Gabriela Salinas

1. First, can you tell us a bit about yourself and your career for those that may not be familiar?

My name is Gabby Salinas. I am a native Bolivian, but I have a deep love for Memphis. Currently, I am a graduate student in the lab of Dr. Kip Guy at the University of Kentucky. I am working towards a PhD in Pharmaceutical Sciences. My research focuses on developing new therapeutics for the treatment of drug resistant malaria. I am also interested in finding ways to reduce resistance through novel drug combinations.

 

2. So you had an amazing background before you became a scientist. Could you tell us about it?

My childhood was uncommon. I spent a lot of time at the hospital. My exposure to science came at an early age when I was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 7. I was fascinated by everything that was going on around me. I think children are naturally very curious and ask a lot of questions. The curiosity that children have is similar to the curiosity that people that pursue a career in science possess. When undergoing treatment, I wanted to know why everything was happening and how everything worked. Why were the nurses taking my blood? What are they looking for? How does the MRI machine work? What does it tell you? I am sure I annoyed my care team quite a bit. What is interesting about my journey is that I learned the applications of science before I learned the phenomena behind them. What we do as scientists, even basic scientists, have wider implications for our world. This realization was my gateway to academic science. I fell in love with learning and with science outside the classroom first: at the hospital. Then, like all of us who pursue careers in science, there was the classroom portion of my journey. In high school, I took as many science and math classes as possible, and I spent my summers participating in various science programs - very nerdy. For college, I went to Christian Brothers University because they had strong science and engineering departments. I ended up majoring in Biochemistry. If I could wave a magic wand and change how we teach science, I would make it so that we introduce kids to science through applications.

 

3. What gave you the courage/motivation to become a scientist? Did you have any fears? How did you overcome them?

There are two things that motivate me. The first one being that feeling you get when you run an experiment and process the data, that excitement. In my case, what is the parasite up to? We get to help make sense of the unknown, we get to help shape future therapies. I think that is so cool. The second, but most important, thing that motivates me are the implications of what I do. Resistance is a BIG problem in the treatment of malaria. Malaria kills about half a million kids under the age of five every year. World-wide, it is the single largest killer in pediatrics. The potential to… help change those numbers is a big motivator. It adds meaning to the science I do in the lab. I lost my sister Valentina when I was a child. I know what a family goes through when a child dies. Through science we help eliminate [the] majority of pediatric deaths.

Sure, I have fears about being in science. I think everyone has insecurities and varying degrees of imposter syndrome; I am no exception. There are not a lot of people that look like me in science. It is not hard to feel out of place, but I just try to focus on doing good science. I have also had wonderful mentors - good mentors make a big difference. I get a lot of courage from my mom and family. My mom is in a wheelchair, and I watched her raise four kids on her own after my father passed away. She instilled in my siblings and me that we can do anything we set our minds to, as long as we are willing to put in the work.

 

4. After science, you took a leadership role in politics. Could you tell us what motivated you to do so? Were there any surprises?

I am going to borrow a line from the Women's movement: the personal is political. I have a passion for policy because I know the impact it has on everyday people. I grew up in a world where pre-existing conditions were a major threat to health insurance and thus, health care. In many ways, this is still the case. I got involved in the policy-making process because I wanted to change health care policy. As a 3-time cancer survivor, health care is a personal issue for me, but there are millions of people that are in my situation. It may not be cancer but another pre-existing condition. The citizens of our country deserve to have policies that work. When 1/3 of bankruptcies are due to medical bills of insured individuals, we a have system that is not in favor of people. Something has to change.

My biggest surprise was how easy it was to get involved, and also how little policy makers know about how the laws they pass affect everyday people, especially at the state level. We need people from all backgrounds writing our laws, so pick an issue that you are passionate about and get involved. Follow the laws that are being introduced and visit your elected officials, and let them know that you are paying attention.

 

5. You have a diverse background particularly in leadership and science. What advice do you have about improving diversity in the STEMs?

We need more diversity in positions of leadership. I am going to borrow a line from the disability movement: nothing about us without us. A lot of the time, diversity initiatives are led by people that do not represent minority communities. When this happens, those efforts are typically unsuccessful because they lack perspective. When I was younger, I didn't really understand the importance of visibility and identity. I always thought, does it matter? I just want to do good science. As I have gotten older, I have come to realize that identity and visibility matter because they challenge stereotypes and biases. I am a proud disabled Latina in STEM!

 

6. What one word describes you best?

Resilient, it comes in handy in science!

 

7. What message do you have for millennials who may be interested in both STEMs and politics?

Get involved, we have so much work to do and we need your help and ideas to solve the problems we are facing. Pick an issue that is important to you and get involved. Policy matters. We are in a profession that is highly affected by policy, yet we lack representation in politics. At the federal level, there is only one elected scientist. And at the state level, I think there are four. We need to change that. You can do it. There are lots of skills that you develop as part of your training that can be translated to politics. Our community will benefit from your talents!

 

8. If you were a mentor to kids (K - 12) in STEMS, what would you tell them about accomplishing their dreams?

You can do anything you set your mind to, as long as you are willing to put in the work. Pursuing a career in science is hard. There are a lot of disappointments along the way, but what we get to do is a privilege, and it is worth it.

 

9. Outside of STEM and politics, what do you like to do in your spare time?

I don't have much spare time at the moment, but when I have free time, I love going to the theater and visiting my family in Bolivia. One thing that I think is important for longevity in science is work-life balance., so I try to make time to catch a show as often as possible.

 

10. Who/What has been your greatest life inspiration and how?

I am inspired by mom. She is a paraplegic that raised four kids on her own after our father passed away. She is strong, resourceful, and smart. I am also inspired by the malaria parasite. Here is a single cell organism that has been around for millions of years and has found ways to survive under all types of conditions - it is mesmerizing. How does it do it? I hope my mom does not feel offended to be mentioned in parallel with a parasite. Haha.