple organisms like bacteria, algae, cyanobacteria and invertebrates.

Another project, more closely related to the water treatment area, uses GO by itself or as a composite for pollutant removal, biofouling reduction, and as an antimicrobial agent. Like GO, silver (Ag) is another NM widely used in water treatment for its biocidal properties. Despite the recent growth in this field, fundamental understanding of the function-structure relationships in NMs is still progressing. Through a systematic set of experiments, the structure-properties-function and structure-properties-hazard relationships were investigated. These relationships can be used to establish guidelines to engineer “safe-by-design” functional nanomaterials, where materials are tailored to enhance their function while minimizing their inherent biological or environmental hazard.

Since I started doing research, even as an undergraduate, I have been learning continuously about nanomaterials, how to detect, characterize, and apply them in different fields. What has been very interesting to me is that no matter how much you think you know a material, there is always a new application for it, or a new way to improve it or change it for it. I have learned that research is definitely a collaborative effort. We need multiple people’s input and support even in the simplest of tasks. In this aspect, I have learned that it is always to one’s benefit to have the feedback of your teammates and collaborators because it always yields better results than when you are doing the work yourself. Something as simple as discussing a chart to best represent one’s data or getting advice as to how to design an experiment turns out to be better when you seek help from other people in the field.

Throughout the years as a researcher I have learned that you never stop learning. The key is to remain curious and to keep asking questions because sometimes those questions can give very interesting answers. I have also learned that one has to be perseverant and organized. Projects don’t always work out as one expected and we just have to keep trying. Research is a thing of trial and error. One might have an idea or a hypothesis about what might happen but sometimes we don’t get the expected results, and that is okay. I have also learned to be flexible, patient, and to communicate better. These are all traits that I think are important in any environment, in research though, they help you delegate tasks better, understand other people better and overall, easier to work with.

There are several pieces of advice I would give to other students from underrepresented groups. First, I would encourage students to take advantage of all the opportunities presented throughout their studies. Apply for scholarships or internships, and even if the first or second attempt does not work, keep trying. Sometimes applications can be long and time consuming, however, you have more chances of getting a scholarship or any position if you apply but zero chances of getting it than if you do not apply.

Secondly, students need to make sure they talk to people. You can meet very interesting people throughout your career that can have a huge impact in your life. Talk to someone who you admire, to someone who’s job seems interesting, to someone who is following a similar career path as yours. Do not hesitate to ask how they got there and what they have done to achieve success (professional, personal). My advisor, Dr. Francois Perreault, was instrumental for my success while in graduate school. He always pushed me to do better and to reach goals I never thought were possible.

Finally, get involved with your community. Participating in outreach activities and student organizations has helped me strengthen my knowledge and delineate my interests. Additionally, professional development events and participating in conferences has helped me be a part of a big network of young professionals and scientists that have become collaborators throughout my studies.

For leaders who want to welcome individuals from underrepresented groups and ensure their full inclusion, they should follow the following tips:

  • Be patient. Oftentimes, we did not grow up in the same environment or under the same conditions than them. We might even speak a different language, so be patient with us when we are asking questions or need more time to understand something.
  • Do not assume things. At least in my case (as I am sure it is the case for most underrepresented individuals), I enjoy explaining things about my upbringing and my culture, traditions, food, and any other aspect that might be different from others.
  • Include us in your discussions, projects, collaborations. Do not discriminate on a basis of gender or ethnicity but also don’t “pick” us whenever it is convenient just because we fit a certain profile.
  • Help us improve/grow. We want the same opportunities as everyone else. In my case, I often feel insecure about my accent or the way I write. Please help us by correcting us or guiding us.

Lastly, my advice for engineering faculty who might have students from underrepresented groups in their classes and labs are as follows:

  • Provide an inclusive work environment. Make us feel welcome by including us in different discussions, group projects, showing us around the lab, etc.
  • Do not make comments regarding a particular person. Oftentimes, as the only minority in a group, it is difficult when others say things about one’s culture or traditions. Ensure that everyone embraces the differences amongst individuals.
  • Help us improve/grow. We want the same opportunities as everyone else. In my case, I often feel insecure about my accent or the way I write. Please help us by correcting us or guiding us.