What do you do?
My graduate research focused on engineering non-toxic bacteria to produce materials for making pharmaceutical drugs like heparin and chondroitin sulfate. This involves reprogramming the genetic pathways of microbes to make specific products like enzymes and long-chain sugars. My postdoctoral work is focused on developing a new platform for manufacturing vaccines against bacterial infections in a low-cost, safe, and sustainable manner, to increase vaccine access in developing countries.
Why did you choose this field?
In high school I always enjoyed math and science. I decided that I was not interested in a becoming a medical doctor and began investigating other career paths. I found chemical engineering and immediately fell in love with the broadness of the discipline, with topics ranging from material science to biotechnology, and encompassing all of the subject areas that I enjoyed most. As an undergraduate, I worked on developing a new method of stabilizing proteins, then interned at NASA developing a miniature bioreactor model for producing nutrients in space. I learned about the power of harnessing microorganisms like E. coli and yeast and manipulating their genes so they could make desired products. These experiences allowed me to apply my academic material in a practical setting, and more importantly, they taught me the significance of research work as a tool for problem solving.
What do you look at and think, "I wish younger me would have known this was possible"?
The younger me would definitely find all of my accomplishments to date completely mind-blowing. I never thought that I would win an island scholarship in high school and be able to leave my home country, Trinidad and Tobago, to pursue a degree at NYU. I never imagined myself working at NASA developing technologies to assist astronauts on ISSS missions in space. As an undergraduate freshman, I had no intention of attending graduate school and could not have fathomed overcoming all the obstacles that I faced to earn a PhD in chemical engineering. Lastly, I never expected to end up at Cornell University as a Presidential Postdoctoral Fellow, working on exciting projects to improve vaccine accessibility in impoverished countries. We miss 100% of the opportunities that we do not take so submit that application, send that email, ask that question - there is no harm in trying.
Why do you love working in STEM?
Though frustrating at times, I honestly enjoy the challenge of solving research problems (I even dream about them sometimes!) There is hardly ever a dull moment when working in STEM fields because there are always new problems to solve. I also get a deep sense of satisfaction from knowing that the work I’m doing has real-life applications and will ultimately make a difference in the lives of others.
Best advice for next generation?
The beauty of STEM is that there is something for everyone and new areas are constantly emerging. Don’t believe the false narrative that STEM fields are “too hard.” Never allow others to limit you, and more importantly, never limit yourself. Be open to trying new things and don’t let failures or rejections deter you.
Inspo quote / fun fact / role model
Excellence is not perfection, it is simply showing up as your best self.