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elba serrano

Elba Serrano, PhD

World culture has shaped much of who I am. I was born in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. My father was a career sergeant and Vietnam veteran in the US military, and we were posted to new assignments on a regular basis. By the age of 11, I had lived in Puerto Rico, Central America, and Taiwan. Layered over my nomadic military lifestyle is my family’s strong Hispanic culture. Being Puerto Rican has always been important to them. This respect and honor for my culture clashed deeply with how I was treated at school. I was a native Spanish speaker. Due to my accent, I was made fun of and, at times, even physically abused by other children. I also received insulting comments about the color of my family’s skin. These experiences created a lot of sadness and low self-esteem in me.
In later years, I lived in England, France, and Germany, and I have spent shorter periods of time in Mexico, Japan, Italy, and Brazil. I have always lived within multiple cultures surrounded by different languages, giving me a deep appreciation for the varied lifestyles and viewpoints of other nationalities. What I found by living in many diverse cultures is that there is a common human experience that transcends ethnicity.
Because we all share a common human experience, I recognize the importance of science in an international context. All knowledge is human; that’s what makes us all unified. Students read about a molecule or about the ocean whether they are in the Middle East or in South America. Humans from every nation have contributed to scientific knowledge. There are issues that affect the whole planet that need to be addressed by the international community. Some of the most important issues today pertain to health, energy, and water. The first issue, health, includes global epidemics like malaria, tuberculosis, HIV, and SARS. Contagious diseases are going to affect all of us whether they are in our country yet or not. The second issue, energy, is important in preserving our resources and environment. We need to look at clean energy like solar power versus polluting energy like gasoline. The third issue, clean water, is something we take for granted in this country, but many people die around the world because they don’t have access to clean water and sanitation. I believe every country has something to offer to help tackle these problems. Together we can create change.
Right now, I’m involved in international efforts/activities on the status of women in the world and the participation of women in science. Half of the human race is female, and we have a contribution to make in every area of scientific investigation. I have always worked in male dominated fields, and only a few of my colleagues have shared my Hispanic heritage. As a physics undergraduate at the University of Rochester, I was one of eighty students; only two were women, and I was the only minority. When I was at Stanford University for my Ph.D., I was the only woman out of eight to continue in science. Today, in the biology department at New Mexico State University, only four out of 19 tenure-track faculty are women. I am one of only two permanent women faculty members there. This is just an example from my workplace. However, around the world, women are not represented equally. In some cases, the inequality can be devastating. Women are poorer than men in our own country and around the world. Training women in the sciences ensures that women’s ideas about the direction of science are included in the questions we ask, but it also gives women a better life—you can make a good living as a scientist.
Through international dialogue on the status of women, I have learned that communication between countries and listening to the voices of the underprivileged are important. My research presently lies in the area of communication. I study the nervous system. The nervous system itself is about communication: its function is to give information to the brain about internal or external happenings. In particular, I am interested in the neural regeneration that can help restore hearing loss. Many people are born without hearing, and many lose it progressively through life due to a variety of causes. In my lab, we examine the sensory cells that are responsible for hearing. We hope to stop specific types of hearing loss through the repair and restoration of cells in the nervous system.
Science is a universal language that the whole world can use to communicate, from one nation or culture to the next. Science created a way for me to connect with others in the world, people of all different ethnicities. In this way, all of us from different nations and cultures can learn from and respect one another. For me, learning this universal language of science has helped me heal from the discrimination I faced as a child, and it holds tremendous potential to continue to break down barriers of oppression and hatred—to create a world without borders.