Biologist Paula Licona-Limón: My Scientific Journey Abroad

  • July 05, 2016
  • by Paula Licona-Limón

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It was always clear to me that I would work in a field related to biology. Both of my parents are physicians, and when I was young, my father and I once constructed a microscope. It was very primitive, but it worked.

My mother and father encouraged my siblings and me to try new things, to travel and learn about other places. They considered it part of our education, which is not a common view in the small town in Mexico where I grew up and where many young people never attend university.

That’s unfortunate—especially in Mexico, where a public university education is all but free. I received my Ph.D. in immunology from the National Autonomous University of Mexico at no cost. This is something I love about my country. Anyone who is willing to put in the energy and the effort has open access to an education.

I started working in a lab at the age of 17, and from the very beginning, my plan was to become a scientist. At the same time, I knew I would have to leave my country to continue my postdoctoral studies. In science, as in other professions, jobs are given to those best qualified. And I knew that if I wanted to be a principal investigator and run my own lab, I needed to finish my training abroad.

While growing up, I lived in Chiapas, the southernmost state in Mexico, so I’m not sure what I was thinking when I decided to move to New Haven in the middle of February. It was insanely cold and snowing. But I joined the lab of Dr. Richard Flavell at Yale University, brimming with energy and excitement, and immediately started working like crazy. I learned many new techniques, new approaches, and new ways of thinking about problems. The science made me forget about the weather and feel at home.

And so did the friends I made in the lab. In many ways, science has few borders. Anyone can learn about scientific advances by reading journals, no matter where they are. But spending every day with people from other countries further erases any divisions of nationality or culture, because we are all working toward a common purpose: searching for knowledge, for understanding.

In Richard’s lab, only two of the 25 or so postdocs were American. The others came from all over the world—China, Iran, Israel, Spain, Italy, Ireland, Austria, Germany, Belgium, Argentina, Poland, Colombia, Japan, Korea, and India. We all worked side by side in two big rooms.

Being with each other, all day long, we would talk not just about our science but about our families, our cultures, our countries, and our food as well. We discussed our religions and beliefs, and we learned how different people say “hi.”

The experience taught us tolerance and respect for different traditions—although when I learned that some cultures do not eat meat, I wanted to say, “How could your parents do that to you?”

Some of these colleagues remained in the United States. For me, that was never the plan. Just as I knew I needed to go somewhere else to expand my horizons and extend my training, I also knew I wanted to return home. When I first interviewed in Richard’s lab, I told him, “I’m only here for two years.” Two years became seven, but I was always sure that I wanted to come back to Mexico. Part of the reason was my family. For Mexicans, family is very important, and my family and I are especially close.

But I also wanted to return home to try to give back to my university and my country. They invested in me, and I owed it to them to bring back the new tools and technologies we could use to move our science forward. Now, in my studies of how parasites interact with the human immune system, I can use gene-editing technology like CRISPR to develop new transgenic models. Unfortunately, parasitic infections are still common in Mexico, so I have access to samples from patients. The good news is that this may allow me to move my research forward more quickly. This situation not only offers me a practical way to take advantage of my geographical location but could also allow me to implement what I’ve learned to directly benefit people in the region and in other parts of the developing world.

Now my sister, Ileana, is following in my footsteps. This year, she was awarded a Pew Latin American fellowship, and she will also travel to Yale, to work with Dr. Ruslan Medzhitov. Both of us are immunologists, and we decided that to get the best training possible, we had to move beyond the old ways of doing science and challenge ourselves to take advantage of the opportunities that are available away from home.

I know that, like me, she will choose to return to Mexico—to bring back new ideas, new approaches, and fresh perspectives—and that she will be able to share what she’s learned with everyone here so, together, we can continue to train future generations.