Impromptu: Verónica Segarra
Verónica Segarra, Ph.D., started at Goucher College in Fall 2022 and is an associate professor and the Endowed Chair in Biological Sciences, Biochemistry, and Molecular Biology.
By Molly Englund
What sparked your love of science?
Good teachers and good courses. My mom remembers me coming home from elementary school announcing that I knew what I wanted to do when I grew up: I wanted to be one of those people that do experiments and wear lab coats. I was lucky to have inspiring teachers who engaged us with experiments. Years later, in college, I took a lab course that was all about learning how to use an electron microscope, essentially a microscope that’s really fancy and uses a beam of electrons to illuminate the sample you’re viewing at a very high level of detail. I really enjoyed it.
Could you tell me about your academic journey?
I was born and raised in Puerto Rico, and I was lucky to have inspiring teachers during that formative period of elementary and middle school.
I really enjoyed biology and chemistry. I did my first year of college in Puerto Rico at one of the University of Puerto Rico campuses that is well known for its STEM engineering majors. I had a blast.
I later decided to transfer to the University of Miami. It was interesting; I went from thinking about science in Spanish to thinking about it in English. That was a tough transition for someone who’s training to be a scientist, but I was able to overcome it.
UMiami is a big university, and I started meeting people through doing research with professors. I remember taking physical chemistry; it was a small class, and I really enjoyed the one-on-one interactions with the professor. Even though I was at a big institution, I tried to carve out spaces where I could train as a scientist in smaller communities that allowed for more personalized and meaningful interactions.
I majored in biochemistry and molecular biology with a double major in chemistry. I then went to graduate school at Yale to pursue a Ph.D. in biophysics and biochemistry. It was very different. I had always been a child of the tropics—Puerto Rico, Miami. I became used to the idea that people in STEM academia don’t always look like me or have a similar background. I had a great time at grad school and learned to meet new challenges with positivity and gumption.
I trained in a unique lab that allowed me to pursue an interest in membrane proteins and to look for opportunities to define what I wanted to do for a living. I continued to enjoy working around people who care about teaching and inspire others to be happy scientists.
I finished my Ph.D. and went back to UMiami, this time to the medical school to do a postdoc. I used my postdoc to beef up my biology side to complement the biophysics training I had just received. I spent five or six years there and enjoyed working at the bench, but I really enjoyed having the opportunity to teach undergraduates.
A time came when I felt that I had contributed everything I could to that community as a postdoc, and I started looking forward to the next step. A search for faculty positions at primarily undergraduate institutions landed me at High Point University, in North Carolina. There I had such a constant stream of multitalented research students, who helped me get my lab off the ground. My career there was really productive, and my students were instrumental in designing and leading science outreach events in the community.
I had spent seven years at High Point University when I saw an opportunity for a unique position at Goucher. The description really spoke to me, in that the position was looking for someone not only to do research, but also to develop collaborations with other institutions in order to create opportunities for students to do internships and learn through practice. The goals of the position resonated with my beliefs about what kinds of learning experiences help talented students define their own personal niche in science.
So far, it has been great. What I’m finding myself doing is trying to find the best parts of myself as a scientist, as a mentor, as a teacher, and as a colleague, in order to find ways to serve the community here. Feeling connected to my students and colleagues and working with them toward shared goals is invigorating and gives me a lot of energy to work hard.
What’s your current research?
My research focuses on understanding how cells respond to stress, using baker’s yeast as a model. I first began working with yeast as a grad student at Yale. I have found that it’s an ideal organism in which to study the movement of proteins under a microscope, with the added bonus that it’s student-friendly.
I recently started a new branch of research that focuses on freeze-thaw stress. How do cells survive repeated freezing and thawing? We still don’t understand the intricacies of the cellular processes that enable that survival.
I have begun collaborating with a researcher in Japan who studies cold-adapted yeast from the Antarctic. A Goucher student who is taking an independent reading course with me is helping write a review article alongside our collaborator. Other Goucher students are helping perform a literature review, with the hopes that it will generate new ideas and enable them to hit the ground running when it comes to time to do so in the lab.
Is student-friendly research important to you?
I decided early on in my career that if I were going to be a teacher scientist, I wanted to focus on the undergraduate level. Undergraduate students are engaged in an important process of finding what kinds of work make them happy, and it can be incredibly rewarding to invest time in their training and see them transform over just a few years into accomplished scientists. It’s also a stage where I would’ve liked to have more help when I was growing up as a scientist.
Does your interest in cells go back to when you first used the electron microscope?
Yes! When I was studying electron microscopy as a technique, we worked with Aplysia californica, a type of sea slug. We would dissect and section parts of these marine organisms to identify cell structures that might be responsible for helping them handle all the salt in their environment. Microscopes continue to be a mainstay of my research to this day.
Do you still like wearing a lab coat?
I still like wearing a lab coat. Recently one of my students snapped a picture of us both wearing our lab coats during a class experiment. Some of us get into our scientist frame of mind by putting on the uniform.
You’ve written about professional development—what got you interested in that?
One of the elements in my graduate and post-doctoral years that helped me survive challenging periods was connecting with scientific societies. By attending meetings, I met people like me who shared similar interests and were experiencing similar challenges, and many of them were kind enough to lend a friendly ear or share their own point of view.
My overwhelmingly positive experiences with professional development have inspired me to try and give back. I have begun participating with teams of people who want scientific societies to be able to collect data and evidence to help guide their professional development efforts to support and inspire the next generation of scientists. We’ve applied for and received grants in order to create professional development programming using best practices or innovative practices. For me, these efforts support the larger goal of democratizing STEM fields and providing access to all those who seek to become scientists.
As we think to make the sciences more inclusive, it is increasingly recognized that scientific societies should engage with scientists earlier, even as undergraduates, to provide insight into what life is like as a scientist, as well as previews into different career paths in the sciences.
There are many ways to develop as a scientist. It’s an area that’s unexplored by scientific societies, and maybe there’s new ground to create and innovate—maybe even with some of my colleagues here at Goucher who are experts at engaging undergraduates with internships and experience-based learning that’s career-inspired.
You study how cells respond to stress. How do you respond to stress?
Oh my gosh, all these connections! I’ve gotten a lot better at responding to stressful situations and challenges. One of the ways in which cells respond to stress is recycling and repurposing materials. That’s probably a good analogy to describe how I now view stress, as a force that drives renewal and improvement.
One strategy that works for me is to find the silver lining. When encountering a setback or a challenge, how can I repurpose this so that I’m using this experience for good? During stages in my training when I was working predominantly by myself, for example, I needed opportunities to counteract isolation, so I looked for other communities that could be of help. That proved to be a powerful strategy that has helped me ever since.
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