Yaimie Lopez

Research Assistant

Universidad Del Valle de Guatemala

And - Student

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Go for it. Do not listen to people who tell you that working in STEM is not girly enough, or cool enough.

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WHAT DO YOU DO?

I am a Guatemalan biologist working in Vector Borne Diseases, currently studying the Tropical Disease Biology Master Programme at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. I won a Master's Fellowship Grant by Wellcome Trust. This grant is allowing us to study cutaneous leishmaniasis in endemic areas of Guatemala, a disease that has been forgotten in research for about 20 years. The goal of the project is to understand the biological actors (vector, parasites and mammalian reservoir) of the disease in affected communities. Sadly, the number of cases has been increasing the last years. The disease is not difficult to treat, but the treatment can be very toxic, difficult to obtain and its action depends on the parasite causing the disease, the immune system of the person, among other factors. In Guatemala, research was conducted in the 1980-early 2000s that allowed to establish which parasites are causing the disease and generated important epidemiological information. However, we still don't know which specific insect vector is carrying the parasite and which mammals are acting as a reservoir of the parasite. With our research, we will update the parasite species affecting people in the communities, we will take the first steps in determining the vector species as well as the mammal involved in the cycle. All this information will be transferred to the Ministry of Health and community leaders so we can all work towards creating a control strategy for this disease. I hope to continue working in this field so we can have an impact in these communities affected by a disease that has been neglected by the research community and the health authorities.

WHY DID YOU CHOOSE THIS FIELD?

I think this field chose me rather than I chose it. I have always liked animals, which lead me to study biology in my undergrad. However, my love for animals was restricted to mammals - mainly big ones like cats, dogs, monkeys, and all the charismatic species. I did my undergrad thesis with jaguar behaviour, to help with conservation of this species. While wrapping up my journeys to the Guatemalan tropical forest to monitor jaguars, I met a couple of veterinarians researchers from my university, working with bats and bacteria with zoonotic potential. It was so interesting and I started to learn about zoonosis. I realised that it was a dream job: to work with animals and their pathogens and zoonotic potential. However, at the same time, I wanted to keep working with jaguar and conservation. I was searching for jobs and as a recently undergrad it was hard to find a job. After 9 months, a job opened to work with mosquitoes on the insectary at one of the research centres of my university (the same where the veterinarians were working). I applied, despite having no knowledge of insects, and got the job. Not only I learned about mosquitoes and malaria, but also learned from other vector borne diseases, and in my free time I was reading about zoonosis. I fell in love with working in health from a biological aspects (when I was a child I wanted to be a medical doctor). After 4 years of working with mosquitoes and many failed attempts to get into a graduate programme, I decided to apply for the Wellcome Trust grant and wanted to join my two loves: zoonosis (with a mammalian reservoir) and vector borne diseases. Cutaneous leishmaniasis includes both. Now, from all the lectures I'm having, I'm loving the parasitic aspects of the disease too.

HOW DO/DID YOU TACKLE OBSTACLES?

It has not been an easy road. I graduated from college in 2015 and in 2020 I started my masters at 28 years old. I am not going to lie, I felt I was a bit behind peers at my age. Most of my classmates are at least 6 years younger than me and that could have impacted me negatively if I let it. However, I try to think positively. I have a lot more experience, not only in my field but in life, than if I had got into the master 5 years ago. I now know what I want to do with my professional life, though I’m always open to new possibilities.

I applied several times to scholarships and got rejected. That hurt a lot. There were several times when I thought I was not going to continue applying. However, I am not a person who quits easily so I kept trying. And, as they say, life happens when it’s supposed to happen. I was awarded the best opportunity I could have wished for. I get not only to study my masters, but I have a grant to implement research in the field. To apply for that opportunity, I needed previous experience. It is like if all was aligned so I could get this opportunity.

One of the events that impacted me the most has been the loss of 3 of my friends in a college field trip when we were undergraduates. For reasons and circumstances we still don’t know, they were killed. The owners of the place where it happened and my university were not helpful and it became a long legal battle. All of us students were emotionally affected and considered dropping out. I thought about it several times, for many years. It has not been easy to continue my studies at the university and then working there. However, what I always try to keep in mind is that now it’s my duty to leave an impact in the world and help people in the name of my 3 friends. I got a second chance, they didn’t. I want to keep their names alive by doing good deeds for people.

WHAT DO YOU LOOK AT & THINK, "I WISH YOUNGER ME WOULD HAVE KNOWN THIS WAS POSSIBLE?"

That being a scientist is cool. Being a smart kid caused me to feel rejected by my peers many times because I was not "cool enough, and too intelligent".

WHY DO YOU LOVE WORKING IN STEM?

I love working in STEM because I think it has a direct impact on the people. For me, working in STEM in a country where science is not important feels like a big privilege. Access to higher education in Guatemala can be very difficult, science is not valuable and there is a growing need for applied research in many fields. In my field, health research, what we do is to help people fight diseases or end the diseases. Being in the communities where people are suffering and knowing that whatever I do can improve at least one persons’ life… that keeps you going.

I also think that working in STEM allows you to work on your passion…. I mean, if you’re a geologist, you can be looking at cool rocks all the time. Or if you like animals, like me, you can learn about them and never feel like you had enough.

 

Also, being able to tell non-science people “I am a scientist” in a conversation, feels so good and makes me feel unique.

BEST ADVICE FOR NEXT GENERATION?

Go for it. Do not listen to people who tell you that working in STEM is not girly enough, or cool enough, or it won’t make you attractive to a partner. We’re in a moment in which girls and women can break all the stereotypes and be whoever we want. Be curious, let the curiosity and your thirst to know more guide you. Never be afraid of asking questions. Dot not ask for forgiveness for wanting to know too much. I have seen many women saying “I’m sorry” every time they ask a question or just want to make a point.

Don’t ever feel like you’re not smart enough or good enough to chase a STEM career. We all struggle with that - I am currently having problems with understanding many of the molecular biology lectures… but I always remember, I’m not alone. I can always ask for help. And that’s okay. So don’t let the fear of not being good enough stops you from chasing your dreams.

INSPIRATION

My sister is my inspiration. She is an astrophysicist (the second Guatemalan woman!) and I have always look up to her. I think that if she hasn't had a career in STEM probably I wouldn't have either.

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