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RISE program at NMSU aims to expand minority participation in STEM fields

Women don?t belong in science. That?s what Lydia Villa-Komaroff was told growing up. She didn?t listen. Villa-Komaroff, who grew up in Santa Fe, was among the first Mexican-American women to complete a doctorate in cell biology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She?s also a scientist who made critical breakthroughs in diabetes research. This month, she joined other well-known researchers to encourage hundreds of students at New Mexico State University to pursue careers in STEM fields.

Lydia Villa-Komaroff was among the first Mexican-American women to complete a doctorate in cell biology in the U.S. She was the leadership guest speaker at this year?s Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement (RISE) Startup Symposia. (Submitted photo)

?Minority women face a double bind (in STEM careers). We can?t afford to lose that talent any longer,? Villa-Komaroff said. She was the leadership speaker at this year?s Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement (RISE) Startup Symposia. The two-day event included presentations on ?How biomedical research is improving human health? and ?Manifold career paths in science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines.?

Developed by the National Institutes of Health, Minority Biomedical Research Support-RISE is designed to ?increase the capacity of students underrepresented in the biomedical and behavioral sciences to complete Ph.D. degrees in these fields,? according to the National Institute of Health website. The NMSU RISE program was recently renewed for $4 million for the next five years.

?These programs and events are critically important,? said Villa-Komaroff, who is the chief scientific officer and board member at Cytonome. ?Students get to see other people who are at various stages of development in their work. There is a sense of rigor. It allows students to see how that applies in larger settings.?

Other speakers featured at the symposium were Yarimar Carrasquillo of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, Peter Winter of the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, Adina Roskies of Dartmouth College?s Department of Philosophy and Richard Cuellar of CymoGen, DX. Speakers presented their own research and discussed their careers in STEM fields.

?It?s very satisfying to ask a question that hasn?t been answered, and then to be the first person to answer that question; to truly know something that no one else knows and to publish that knowledge and inform the community,? Winter said.

?I thoroughly enjoy that. I like that our work does have benefits to other people. We?re part of a community that aims to improve people?s outcomes ? curing diseases, reducing suffering. That makes me feel good.?

Through the RISE program, graduate students participate in workshops, scientific conferences, research seminars, career planning and research internships at partner institutions. Students learn leadership skills by serving as session chairs and providing support for the annual symposia sponsored by RISE and organized by RISE STARTUP co-leader Kathryn Hanley. They also conduct dissertation research under the supervision of RISE faculty mentors, and participate in workshop activities organized by NMSU College of Arts and Sciences faculty program directors Shelley Lusetti, chemistry and biochemistry; Elba Serrano, biology; and Graciela Unguez, biology.

?Over 300 NMSU undergraduate and graduate students have conducted research with RISE faculty mentors since program inception in 2000,? Serrano said. ?Sixty NMSU RISE students already have earned Ph.D.s and another 33 are in Ph.D. programs. This level of achievement is possible because of the exceptional scientific talent we can find among our NMSU students.?

?We brought in speakers from government, industry and academia to offer lively seminars on topics ranging from the mechanisms by which pain is perceived to neuroethics to technological advances in high-resolution imaging of cellular processes to the biology of prostrate cancer,? said Hanley, biology associate professor in the College of Arts and Sciences. ?We hope students gain an appreciation for the diversity of biomedical research, and that they will come away with a clearer sense of their own career goals.?

The symposium also included a showcase of RISE faculty mentors Mary Alice Scott, anthropology; Omar Holguin, plant and environmental sciences; and Erik Yukl, chemistry and biochemistry.

?This is a very talented group,? Villa-Komaroff said. ?The students that are here are extraordinary. They have extremely good mentoring. The programs are well developed and they?re meant to encourage these students, develop their talents, and provide them with the skillset they need.?

Villa-Komaroff offered some advice to students going through the demanding program: stick with it.

?Don?t worry if you get discouraged, because you will ? that?s part of life,? she said. ?It?s not an easy road, but no road is, so you really have to pick something you love. No matter what road you pick, there will be bumps. And don?t let people define success for you.?