Outreach Event: Royal High School Students Visit Seattle BioMed

Photo credit: Theresa Britschgi

On Friday, March 16th, 2012, a bus load of Royal High School students traveled over the snowy mountain pass to arrive in Seattle in time for lunch at Seattle BioMed. By the time they got to Seattle, the sun was shining and there were an eager group of scientists waiting for them. This is not the first time we’ve met with the Royal High Students. We met Mario Godoy-Gonzalez, a science teacher at Royal High, several years ago at a SACNAS National Conference. Mario had started a SACNAS Club for his students, and many of them were actively involved, so we decided to form a partnership with the RHS SACNAS Club. For the past few years, we traveled to Royal City to present a workshop on college attendance and assist the students with labs. In June 2011, we brought a group of students from Royal City to the UW campus so they could have hands-on lab experiences and talk to college admissions and financial aid counselors at the UW. Some of our students have also mentored Royal High students at the Northwest Association for Biomedical Research’s Bio Expo each year. So, despite this long-standing relationship, we still like to meet with RHS students as much as possible. Mario contacted me back in February and said his students would be attending a program at Seattle BioMed in March, so I decided to organize a group of students to attend.

The day began with all of the students touring some of Seattle BioMed’s facilities. After that, we got together as a group and introduced ourselves and told our personal stories through graduate school. We were fortunate to have two Royal High alum amongst our ranks: Yuriana Garcia, a UW Sophomore and Abraham Guadarrama, a UW Freshman.

Photo Credit: Theresa Britschgi

Additionally, Katrina Claw, a PhD Candidate in Genome Sciences, Amber Caracol, a Biology Professor at UW Bothell and Seattle Central Community College, Simon Mendoza, a graduate student in Microbiology, and Sabrina Bonaparte (that’s me!), a PhD Candidate in the Sociology Department, attended the event. Simon showed the students glow in the dark bacteria, among other things and gave a great presentation about careers in Microbiology. After we spoke for a while, the students headed to the lab to dissect mosquitos and hear a talk from UW SACNAS Chapter member and RHS alum Abraham Guadarrama. Abraham’s talk was from his LSAMP‘s team research project: University of Washington Engineering Bridge Program: Polymer Synthesis and Mechanical Testing. Abraham provided the following quote describe his experience:

Abraham presenting to the group
Photo Credit: Mario Godoy-Gonzalez

“What better way to learn to ask great questions and always be thinking creatively than to interact with Science!!   Being a former Royal City SACNAS student and being able to share my experiences on how I have got involved in research with my LSAMP group in Polymer Synthesis and Mechanical Testing was a great privilege. After presenting our LSAMP project, I designed a hands on lab where students asked questions on the decomposition of different materials, as I talked about that in my presentation. What I saw was curiosity and the next generation of scientist, they were having fun learning science!!”

The Royal City students seemed to enjoy their time at Seattle BioMed. Here are some quotes from a few students (quotes provided by Theresa Britschgi):

Royal City Bacteria!
Photo Credit: Mario Godoy-Gonzalezstudents (provided from Theresa Britschgi):

“Hoy fue uno de esos pocos dias en el cual es divertido aprendar algo nuevo ya que hoy aprendi y me diverti bastante. Esto fue una gran experiencia que yo pienso que me va a motivar para segir estudiando.” – Royal City student

“BioQuest is a wonderful place. Seattle BioMed will help lots of people if they find a vaccine for malaria – and save a lot of lives.” – Royal City student

Our partnership with Royal High will not end here, as we have other events in the works for this year. Additionally, we have developed a great partnership with Seattle BioMed and plan to return for more high school student visits in the upcoming months.

A special thank-you to Mr. Mario Godoy-Gonzalez, for letting us know of this trip to Seattle, for always working with us and serving to a mentor to our chapter members, and for being a phenomenal role model and mentor for all of your students! Also, a big thank you to Theresa Britschgi, the BioQuest Director at Seattle BioMed for organizing this event, providing photos and quotes, and for inviting us back to meet with other students! We are very excited to continue our partnership with you!

UW SACNAS Chapter members with Mario, our favorite science teacher!
Photo credit: Mario Godoy-Gonzalez

Photo Credit: Theresa Britschgi

Sabrina Bonaparte is a PhD candidate in the Sociology Department. Her research areas are Demography, Statistics and Education. She also wrote an earlier blog post about world population and is the manager of the UW SACNAS blog.  


Celebrating Women in STEM

The history of our chapter begins with women, as a group of mostly women got together and founded our chapter in the summer of 2007.  They attended the SACNAS National Conference in Kansas City as the first event for a Registered Student Organization at the University of Washington. All of the women who founded our chapter have graduated and have moved on to greater things, but some are still closely involved with our chapter. Continuing members are Dr. Amber Caracol, who graduated from the UW in 2011 with a PhD in Molecular and Cellular Biology and now teaches at UW Bothell and Seattle Central Community College, Dr. Tracie Delgado, an Assistant Professor at Northwest University who earned her PhD in Microbiology in 2011, and Amanda Bruner, who received an MS in Aquatic and Fishery Sciences in 2010 and who now works as a Research Scientist & Outreach Coordinator at Sound Citizen at the University of Washington. The other founders have moved on to careers outside of Seattle: Yolanda Sanchez, who earned an MS in Environmental Health and an MPA in Public Administration in 2007 and Dr. Charla Lambert, who earned a PhD in Genome Sciences in 2008, and works as a Program Manager for Science & Training at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and is a member of the newly-elected 2012 SACNAS Board of Directors.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention there was also a male who helped establish our chapter, Dr. Ramon Mendoza, who earned his PhD in Molecular and Cellular Biology in 2007 and works as a postdoc at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, but this post is about women, and particularly those women who shaped and continue to shape our chapter.

