Five Questions With… Suzanne Carpe Elías

Date: October 6, 2022 By: Emily Makowski

National Hispanic Heritage Month is September 15–October 15. This month commemorates the history, achievements, and contributions of Hispanic 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.

Our next Hispanic Heritage Q&A is with Suzanne Carpe Elías, a research technician in Doug Kwon’s lab.

What was your path to the Ragon like, and how did you become interested in research?

I’ve been working at the Ragon for two months now. I was born and raised in Metapán, El Salvador. Much of my family lives there. In El Salvador we deal with a lot of infectious diseases. Growing up, I would get sick from what I now understand are pretty severe illnesses. I had dengue twice, chikungunya, and Zika, and back home that’s normal. Your neighbors get it, your family gets it. When I had it, it wasn’t too bad, and I didn’t understand how some people could be affected so severely and how we just didn’t have any treatment like vaccines, effective prevention methods, or anything like that. So, from a very young age, I learned about the devastating effects of infectious diseases, and I was really interested in studying them.

I moved to the US in 2018 to start college at Trinity College in Hartford, CT. I was really excited about studying biology, healthcare, and medicine because back home, we just don’t have a lot of resources for research. Growing up, I always said that I wanted to do medicine, but the more “behind-the-scenes” part of medicine. I didn’t know that was research when I was younger.

I graduated in May of this year with degrees in Biology and French. My school was a bit small, so I couldn’t do research on human-applied projects. However, I was able to conduct research studying the genetics and developmental process of the red flour beetle. I also helped in a long COVID-19 research study in St. Francis Hospital in Connecticut where I conducted phone interviews, some with Spanish-speaking patients. Then I was accepted to the Immunology Undergraduate Summer Program at Harvard Medical School in the summer of 2021, and as part of that I did an internship here in Boston at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute studying an immunotherapy regimen for metastatic pancreatic cancer. That internship was a great opportunity for me to explore immunology.

In the lab at Dana-Farber, I worked with someone whose partner worked at the Ragon. I was really excited by the fact that the Ragon was so focused on immunology and infectious disease. When I started searching for jobs during spring of my senior year in college, I learned more about the Ragon Institute through the website, and I saw that the Kwon Lab was hiring technicians—so I decided to apply and was lucky to have been offered a position. I felt like it was the right fit for my career interests, and from my interview I felt like I could really fit well with the lab culture.

What was it like coming to the US on your own for college?

At first, I hadn’t understood the ramifications of it. I was meeting a lot of new people, meeting my professors, going to classes, just doing so many new things that were very exciting. I had always been interested in science and studying abroad, and it took me a few years and a lot of effort to figure out how to do it. So, in a way, it felt like I was living my wildest dreams. But then a couple of months in, it started getting challenging. I hadn’t seen my parents in a bit, or my two younger siblings who I was really close with growing up. That was definitely a big, big change. 

I visited them over winter breaks, and then COVID started during my sophomore year so I didn’t go back until August 2021. When the pandemic first hit and schools went remote, people entering El Salvador had to quarantine in designated facilities, which were buildings with open rooms and bunk beds, and in some places they didn’t even have running water or electricity. I was really concerned about not being able to finish my semester, talked to my parents, and ended up deciding to stay in the US. My boyfriend was also a student at Trinity and he’s from Argentina, so he actually couldn’t go home either. My school allowed exceptions for some students to stay on campus, so that was a really nice thing that they understood the difficult situation we were in and decided to help us by allowing us to stay. I was also able to do research completely remotely that first summer. I did a lot of data and image analysis. That kind of kept me sane in in a way, because I had a routine and did things that I enjoyed.

I also had to work a lot throughout college. I was lucky enough to have received an almost full ride scholarship, but I still had some personal expenses to cover. I worked anywhere from two to four jobs every semester, usually 20 hours per week. I was also taking four to five classes and doing 10 hours of research. This was very challenging as I had very little time to talk to my family or do things for fun, but at the end of the day, it’s the kind of sacrifice that you have to make when fighting for your dreams. I learned a lot, and would undoubtedly do it all over again.

