Meet Alicia

2019 PhD in Molecular & Translational Medicine

Alicia is a proud San Antonio, TX native. For her undergraduate training, she traveled north to Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) and received her degree in Biomedical Sciences. She participated in a post-baccalaureate program at the University of Rochester, where she studied how HIV drives neurocognitive disorders in the brain via microglial activation. During this time, she knew she wanted to go into graduate school to continue her training. Alicia became part of the first cohort of the Program in Biomedical Sciences (PiBS). In 2019, Alicia defended her Ph.D. where she studied how pneumococcal molecules can impact host macrophage innate responses. 

Is there a person or experience that inspired you to go to graduate school?

It really felt like the right thing to do. As soon as I finished my undergrad experience I had some uncertainty – whether I wanted to become a doctor, if I wanted to perhaps become a scientist. I was a bit unsure, so I actually took one year off and gave some thought to my future endeavors. And I realized that I really needed to get my hands on a pipette. I was really clamoring to do that. I was feeling a bit unlike myself without that. So I did a post-bacc for one year, and that experience really was quite informative and allowed me to realize that I wanted to ultimately become a scientists

What drew you to BUSM?

There were many reasons behind my decisions. I consider myself quite a free spirit. I like to experience new things, new cities, new environments. The BU School of Medicine already had a wonderful Pulmonary Center established and my goal ultimately was to do lung research. That was propelled by the [fact] that my mother passed away from lung cancer, so I really wanted to some type of research with the lungs. Now at the same time, BU School of Medicine, and Boston itself, is quite accessible. There’s Interpreter Service, there’s quite a large deaf community. I knew that I wanted the science support but at the same time I knew I wanted accessibility with my deaf peers.

Can you tell us about your dissertation research and the development of your Atomic Hands project?

My PhD research focused on Streptococcus pneumoniae and it’s the cause of Bacterial Pneumonia. I studied specifically the signaling molecule and how that can affect the early inhibition of the macrophages.

In terms of “Atomic Hands”, it’s really my personal passion and I’m in this project with another deaf scientist by the name of Barbara Speaker. There were actually two goals establishing this project. The first being accessibility in the STEM field because in the greater community there isn’t a lot of access to sign language and American Sign Language materials. Very often deaf people prefer to access material in American Sign Language, their first language, and some folks don’t have a great proficiency in English. And so we really wanted to capitalize on those STEM scientists that are out there that we refer to as “STEMists”.

Secondly, we wanted to establish a deaf network with a variety of STEMists, scientists, technology, engineering and math specialists. And we wanted to show that we do, indeed, have these STEM specialist out there. Often people may think that there aren’t that many deaf folks in the field, but my PhD program really enlightened me to this idea of where my deaf peers are in the STEM field. There are scientists out there, but who are they? So, we established this relationship to collaborate with scientists and to support one another within this process – increasing network abilities. Perhaps I may want to find out about coding. I could then contact another STEM scientist, a STEMist, through Atomic Hands and make a connection with a coder. And then we could communicate in ASL, which is our first language, and it’s direct without the use of interpreters or someone in between to mediate that message. Now, at the same time, if a hearing person (a non-deaf person) wanted to work with diversity and equity and equality, they can look to their network and find a deaf person who they may invite to increase awareness of deaf STEMists that are in the field.

What is the most surprising thing you found out about yourself while in graduate school?

Well, I learned an awful lot. I think that I really have changed in terms of who I am personally. I’ve learned to not give up and to persevere. For example, this experience has really been quite a roller coaster ride, and there were some points where I was struggling pretty seriously as a scientist to connect with the people in my lab but, at the same time, looking for deaf friends and peers in the Boston area and how to balance those two. I felt ready, at times, to give up and at one point I almost didn’t continue with graduate school. I was contemplating dropping out. My PI left their position at the University so I was at a bit of odds with myself. Is this the right place for me? But then I realized that I do want to continue in this field. So I didn’t give up. I preserved here and here I am.

What are you doing next?

I’m moving to Washington, D.C. to become a tenure track Assistant Professor at Gallaudet University.

What will you miss most about Boston?

The community, people in my lab, those who have supported me thus far, as well as my friends that are in Boston proper. Both of those groups truly have inspired me to continue, to keep working hard in the field, to learn better, and I certainly will miss my lab members and my PI and my friends.

What are your interests outside of graduate school?

I’m very crafty. I really like to get my hands on different crafts. For example, painting, crocheting and a variety of different craft projects. I also like to hike, kind of. While I’m hiking I hate it, truth be told. But after and before, I love it. And I really do enjoy travel. I have a personal goal to try to travel somewhere new every year.

What advice would you give to an aspiring scientist, especially students with disabilities, to prepare for the first year of graduate school?

Don’t be afraid to ask for support, to ask for help. One thing I learned in this journey is that if you don’t ask for help then you won’t get the amount of support that you need, and that leads to struggle. The first few years that I was here on BU’s campus I struggled a lot to get Interpreter Services with accessibility in a variety of different situations. But, I didn’t tell anyone because I was worried that they may think that I was a burden or that they would regret accepting me into this program. And I learned a little bit too late that that’s actually not the case. If you’re struggling with anything, find some way to let someone know that you need support and let them know how they can help you because the people here are really all about help.

When you’re looking for a lab or a new PI, it is important to find a PI who cares about you, who care about what it is that you need. My original PI actually didn’t have much concern about ensuring my accessibility to interpreters and access. When I moved to a new lab, the PI that I was assigned was quite amazing and that person ensured that interpreters were always included, make sure that there was enough seats for them, and my lab was truly considerate of what I needed. If I didn’t have interpreters that day they would make sure that they sat in a semicircle so that I could access my team via reading lips. If it wasn’t for that PI I certainly would have struggled for access, so that’s an important piece – to find someone who cares and someone who’s willing to really figure out what works best for you and what doesn’t.


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