Name: José Abraham Villegas, PhD.
Occupation: Bridge to the Faculty Postdoctoral Research Associate, Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences, University of Illinois at Chicago
About Me: I’m a first-generation college student who grew up in the heavily immigrant community of Santa Ana, California. I was lucky to have both a great physics teacher and a great chemistry teacher in high school, and with their help I managed to go on to study Biochemistry at the University of California, Santa Barbara. However, during my time in college, I didn’t feel like I could connect with the scientific community on campus. I felt very intimidated in an environment where there were almost no people of color, and I never felt comfortable asking professors for help or asking to work in a research laboratory. I ended up feeling isolated and disillusioned with the idea of science as a career.
I felt like I should be out in the world making a difference in people’s lives, rather than being stuck in a lab doing esoteric experiments. After college, I decided to start a career in environmental toxicology, given that I already had a science degree. I moved to New York City and found a job working as an Environmental Risk Assessor for the Lead Poisoning Prevention Program of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Lead poisoning is a public health problem that predominately affects Black and Hispanic children from low socio-economic backgrounds, and leads to developmental problems, low academic achievement, and higher incarceration rates. When a child was identified as being lead poisoned, my job was to visit their home and educate the family about the mechanisms and dangers of lead poisoning, and to perform a thorough inspection to identify sources of lead exposure.
Treatment for lead poisoning involves the administration of a chelating agent, which is non-specific towards metals and therefore has unintended side-effects. I became interested in the idea of finding better ways to separate metals and perhaps develop better therapeutics. This lead me back to academia to pursue a Master’s Degree in Chemistry at Brooklyn College under the supervision of Prof. Brian Gibney, who works on the design of metal-binding proteins. Prof. Gibney was a central figure in my scientific journey, and it was thanks to his mentorship that I went on to pursue a doctoral degree. He walked me through every step of the application process, and helped me to decide to which schools to apply and what advisors to consider. I never could have imagined that I would end up being accepted to a top doctoral program at the University of Pennsylvania.
About My Work: In my work, I use computer models to try to understand how biological molecules behave, and to design new types of molecules with the help of computational tools. For example, one of my projects involves trying to understand how a certain environmental toxin commonly found in plastics interacts with human cells. To do so, I construct computational models of the proteins in the cell that are known to be affected by the toxin, and use these models to study how the toxin and the proteins might be interacting at the atomic level. This work helps us to build hypotheses of about the mechanism of toxicity, which can then be tested in the laboratory. The knowledge that is gained from this work will enable the creation of more environmentally friendly materials.
Another field that I’m interested in is the design of self-assembling biomaterials. This is an area of research that is inspired by the way that living things grow and heal. Living matter is made up a complex assortment of biomolecules, that self-organize to give rise to intricate structures that are constantly changing. Scientists have learned a great deal about how these processes work at the molecular level, by studying how the smallest components of the cell interact with one another to build what are called “supra-molecular structures.” For example, I have studied an iron-storage protein called Ferritin, which forms nanoscopic spherical shells that fill up with iron.
The lessons learned from studying these types of molecules has led scientist to ask, “Could we design molecules that self-organize in the same way, and could we build useful things out of them?” We can imagine molecular size nano-bots that could deliver drugs to part of the body that need them, or that help to repair damaged tissues. Or we can imagine making advanced materials with self-healing properties. What if you could have a cell phone that, if you dropped and broke the screen, would automatically repair itself? In order to engineer these types of materials, we use computers to build models and carry out simulations, the same way that an engineer would do to design a bridge or an airplane. Except the models we build are made to predict how matter behaves down to the molecular level.
We obviously have much to learn about how living things self-assemble, and a we have long way to go before we can build materials with life-like properties, but this is where the excitement of science lies! My favorite part of being a scientist is being part of a global community of people all doing their part to advance human knowledge. Meeting other scientists and learning about the advances they’ve made, and having other scientist take an interest in your own work, is a highly rewarding experience.
Advice About Entering the Field: I cannot stress this enough, if you want to become a scientist, you need to find good mentors! Science is not one of those fields where you can simply work hard at your job and keep climbing up the ladder. The whole system is built on the mentorship model. This means that you need to find a person, or persons, who will take you under their wing and take an interest in your career. While this might seem like a lot to ask of any particular person, this is the way every scientist has been trained. Every scientist knows that their job is not only to carry out research, but to mentor the next generation. So don’t be afraid to ask. Here are a few tips on finding a good mentor.
- Do your research. Make sure you find people who are doing work that you can get excited about. Read their research papers from early in their career so you can get a sense of how they have grown as a scientist. Also, read some of the papers from their own mentors, and their mentor’s mentors, to get a sense of what kind knowledge has been passed down to them.
- Have conversations with as many potential mentors as possible. You want to find someone who is a good fit with your personally type, and who will take a genuine interest in mentoring you.
- Talk to current students. Find out what that person’s mentorship style is like, and whether that style would be a good fit for you. Some mentors are more managerial, meaning that they will tell you exactly what to do and how to do it. Some mentors are more hands off, and they might give you free rein on trying out your own ideas how to do things. It all depends on what mentoring style you are most comfortable with.
- If possible, talk to former students. Find out what kind of positions former students went on to get, and how their mentors helped them to get to where they are. Try to look for mentors who have helped student achieve the kinds of things you want to achieve.
- Get involved. The best way to find good mentorship is to become a part of the community. Do summer research projects, attend poster sessions and conferences, attend lectures and lunches with guest speakers. Don’t be afraid to venture outside of your own university. Find out what’s kind of events are happing in your area.
Brooklyn College faculty have a great track record of excellent mentorship. You can feel confident that no matter what your careers goals are, you will find the people who can help you get there.