What type of research are you doing at the Ragon?

I’m working directly under the supervision of two postdocs in the Kwon Lab, Ben Read and Josh Gammon. Our lab works with the FRESH cohort in South Africa. One of the main projects I’m working on with Ben is an acute HIV study looking at which cells are infected very early on after HIV infection. We are analyzing single cell transcripts from cytobrush [cervix swabs] samples collected from HIV-positive women in FRESH and trying to understand the early mechanisms of HIV infection. We hope to translate it into not only scientific knowledge, but ways that we can better target and treat HIV. I’m also helping Ben with a project in which we’re trying to create a diagnostic for bacterial vaginosis using CRISPR. And then Josh studies T cell receptors (TCR) and memory T cells and is studying the immune response against the microbiome in the female genital tract (FGT), and particularly how T cells respond to certain bacteria. We have peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs) and cytobrush samples from the FRESH cohort, from which we can build TCR libraries. At the same time, we’re trying to get a mice study up and running, so I’ve been doing some training in mice handling techniques.

I really like the research and I also like the human connection of being able to help people. I think that the tools and the resources that we have could really benefit other countries. That was actually a big aspect of why I liked the Ragon and specifically the Kwon lab – I knew that they work with the FRESH cohort and collaborate with researchers in South Africa. For me, that’s a very important aspect. We have so much power here to help other people. With COVID, researchers were able to come up with vaccines so quickly, but then we have other things like dengue that have been a problem for years and years – some vaccines are in clinical trials, but it’s not something that has been a priority for most people. So I think that that’s very related to what I want to do in the future.

Do you have favorite Hispanic/Latino traditions or cultural events that you try to keep going here?

El Salvador’s Independence Day, which is September 15, is a big thing for me, because I remember growing up we had the day off and people were going to the streets and celebrating with parades and music. Even though I’m not really part of celebrations here, I like to keep it in mind, and share that with people who don’t know about it. I also look for ways to engage with people from other Hispanic countries, especially from Latin America – like that research study I mentioned where I spoke with patients in Spanish. Also, I was involved with an Internet cafe in college that taught computer literacy classes in Spanish and English. I would do the Spanish-based classes, where I taught people how to use Microsoft Word and how to send emails; I also helped a couple people apply for jobs. In that sense, I try to support my community, even with little actions.

Another thing I’ve done recently is that I’m using my full name. When I started college, I just used my first name and my first surname. But now I’m really making a conscious effort to use both of my last names. My first surname is French from my grandfather, but my second surname is Hispanic, and that’s a very important part of my identity that I kind of overlooked. It wasn’t that I wanted to hide it at first. It was just so much easier to just have one last name for US convention. And now I think, I don’t care if it’s hard for you to look it up, I don’t mind if I have to spell it on the phone, I’m just going to say it because that’s my name and it shows a part of who I am.

Any advice for Hispanic/Latino students in STEM?

Something that I wish I had known before I got to the US is that there are many other Hispanic/Latin American people here. I was really happy that when I moved here for school, I was able to meet people from all over Latin America. Part of my advice is that you’re not going to be alone. You’re always going to find someone that has a similar background to you. It might take you some time to find them, and you might find them in random ways, but they’re here. I would also add that sometimes things can get challenging, so you need to advocate for yourself and don’t hesitate to ask for help. STEM can be a very competitive field and there might be cases when you doubt yourself and your ability to succeed—but you are a very strong and hardworking person. You can do this.

Another thing which is not that positive is that while you do find a lot of welcoming people, at the same time you might find hostility or ignorance – most of the time when I’ve experienced this it’s been plain ignorance. Instead of feeling bad about it or feeling like it’s your fault, try to reflect and use it as a teaching opportunity. At least that’s how I’d like to see it. I don’t think that a lot of people intend to be mean, but sometimes that’s how it comes across. When I’m learning about a different culture, I try to be open minded and ask questions, not rely on stereotypes. I know it can be challenging at times, but life is in itself a journey of learning.

Photo provided by Suzanne Carpe Elías

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