As a child, I was a collector. I roamed around our ranching community in New Mexico picking up rocks and thinking about how they formed earth. I collected insects in plastic baggies with my sister, putting them in the freezer to study how they survived winter. This endeavor drove my mother crazy. My father loved nature and took me and my four sisters out to watch all varieties of birds.
Mostly, I gathered knowledge, reading books about Marie Curie, Albert Einstein and other famous scientists to get a sense of who they were. There were no scientists in my immediate family, nor any scientists I knew who looked like me or shared my background. My parents valued hard work, my father was very analytical and my mother creative, but they weren’t given opportunities like higher education. We had no money for college and it was part of the culture to encourage young girls to grow up, get married and work with their husbands. I was aware at a very young age how badly the women in my community were struggling economically. They seemed stuck. I was determined that this would not be how my life turned out and that education was the key.
At the age of 18, I worked at an Air Force base and started college at the University of New Mexico (UNM) as an engineering major, but quickly realized it didn’t inspire me. A few biology courses reminded me of my love for living systems and I began working at a veterinary medicine clinic. I did well in my science courses and a professor named Dr. Trujillo invited me to join his lab and apply to graduate schools. Again, my family said I couldn’t leave the state because it would be too difficult financially. They did this out of love and to protect me, I knew, but I was steadily developing my independence and making my own choices.
I stayed at UNM and began graduate work, but about halfway through, I decided it was time to get out of New Mexico and get a postdoc out of state. My PhD mentor was the wonderful Dr. Maggie Werner-Washburne (former SACNAS President and Regents’ Professor Emeritus of Biology) who reminded me to stick with it when I was overwhelmed and told me I had a nose for good questions within biology. I followed my mentor’s advice and I completed my PhD in Biology at UNM. At the end of my PhD program, I got pregnant with my daughter.
Despite my family’s insistence that I stay in the state so that she would grow up around family, I applied for– and was awarded– a three-year National Science Foundation fellowship for a highly competitive postdoc at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Washington. The program was a perfect fit because they offered a fantastic preschool for employees. This helped me choose a prestigious program while caring for my family. In Seattle, I was surrounded by people at the top of their fields and I was pushed in my work to study suspended animation, hypometabolism, and oxygen deprivation.
My daughter’s father lived in Fort Worth, Texas, and it was important to me that she see him often. My mother also would not get on an airplane to visit me in Seattle, so once my postdoc was finished, I looked for a position near New Mexico or Fort Worth that would allow me to start my research lab, teach, and work with underrepresented minority students.
Taking the position at University of North Texas (UNT) has worked well. I have been able to build my research career here and teach a diverse student population. My daughter is thriving in college and my parents have begun to appreciate my decisions. When my students ask about balancing family and a STEM career, I tell them that if you love what you are doing, you prioritize, focus and make tough choices. For instance, I loved science and caring for my daughter, so that meant I went about a decade without seeing a movie! My daughter has sat in on my lectures when her school was closed and come to my lab when I didn’t have someone to watch her. My escape has always been running, so I would reconnect with nature in this way and have an occasional dinner with friends, but the truth is, when you’re raising a child independently and competing at the highest level of your field, you prioritize and make choices.
The important thing to remember with any challenge is that they are short-term. There is an end! Once I earned tenure and reached full professor at UNT, I had time to train and complete six half marathons, take on an administrative position that includes faculty mentoring and I continued to run my research lab. I am happily re-married and even found time to catch up on those movies I missed. I was also able to serve on the SACNAS Board of Directors, which was an amazing opportunity to to help lead the organization that has supported me throughout my education and career for the past 25 years—starting with my first poster presentation as an undergraduate student.
To those future scientists collecting rocks in their backyards and freezing specimens in your mother’s freezer, I say this: do not allow negative voices to dictate your path. Take in the advice you’re given decide what’s true for you, throw away the pieces that will deter you, and ultimately—realize that YOU are responsible for your own choices. YOU chart your own path.
Dr. Pamela Padilla is Vice President of Research and Innovation (interim), Associate Dean of Research and Graduate Studies, and Professor of Biological Sciences at University of North Texas.