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College Beat

From Ceviche to Chowdah.

Recipe for a First-Generation Genome Engineer.

By Vanessa Yanez.
Cell, Molecular, and Developmental Biology Ph.D. student
Tufts University
B.S. Biomedical Engineering, 2012
Boston University

On a hot July weekend I am sitting in a brightly lit Boston University engineering building, a place so familiar to me from the many winter nights spent working on my engineering p-sets. The familiarity brings back many memories, including seemingly ancient ones of my journey through BU, from NJ where I started, to Boston the biotech hub, where I ended up.

I’m a first-generation Ecuadorian American. My mami came to the U.S. when she was pregnant with me, and settled and raised me in New Jersey with lots of help from my aunt and uncles. As a first-generation college student, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. All I knew was that I loved science and math, and that if I wanted a well-paying job in those fields, then I needed to graduate college. Nervously, I accepted the challenge.

In the Latinx community, especially among the older generations, moving away from your family for college is unheard of, even criticized. Nevertheless, with support from my aunt and uncle, I moved to Boston where I learned to be independent, resourceful, and open-minded. I started at Boston University in 2007 as a Biomedical Engineering major. I barely knew what that major encompassed. At a career panel during the Upward Bound program, I was intrigued and excited by the job description of a biomedical engineer at Johnson & Johnson.

The transition to college was tough because I was homesick, but I knew that I had to persevere if I wanted to build a life and career. I came from a city where I resembled the majority, but college was different: here, I was the minority. I floundered and tried to build a new foundation in a new environment. In my junior year, after taking a semester off, I realized that finding or creating a support network within BU was essential to my success. So I transformed myself from a new, fearful, and quiet novice, to a bolder, more vocal and engaged student who sought help and made new and supportive friends.

Vanessa presenting her author poster at the Tufts PREP Symposium.

Celebrating post senior thesis presentations with friends. (L-R) Evelyn Orozco, Vanessa, and Magie Galal.

Like any other senior, and being a first-generation college student, I was doubly unsure about my plans post-graduation. I vacillated between being gainfully employed and continuing my education. At BU, I had explored interdisciplinary research, and remembered feeling intrigued and interested in it as a long-term career. To gain more experience in research and position myself to apply to graduate school, I attended Tufts University’s preparatory Post Baccalaureate Research Program where I had the opportunity to work on translational research on wound healing in a supportive learning environment. I was happy that I made these choices, and eventually was admitted to the Tufts graduate program.

I am starting my fourth year as a Ph.D. candidate working on developing a CRISPR-based gene therapy to treat Retinitis Pigmentosa, an inherited retinal degenerative disease. Given my story, it is sometimes difficult for me to believe that I am a Tufts Ph.D. student working on project that could treat patients and change lives. I came from an urban high school, with science courses without a lab, but that neither stopped me nor diminished my curiosity. Instead, I pursued my goals like my mother said and pushed out of my comfort zone like my aunt prepared me to and that has made all the difference.

I’m a Latina, a woman of color in STEM, a first-generation college student/graduate student, a product of immigrant parents, and I intend to go farther and higher, wherever my dreams will take me.

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