I wish pursuing a research career didn’t mean leaving the country I love

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A version of this story appeared in Science, Vol 379, Issue 6639.Download PDF

I sat down for the interview from my office in Taiwan, where I’d moved from Guatemala to pursue my dream of becoming a scientist. My words would be used for a video produced by the Guatemalan government, and I hoped they would inspire young Guatemalans to follow my career path. I spoke about the joys of being a Ph.D. student, the pleasure of discovering new things every day, and how I felt I was in my natural element. There was one thing I didn’t mention: my fear that my career as a researcher might prevent me from ever moving back home. But the video itself led to a solution. It helped me connect with the people and culture of Latin America—even if I was doing so from afar.

My scientific spark came when I was 14 years old. My biology teacher invited me to attend Guatemala’s “scientific Olympics,” which brought together students from across the country to participate in scientific activities. It was there that I first learned about DNA. I was fascinated by mutations and their links with many diseases, including cancer. Ever since then, all I have wanted to do is learn about cancer.

No institutions were researching cancer in Guatemala, so when the time came to think about universities, I looked abroad, eventually deciding to study in Taiwan. I planned to earn a bachelor’s degree and then return home. At the time, a bachelor’s was enough to secure a faculty position in Guatemala—in part because the positions often revolved around teaching, with very little research. I thought if I worked hard, perhaps I could do that, too.

But after an internship in a cancer research lab, which opened my eyes to the wonder of scientific discovery, I realized I didn’t want to spend my career only teaching. I also wanted to do research.

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I hoped [my words] would inspire young Guatemalans to follow my career path.
  • Andrea del Valle
  • Karolinska Institute

That was a sobering realization because it meant I might have to stay abroad indefinitely. In Taiwan, a single cancer lab might spend thousands of dollars per week on research. In Guatemala, professors had very little research funding and well-equipped labs were almost nonexistent.

I decided to pursue a Ph.D. anyway, staying in Taiwan because I won an award that would pay for my graduate education. It was difficult to be so far away from my family and the culture I grew up in. But I enjoyed my work and felt fortunate to have the opportunity to spend my days researching cancer. I also found an unexpected way to connect to my home country, thanks to the video.

Shortly after it was posted online, I was inundated with messages and postcards from people in Guatemala. The outpouring of interest inspired me to travel back home and spend several weeks delivering talks at schools. One talk was to a group of girls who had been rescued from human trafficking. I showed them pictures of my laboratory, described my research, and had them do a small hands-on activity. Afterward, my cousin, who is a psychologist at the school, told me that some of the students expressed interest in becoming a scientist. That helped me see the impact I could have outside of the laboratory—and that even if I couldn’t live and work in Guatemala, perhaps I could make a difference through outreach.

After returning to Taiwan, I started a Facebook page to communicate science to people in my home country. During the pandemic, I translated Chinese- or English-language news stories about COVID-19 into Spanish and posted them there. My audience grew to 5000 people in less than a month, and I started to get invitations to deliver virtual talks in Mexico, Peru, and Bolivia. During one talk, more than 10,000 viewers tuned in.

This isn’t what I imagined I’d be doing when I left home to pursue a career as a scientist. And I’m still hopeful that someday I’ll be able to move back to Guatemala and run a research lab as a professor there. But for now, I am thankful that I discovered how to make a difference in my own small way and transmit my passion for science to the next generation in Latin America.

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