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Neuroscientist selected to share professional experiences with Latin American colleagues

In 1991, Elba Serrano -- a neuroscientist -- arrived at New Mexico State University and found herself in an empty lab with $40,000 for start-up funds.

Neuroscientist Elba Serrano, middle right, is talking with several of her students in her neuro lab at New Mexico State University. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

Creating a neuroscience lab from the bottom up was not an easy task. It was overwhelming for Serrano.

"It was hard, very hard," Serrano said.

But with the help of dedicated and enthusiastic young students and several grants, Serrano developed a strong research program in neuroscience at New Mexico State.

For years of hard work and dedication, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has selected Serrano, an associate professor of biology, to be part of the AAAS International Lecture Series on Women in Science and Engineering.

The program, which is funded by the National Science Foundation, plans to showcase the achievements of distinguished U.S. women scientists to scientists, educators, students and policymakers in Latin America. The program selects women on the basis of their outstanding careers working in scientific fields traditionally dominated by men.

Serrano will be speaking at the annual meeting of the Brazilian Society for the Progress of Science July 13-18 in Recife, Brazil. Her plans also include a possible stop at the Universidade de Sao Paulo in Brazil.

"I think I'm more like an ambassador of what people can achieve," Serrano said. "I can't be recognized for my achievements without accepting recognition for those who have helped me, starting with my parents."

Serrano said everyone involved with her research and lab deserves recognition, but the people that deserve most of the credit are her students.

"The labor, the sweat and the tears are all NMSU students," she said.

One of the main reasons Serrano came to the university was because of the students.

"(I wanted) the opportunity to work with a diverse group of students who shared my cultural background in a setting where research and teaching are important," she stated in an essay to the AAAS. "I consider teaching and research to be irrevocably intertwined in academic life."

Serrano usually has 12 to 15 undergraduate and graduate students working and learning in her lab. The primary research activity in the lab focuses on the development and regeneration of the nervous system, with an emphasis on the sensory systems responsible for hearing and balance. Her research is funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and NASA.

"Research is teaching at NMSU," she said. "There are very few moments in the day that I don't teach. Science is an apprenticeship; students become scientists by working in a lab."

Serrano's time is not always spent in the lab looking through a high-tech microscope while wearing a white smock. She is also involved in the academic progress of her students.

Serrano has served as a research adviser to students in the Minority Biomedical Research Support program, the Minority Access to Research Careers program, the Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program, the New Mexico Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professoriate program and the New Mexico Space Grant Consortium. She participates in the University Honors Program, the Graduate Program in Molecular Biology, as well as outreach activities designed for K-12 students and the Dine Community Colleges on the Navajo reservation.

Serrano believes in motivating and offering incentives to her students. That is why she will be taking biology graduate student Shannon Manuelito with her.

"I thought her background and experiences would be a good match for this opportunity," she said.

Since her arrival, Serrano not only helped establish the first modern neuroscience laboratory at the university, but other neuroscience faculty have joined the department and the research infrastructure has improved dramatically.

She received her Ph.D. in biological sciences from Stanford University with an emphasis in neuroscience and biophysics. Her awards and honors include the Ford Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship in 1983 and the NMSU Donald C. Roush Award for Teaching Excellence in 1999. She has served as a panelist for the National Science Foundation and the NIH, and has been a visiting scientist at the Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris and at the University of Heidelberg in Germany.