Five Questions With… Andrea Garavito

Date: September 26, 2022 By: Emily Makowski

Photo provided by Andrea Garavito

National Hispanic Heritage Month is September 15–October 15. This month commemorates the history, achievements, and contributions of people from or connected with Spanish-speaking regions, including those whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, and much of the Caribbean and Central and South America.

To celebrate Hispanic Heritage, we’re publishing a series of Q&A interviews with employees at the Ragon. First up is Andrea Garavito, a PhD student in Aaron Schmidt’s lab.

What was your path to the Ragon like?

I joined the Ragon officially in July. I did one of my PhD rotations with Aaron Schmidt’s lab, and it was my favorite time in my PhD so far. I think one of the biggest struggles of my PhD career so far has been finding my voice. As a Hispanic woman in science, I always felt like I had to work a little harder to prove myself. But when I did my rotation with the Schmidt Lab, I didn’t have to prove myself, and it felt like home. The science is very different from what I worked in previously, but because I got the feeling that I can focus on my science and that I belong, I decided to join his lab.

My college career has been non-traditional. I didn’t start college until I was 23. I did my undergrad in Biochemistry at Texas Tech University. I was pre-med for three years of undergrad, and then my last year it was around the start of the COVID pandemic and I basically just didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was accepted to the Research Scholar Initiative post-bacc at Harvard with a Rosetta Commons Fellowship. During my post-bacc I worked on protein design at the Institute for Protein Innovation. My work focused on designing mini-proteins to develop therapeutics, and that’s where I found a lot of my interest in research. Because of that, I realized that what I wanted to do was most likely a PhD rather than going to med school. I’m now in the Chemical Biology PhD Program at Harvard.

I just started my research project – I’m interested in engineering platforms or new tools to develop therapeutics against viral targets.

Where are you and your family from?

I was born in Bogotá, Colombia, the capital of Colombia. I came to the US when I was 14, with my mom and siblings. It was extremely difficult because I didn’t speak English. I went to high school and college in Texas, so I consider Texas home now – my family still lives in Texas – and I also still feel like Colombia is my home. I have my heritage, I have my accent, I’m very proud of it. But definitely coming into the US is a struggle because your background is so different and it’s hard to fit in, the cultural change is so much.

I didn’t go to college after high school because, for one thing, I didn’t even know that college was an option for a person like me. I came from a minority background. There wasn’t anybody to tell me what college was. Even though I was curious about it, I didn’t have the money for it.

After I turned 18, I moved out of my family home and I spent most of my time working. I did everything from cleaning houses to working as a waitress and a dishwasher. The restaurant industry was kind of my way to survive and help my family as much as I could. I was also waiting because as a resident in the US, you can’t apply for major scholarships or funding. After a few years of working, helping my family and building myself up to be able to go to college, I became a citizen at 22. This allowed me to figure out what I want to do with my life. I was getting away from that survival mentality that I grew up with. I was also getting away from what I called immigrant guilt: you’re here in the US and a lot of people wish they would be here too, so you’re supposed to work and take every opportunity and not complain about anything. College for me wasn’t just education, it was this experience to find myself outside of that identity. Like, I can do things for myself as well and find my happiness and my purpose.

What traditions and customs have you’ve tried to preserve after coming to the US?

For me the main thing is food, culturally. It’s a little more difficult to find traditional food, so I will make a trip to 30 minutes away from Boston to go to a local Latin market where I can actually buy the products to make a lot of the food that I grew up with, like arepas. And also, I try to speak Spanish as much as I can.

There aren’t many Colombian restaurants in Boston, but because I grew up in Texas around a lot of people with Mexican heritage, there are some more Mexican or Central American places that still bring me close to home. But in general, if I want Colombian food from a restaurant, I usually have to travel to other places like New York.

What advice do you have for Hispanic/Latino students in STEM?

I think you should have a life outside of school and you should prioritize your mental health. It’s something I didn’t do as an undergrad. I think it came from my first-generation background, not knowing that it’s okay to get a C, that you’re still going to be fine. Sleep, working out, going out with your friends are all so important because there is more to life than your job in general.

Right now I’m teaching a class for freshmen for the first time [Life Sciences 1A at Harvard], and something I’ve realized is how stressed all undergrads are. I immediately told them, “I am in a chemical biology program, but I did horrible in organic chemistry.” I never imagined I was going to make it into Harvard because I didn’t have the perfect story. But that is not what makes you, right? You don’t have to do A-B-C, you can do B-A-C and still be fine.

The first day that I was teaching I did have a student approach me and she was from Colombia as well. She was just so excited that I was teaching, asking me what part of Colombia I’m from, when did I come to the US, those types of questions. I know it’s because representation matters – seeing that I’m already in this position meant a lot to her. It is something that I also wish I would have seen as an undergrad.

The second thing that I tell everybody is, apply to everything. Apply to every scholarship, even if you think that you’re not good. I was able to pay for most of my undergrad through scholarships. People want to be supportive, but they don’t always understand a minority background or why a “normal” requirement might not apply to you, so you need to communicate that. I didn’t go to college until like six years after I took the SAT, but when I explained my story, I found a lot of people along the way that were willing to help and fund a lot of my education.

What are your future plans?

I’m very active in making science more accessible. That’s one of my main goals, making sure that I’m involved with the community. I want to be the change that I wish I would have seen, and be part of it as well, not just wait for it. I’m interested in industry or academia, but I have been very involved with business opportunities at Harvard. I just did a mini-MBA course through the Harvard GSAS Business Club and I also worked with Harvard Innovation Labs helping with a startup last semester, so I can see myself going that route.

One more piece of big news – and I’m sharing this because, again, representation matters – I am expecting a baby in March! So the most exciting, most challenging, most rewarding project for me in the near future is being a mom. I feel very supported, and I feel like I have everything that I need to be a mom and not have to give up my career. I find that super motivational, and I’m very excited to start this part of my life and still do my PhD. Your life isn’t on hold when you’re getting a PhD, and science and STEM should support that.

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