As an undergraduate student, Joselyn Landazuri Vinueza recalls crying on campus while staring down her long list of required general education coursework she had little interest in – philosophy and foreign languages. Born in Ecuador, Vinueza spent most of her life in Spain where school curricula focus on depth of subject matter, allowing students to hone a specific area of study without as much breadth in other fields.
“I wanted to continue science,” she says. “I didn’t understand why they wanted me to take extra classes I had already taken in high school.”
As she struggled to communicate in English, Vinueza’s tears sent a universal sign of anguish to Dr. Zahra Zakeri. The Queens College biology professor extended an invitation to Vinueza to join her lab studying Zika and influenza viruses through the National Institutes of Health’s Maximizing Access to Research Careers (MARC) program. Vinueza graciously accepted the opportunity, which allowed her to get paid to focus on research while immersing herself in an English-speaking setting. Mastery of the English language, she says, has been a barrier since she and her family moved to the United States in 2014.
“It’s the biggest challenge in my career,” Vinueza adds. “I’ve always felt out of place. I wouldn’t know the meaning of words when I’d go to a talk.”
These days, she reaches outside her comfort zone to improve her vocabulary and confidence. In early March of 2023, Vinueza presented at the AAAS Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C., sharing her research on understanding cancer-causing viruses. Her talk focused on Merkel cell polyomavirus, a virus that causes Merkel Cell Carcinoma, one of the most lethal types of skin cancer. Around 15 percent of cancers are linked to viruses, she says. She adds that the way these microbes hijack healthy cells to become cancer cells is still not fully understood.
“I love puzzles,” she says. “Viruses aren’t even alive. They are just tiny particles capable of causing so much damage.”
Winning the Helen F. Holt Scholarship for Early Career Women in Science helped cover Vinueza’s expenses to attend the yearly meeting of scientists, educators, policymakers and journalists.
“I loved it. I loved it too much,” she jokes, adding that a highlight of the event was meeting other graduate students interested in science communications and science policy.
Vinueza is currently completing her Ph.D. at the University of Washington and Fred Hutch Cancer Center under mentor Dr. Denise Galloway. In her spare time, she writes and edits for the center’s website, where she summarizes research work for consumption by a layman, non-scientific audience.
“I love to talk about my research,” she says. “By just talking to people, you can inspire people to pursue science as a priority.”
Eventually, Vinueza sees herself working in advocacy, helping others interpret science and understand its role in the world.
“How can we communicate with the policymakers?” she asks. “At the end of the day, they are making the choices.”
Vinueza is also passionate about getting underrepresented groups involved in STEM careers. As a volunteer with Seeds of Success, she provides STEM mentoring and works on science projects with middle and high school girls in Puerto Rico. Their enthusiasm is contagious, she notes, recalling one young girl’s desire to become an inorganic chemist.
“I didn’t even know what that was, but it made me so happy,” Vinueza says. “I love their energy.”
In addition to mentoring, Vinueza created an Instagram account to share her experiences as a first-generation college graduate. Like many immigrants, Vinueza’s parents left everything they knew in South America in search of a higher quality of life with more job opportunities and better education for their children. Their sacrifices motivate Vinueza to keep pursuing her scientific career.
“I struggled a lot, and it’s OK,” she adds. “If I can do it, I want to empower others to do it too.”