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Grace V. Aquino

Graduate Research Assistant, Baylor University

And - Winner Outstanding Graduate Student Teacher of Record Award, Baylor University

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“You don’t always have to be the expert in the room, but always aim to be the person who learns the most in the room.”

What do you do?

As an neurotoxicologist, my main job is to study how chemicals in the atmosphere, such as diesel exhaust particles (DEP), affect the blood-brain barrier (BBB), which is made up of the endothelial cells surrounding the brain’s microvasculature. The BBB is the gatekeeper of the brain: it limits the entry of harmful substances circulating in the blood, while selectively allowing the entry of nutrients and oxygen that your brain needs to stay healthy. 

To study the effects of short-term DEP exposure in BBB, part of my research involves developing an in vitro BBB model, or a model that is built using plastic-ware and mammalian cells outside of the body. To do this, I am trained to use cell culture techniques and tools including microscopy, immunohistochemistry, and bioassays. 

The main goal of my research is to evaluate how DEP causes BBB dysfunction, neurotoxicity, and potentially neurodegenerative diseases. Another important part of being a scientist, especially in graduate school, is communicating your results. Once I’ve analyzed my data, the two main ways I share new information to other scientists is by publishing papers in science journals and presenting at professional conferences. 

However, my job also includes communicating science with the general public through STEM outreach platforms including graduate student groups, Science Day at the museum, and visits to local K-12 public schools.

Why did you choose this field?

I chose toxicology as my field of study because of its multidisciplinary nature and its ability to impact environmental and public health regulation. For example, the Clean Air Act of 1963 and its amendments, which effectively regulate the levels of common atmospheric pollutants to protect public health, were a result of toxicological and epidemiological evidence that showed a relationship between increased atmospheric pollution and increased incidences of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. 

As a neurotoxicologist who studies atmospheric pollutants on a cellular and molecular level, the data we collect in our lab can directly inform us about the onset and progression of brain diseases related to this type of exposure, but it can also indirectly inform us about the quality of our air and about the effect of environmentally-relevant concentrations on people’s brain health. 

Although I don’t remember one specific moment that made me want to pursue the field I am currently in, I remember several early-career, encouraging conversations with professors and mentors that undeniably contributed (and continue to contribute) to my decision to become a toxicologist. Their encouraging words, wise advice, and example as hard-working scientists who also recognize their own limitations as human beings ultimately helped me overcome any imposter-syndrome symptoms I was feeling and pursue a career in STEM.

What do you look at and think, "I wish younger me would have known this was possible"?

One of my greatest achievements to date is having been awarded the Outstanding Graduate Student Teacher of Record Award at Baylor University for teaching at the undergraduate and graduate levels during my first year of graduate school. As an introvert, I would have never thought that I would be speaking in public much less teaching introductory science courses and winning an award for it. While a younger me would have never thought I could win this award, in retrospect I think about the hours I invested in preparing myself, the relationships I intentionally built with my students, and my excitement for sharing and learning about different environmental issues alongside my students, and I am reminded that passion mixed with hard work always pays off.

Why do you love working in STEM?

I love working in STEM because, although graduate school can feel overwhelming at times, there is never a day I am not learning something new about my field or about myself. Additionally, there is a strong sense of comradery (at least in my own lab) that continually motivates me to not give up in the face of adversity. 

I have found that people in STEM are generally supportive and want to help you with research and career challenges if you are willing to ask for help and make time to network/collaborate with others. Every morning, I wake up looking forward to spend some time in the lab either experimenting on new ways to improve my BBB model or talking to other toxicologists and non-toxicologists about their work and hobbies.

Best advice for next generation?

The best piece of advice is one I received from an esteemed mentor and professor, Dr. Dana Dean: “You don’t always have to be the expert in the room, but always aim to be the person who learns the most in the room.” As scientists in general, we sometimes feel the urge to compare ourselves to the accomplishments and the notoriety of others. Never let competition intimidate you or be your primary motivator because that is the quickest way to get burnt out in this field. Instead, find a supportive community of people who share the same interest and passions as you (both in STEM and outside of it), and always keep learning, helping others, and adapting to change as your top priorities.

Inspo quote / fun fact

The physicsgirl.org is one of my favorite STEM-education websites because of Dianna Cowern’s fun explorations and awe-inspiring physics experiments. Although I am not a physicist, I thoroughly enjoy watching her work in this website (and her Twitter and YouTube page too); it is an awesome platform for audiences of all ages and background to fall in love with the world of physics and science in general, and to be inspired to pursue a career in STEM, whether it’s as a researcher, a STEM communication specialist, or STEM advocate in general. All her video content is entertaining, funny, original, and definitely a must-watch for all nerdy science enthusiasts!