Three alumnae lead the way for minority women in science
In 1903, Marie Curie was the first woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize. More than a century later, women still struggle to achieve equality with men in the sciences. But women at UTSA are increasingly becoming involved in science both as students and as members of the faculty. Women represent half the student enrollment in the College of Sciences, and since 2005, there has been a 26 percent increase in the number of women on faculty.
One new recruit, Xomalin Peralta, became the first woman to join the tenure-track faculty in the Department of Physics and Astronomy in January 2009. She believes UTSA’s success depends on its ability to foster women’s interest in math and science. One of her goals in coming to UTSA was to lead by example. “Being female shouldn’t deter you from pursuing physics or anything else,” she says. “You have to strive for excellence.”
For three alumnae, the support of mentors and their own determination has led them to achieve firsts, and by doing so opened the door for future generations of successful women in science.
Annette Garza Meilandt
As an 8-year-old, Annette Garza Meilandt attended evening classes at a community college with her father. While he learned, she drew or did her homework. “His dedication to his class work made a huge impression on me. School became my No. 1 priority,” she says. Not only did she plan on going to college, she wanted to get the highest degree possible.
In 2005, she became the first Hispanic woman to receive a Ph.D. in neurobiology from UTSA.
Her first step was completing her undergraduate degree in biology, which she did in 1996 after balancing a full class schedule and a full-time job. During her first semester as a master’s student, Meilandt met Professor Brenda Claiborne, who suggested she apply for the Minority Biomedical Research Program, a student research training program. Within two semesters, Meilandt was working in Claiborne’s laboratory and enrolled in the doctoral program. Now a program manager at a radiology service company in the pharmaceutical industry in California, Meilandt manages a group of Alzheimer’s disease clinical studies.
“I don’t consider myself a pioneer for being the first Hispanic woman to obtain a doctoral degree in the neurobiology program at UTSA. There were many women just a few steps behind,” she says. “Which shows the need for more programs like it to encourage women to join.”
Growing up in the small farm community of Caldwell, Idaho, Micaela Vargas says her mom gave her two choices—work with your hands or work with your brain. Vargas chose her brain.
That choice led her to become the first Hispanic woman to receive a Ph.D. in the cellular and molecular biology program at UTSA in December 2009.
“I thank my mom for taking me out into the cornfield,” she says.
That cornfield is the last place one would expect to find an emerging young biologist, but it is exactly where Vargas, raised by a family of migrant farm workers, learned about the hard work that would get her through school. Her high school graduating class was fewer than 300 students, and the goal of pursuing a doctoral degree was far from the norm. Just leaving the town to attend college was a big accomplishment.
Just like the pursuit of education, science has been a part of Vargas’ life since early childhood. In fourth grade, she didn’t have expressed plans to become a scientist; she only knew that she liked to learn about how things worked. She researched how volcanoes erupted and built a classic clay model as a science project.
By the time she reached high school, her interests were focused on biology as she witnessed her grandmother battle breast cancer. “She didn’t know or understand much about the disease; she only had a second-grade education,” says Vargas. But her grandmother’s perseverance was an example of what could be accomplished with determination. Her grandmother won the battle with cancer, but passed away just months before Vargas’ doctoral graduation. Inspired by the family that raised her to dream big, she was pushed by her academic mentor to act on those dreams.
“It’s a love-hate relationship, but an important one,” she says of the student-mentor relationship. “It’s so important for your adviser to encourage you, to get mad at you at times.”
Vargas took a chance in choosing her mentor for graduate studies. Jilani Chaudry, assistant professor of biology and member of the South Texas Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases, was new to UTSA and had not even set up his laboratory when she decided to work with him. Vargas began working in Chaudry’s laboratory, studying two genes in human DNA that are important both to anthrax and cancer research. She studied the genes in both normal tissue and cancerous tissue, and her analysis revealed two new forms of the genes, one of which acts as a receptor for anthrax toxin. Both genes also contain proteins important for a crucial process in tumor development and many other diseases.
Vargas’ goals for the future? First she’ll complete a postdoctoral fellowship. Then she hopes to inspire younger generations of women to enter and excel at the sciences.
“It helps to brainwash the young ’uns,” she jokes. “I want to show them that if I can do it, they can do it.”
Less than a week before Kelly Nash began classes in the newly formed physics doctoral program at UTSA, Hurricane Katrina hit her hometown of New Orleans, and her tiny one-bedroom apartment in San Antonio was flooded with family.
“My biggest challenge during my doctoral studies was that first year,” Nash says. “It was difficult to balance my school work with a house full of family.”
But she did it. Family members eventually moved back to New Orleans, Nash moved forward in her studies, and in December 2009 she became the first black woman to receive a Ph.D. in physics at UTSA. “I have to thank Dr. Sardar for being so understanding that first year,” she says.
Dhiraj Sardar was Nash’s mentor and her incentive for joining the program in the first place. She learned about the new program while teaching a math education course at her alma mater, Dillard University. She applied only to UTSA’s new program and Louisiana State University, and had been accepted at both places. While searching for an apartment in Baton Rouge, Nash received a phone call from the department administrator at UTSA, assuring her that the program was going to be stellar.
Nash was familiar with Sardar’s publications, and after speaking with him, became excited about the possibilities at UTSA. “He’s unique in terms of professors here. Before the graduate program was established, he was doing research and publishing with undergraduates. That’s unheard of in academia,” she says.
Nash started working with Sardar from day one and eventually co-authored 19 publications with him.
In her research, Nash uses optics to characterize and learn about the structures of microscopic material such as polymers, thin films and nanomaterials. Using lasers, she examines the materials to learn how they are constructed, and how each can be used to address real-world physical and biomedical problems. Applications for her research range from healing wounds to devising cancer treatment.
She dedicated her dissertation to her biggest inspiration—her maternal grandfather. A Tuskegee Airman and a microbiologist, he is the one person, she says, who understands what she does. Nash spent childhood summers with him in his laboratory, marveling at all the technical equipment, and learning about constellations in the night sky.
In addition to her grandfather’s influence, Nash says, “I’m a direct product of the early 1990s initiatives to get kids involved in science,” she says, citing the federally funded Saturday Science Academy in which she conducted biological experiments, and the Radio Shack computer program where she was introduced to working with computers as a 5-year-old.
But despite all this exposure to science through family and outreach programs, it was the presence of female role models in high school that led her to pursue a career in science. “I wouldn’t be a physicist if it weren’t for seeing the nuns teach science,” Nash says. “The leap wasn’t so huge for me to believe I could do it, too.”
Teaching high school opened her eyes to the challenges faced by college professors. The question for her then became how to attract girls to science, particularly the physical sciences.
When Nash started graduate school she thought she would be working exclusively in physics and the other scientists would only work in their respective disciplines. She was wrong. “For a lot of the unanswered questions in science, an interdisciplinary approach is needed. I’ve had to do a little bit of everything. I’ve had to expand my knowledge of chemistry, and even my knowledge of biology.”
Now a newly appointed assistant professor in UTSA’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, Nash has an exciting year ahead of her. “I always wanted to teach and to do research, and I feel like this is a good place and an exciting time to be at UTSA.”
She encourages young women to think of themselves as leaders, pioneers taking a nontraditional road. “You should enjoy the fact that what you’re doing is a challenge,” she says. “You have to love everything—education and learning overall.”