Herdeline Ardoña

Postdoctoral Researcher, Harvard University

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It is up to you to find and follow the path where you’ll be most excited.

What do you do?

I am a postdoctoral researcher currently working in a bioengineering group, studying how nanomaterials impact or interact with biological systems. Nanomaterials are particles that have dimensions which can be about 100,000 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair! These materials can be found in many common items that we use everyday (gadgets, food, cosmetics, etc.). Many new nanomaterials are made synthetically or not naturally occurring; therefore, little is known about their effects in human health. In my current lab, we engineer models of cells/ tissues/ organs that can be used for investigating the conditions whereby these materials are safe or not. These models may also help minimize the need for conducting animal testing. In building such platforms, we also investigate the materials and components that we use to mimic biological systems—making sure that we understand the interaction between nanomaterials and certain proteins that comprise cells, have the correct stiffness for the models, and have the appropriate surface reactivity for the substrates where the cells will adhere to.

Why did you choose this field?

My career trajectory has been largely inspired by my grandmother. She’s a chemical engineer. It had so much impact on me to see, from a young age, a woman working in STEM. So even though being a scientist (or a woman engineer) is not a very popular career track, I chose Chemistry as my undergrad major. I liked how Chemistry has so many branches—each of them is very different from one another, but all of them are towards understanding the fundamental properties and reactivity of matter. That is very interesting to me. After graduating from college, I decided to follow my passion in Chemistry and continued on the path of being a researcher, so I pursued a PhD in chemistry. In grad school, I was very happy to be in an environment where interdisciplinary research is fostered. Moreover, doing hands-on research is a whole different experience than just reading books and papers. I learned so much from that experience—from organic chemistry to its applications in biomaterials engineering. It trained me to take a transdisciplinary approach when solving questions in science and engineering. That’s what my current lab in bioengineering is doing, and that’s how I want my lab in the future to approach research. Although my academic background sounds like a long-winded path, it is amazing how I was initially inspired by a chemical engineer, and in Fall 2020, I will be starting as a faculty at a chemical and biomolecular engineering department.

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

I wish younger me would have known that PhD programs exist and that it is not impossible to become a researcher even if you are from a developing country. I had no regrets with the path that I had to take to become an independent researcher, but I wish that more students knew that being a scientist (or taking up advanced degrees in STEM) is a career path that is possible for everyone. I hope that in the future, I’ll be able to bridge opportunities to interested young students so they can better prepare for a scientific career.

Why do you love working in STEM?

It is very fulfilling to have the independence to address challenging questions and have the capability to answer these through systematically designed experiments. Furthermore, it motivates me to work with mentees who learn from these experiments. Their experience in the lab trains them to critically think about the results. It is inspiring to play even just a small role in shaping our next generation of STEM workers.

Best advice for next generation?

There is no single, best path for girls who want to pursue a career in STEM. It is up to you to find and follow the path where you’ll be most excited. This is not an easy career path, but it is your enthusiasm towards small steps that will lift you towards bigger successes. Always remember that those successes will not only serve you, but can also open the doors for the next generation of girls behind you.

Inspo quote / fun fact / role model

“Science and everyday life cannot and should not be separated.” – Rosalind Franklin

NOMINATE a woman in STEM

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