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Carmen Aguilar, PhD

Growing up in Mexico City, I was surrounded by the enticing world of music, art, museums, and movies. But my family and I also explored the natural side of the city, discovering different parks, lakes, and rivers in and around the area.
My father worked in the electronics business and had to travel a lot, so we often went with him, including many wonderful trips to Acapulco. We’d always spend time at the seashore, looking at all the marine life, and enjoying the beauty of the land. At home, I had a chemistry set that included a microscope. I put everything I could under that lens—onions, bird wings, starfish I found at the beach.
I was insatiably curious—the kind of student who asks 50,000 questions. In high school I had a wonderful biology teacher who patiently put up with me and my questions about why this and why that. Finally, one day my teacher said, “If you really like biology and chemistry so much, why don’t I take you to one of the classes at the university?” I was so excited! I went with her to an animal physiology class at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) in Mexico City, which was a completely different world from high school. That is the day when I decided to go to university. I chose UNAM because it was one of the only schools at the time in Mexico that offered biology.
The first semester of college was very challenging. I had to work to support myself through school, so I taught English classes to kindergartners. But I was extremely determined. I was the first one in my family to get a college degree and everyone was always supportive.
I grew up in a very close family, surrounded by parents, two younger brothers, and a large extended family. I lost my mother when I was only 14 years old and it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever been through. Being with just my father and brothers felt lonely at times, but I had really close friends who helped me throughout. I had to grow up pretty fast, but I dealt with it by doing a lot of extracurricular classes, like studying the French language and Hawaiian dancing.
In addition to family support, my mentors encouraged me. Antonio Lazcano and Lynn Margulis transformed my life. Lynn used to tell me, “You have to apply for this course!” In doubt, I would respond, “I don’t know if I am going to be accepted.” Then she said something to me that I will never forget: “If you don’t apply, how will you ever get in?” My conversation with Lynn has now become my motto with my own students: “If you do not apply, you cannot get in!”
I stayed on at UNAM and got a master’s degree in biology. By then I was teaching college-level classes to support myself, but I also sold cheesecakes and chocolate cakes to make money on the side. So it really “took the cake” to get my master’s degree!
I knew that I wanted to expand my research for my PhD work and I was looking at interdisciplinary sciences, such as biogeochemistry, in which the study of biology, geology, and chemistry come together so the scientist can understand the interactions of different elemental cycles. I went to a lecture given by Ken Nealson, who was then at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. I was so inspired by his talk on biogeochemistry and bioluminescence that I went up to him afterward, told him I wanted to work in his lab, and he told me to apply. Later, Dr. Nealson called to tell me that I could study with him, but he was moving to the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee.
Going to Wisconsin for my PhD was one of the hardest things I have ever done. I had to leave everything behind. I packed my suitcase and off I went. I arrived in Milwaukee on a very cold day in winter; it was pretty crazy and shocking. Everything was completely different to me—the weather, the language, the social structure, the way people ate, the way people related to each other. I spoke English, but I was not really fluent. That first year I almost quit, but I am not a quitter, so I pushed on (with the help of my advisor and my best friend, Cecilia). By the time I got my PhD, I had become very proficient in English, biogeochemistry, and American culture!
After obtaining my PhD working on the biogeochemistry of manganese in Oneida Lake, New York, I was a postdoctoral fellow in two different laboratories: the Carnegie Institution of Washington, D.C., and the Institute of Marine Science(University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill). The aim of the research was to study the effects of atmospheric deposition (rain) in the open ocean and I even had the opportunity to experience a hurricane while at sea!
Now I am an associate scientist at the Great Lakes WATER Institute at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. I still work in the fields of biogeochemistry and microbiology, looking at the interaction of microbes and their environment. I currently work on the effects of invasive species, like zebra and quagga mussels, on the food web, particularly phytoplankton in Lake Michigan. I investigate how they are colonizing different areas and what effect it has on the local aquatic environments. Furthermore, we have been investigating the changes in Lake Michigan due to climate change, the impacts of which are felt at fisheries and primary production.
I love my job because I get to do so many different things. I have had the opportunity to work in the Sargasso Sea, Guaymas Basin in the Gulf of California, Yellowstone Lake in Wyoming, and Lake Michigan. Some days I am in the laboratory analyzing samples or looking under the microscope, while other days I am out in the field. We often take our research vessel Neeskay (which means “pure, clean water” in Ho-Chunk language) out on Lake Michigan to collect water, animals, and sediment cores to take back to the lab. I am very passionate about my job, because I am getting to do all the things I loved to do while I was growing up, but now I get paid for it! The best thing is to study hard, learn your English and math, and don’t give up on your dreams!