Profiles of Women

Below are profiles of some other women in our chapter. The first is a profile of Billie Swalla, a Biology professor who has been incredibly supportive of our SACNAS group. We all look to Dr. Swalla for support and guidance. The second is Tzitziki Lemus, a graduate student in Genome Sciences.

Also, be sure to check out the many other women we’ve profiled on our blog this year: Katrina Claw, Laurel James and Ruth Sims during Native American Heritage Month, Vanessa Galaviz, Patricia Montaño, Yuriana Garcia, and Faith Sims. There have also been several blog posts by female members of the chapter, such as Sabrina Bonaparte, who wrote about the implications of world population growth, Amanda Bruner, who wrote on Quantitative Advocacy and Productive Group Planning; the aforementioned Katrina Claw, who wrote about Communicating Science Effectively; Tracie Delgado, who wrote about transitioning from graduate student to faculty memberAmber Caracol and Laurel James, who tell us about their family histories and how they connect to shaping them as individuals,  and Erica Sanchez, who wrote about her experience at an all-women science outreach event for middle school girls last weekend.

Name: Bilie Swalla
Department: Biology
Role: Professor
Hometown: Madrid, Iowa
Website: http://faculty.washington.edu/bjswalla/

My research is on a complex, interdisciplinary problem, “How do body plans evolve?” Every animal begins as a single cell, a fertilized egg, that then divides into 2 cells, then 4 cells, then 16 cells, etc. As the embryo divides into more cells, different cells express different genes until you begin to make different tissues. These tissues continue to develop into different shapes and sizes, depending on the embryo. I am especially interested in the evolution of our body plan, which we share with all vertebrates and invertebrate chordates. My work with embryos is mostly done at marine labs, and I have worked all over the world on tunicates and hemichordates.

As a Postdoctoral Associate, I was funded one year by the American Association of University Women (AAUW), who were also studying why girls drop out of science in Junior High School. I learned of some of the unconscious bias that women can face in science and that stimulated a life long interest in how gender and ethnic bias affects our experiences in education and the workplace. I joined UW SACNAS in 2008, at the request of a few Biology graduate students, who knew of my interest in gender and bias in science, and I love the people that I’ve met through the UW local chapter. Everyone is so enthusiastic and friendly, it is hard not make a new friend at every meeting. I’ve seen many students graduate, and continue their sphere of influence and I believe that the UW SACNAS Chapter makes a very positive difference for increasing diversity on campus. I am very excited about being part of the local organizing committee. GO UW SACNAS!

Dr. Swalla’s CV is located below:

Name: Tzitziki J. Lemus Vergara
Major: Genome Sciences
Year in School: Third Year Graduate
Hometown:  Mexico
Ethnicity: Mexican

I am interested in how the environment can modify the development of organisms. I am currently studying how despite environmental and genetic differences, individuals from the same specie resemble physically to each other.

Besides research, I like to play soccer, reading, go salsa dancing, volunteer, and go out with my friends.

Guest Blog: To identify my role as a Woman in Science: I first must honor my Mother, my Family and my past.


My name is Laurel L James (Ta waat). I am the daughter of Arlene Wesley James (Shii quimpt) and the late, Ernest James (Thel Cleputsch) of Harrah, Washington.  I’m a Mother to my wonderful 14 year old son, Joseph (Nekewyema).   I am an enrolled member of the Yakama Nation and a Graduate student within the University of Washington, School of Environmental and Forest Sciences.

Professionally, my career has been spent within the field of Natural Resource Management.  I began this career working in various Fire Management positions.  For a few seasons, I worked in fire control and suppression of forest and rangeland fires as a part of either an Engine or Helitack crew for the Yakama Nation.  Then, I was recruited for the USFS; Entiat Hotshot crew.  During my time with the hotshots; I was recruited back to the Yakama Nation to co-manage crews as a part of the Northern Spotted Owl Project.  I began this role in December of 1990 and; would spend the next 17 years, working in various capacities for the Wildlife Resources Management Program.  During this time, I was also rasing a son and when he turned 10 years old; I set into motion plans to return to Seattle and the UW campus, to finish my degree.  Currently, I work part-time, as a program manager within the UW Chemical Engineering Department on the WSU led, NARA, Aviation Biofuels grant.  I also work part-time as an Independent Contractor with the National Indian Forest Management Assessment Team (IFMAT).  These experiences, my love for the outdoors and my strong sense of family have led me to where I am today ~ a woman, engaged in science.

I grew up on the Yakama Indian Reservation, a 1.3 million acre reservation located in South-central Washington State.  I am one of 8 children (5 women).  I come from a very large family and our strength extends from our strong sense of ‘family ’.  This notion was transferred to us, from our parents; they had a strong marriage.

My father spent his early years in White Swan and the Ahtanum areas before moving to Vashon Island.  He graduated from Vashon Island High School, received a scholarship and played football at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL.  Upon completion of his first year of college, he enlisted in the Army, completed Officer Candidates School and served in the Korean Conflict.

My Mother was raised on the Yakama Reservation by her grandmother Emily (Shii quimpt) Twain a nash and within the Yakima Indian Christian Mission.  Removed from her home, like many of the other Yakama youth of her time, she would be raised and educated within the public school system and by Christian Missionaries.  For as many of the horror stories that have been published about these schools and this time in the history of our Yakama people and; not to diminish those atrocities, the one thought that comes to my mind is; this is when determination and perseverance began to flow, thick in my blood.  My Mother survived the punishments that went along with speaking her native tongue ~ Sahaptin or; practicing any of the tribal traditions that she had been taught.  She never lost sight of the individual and culture that she was born into – despite this upbringing.  With her culture and traditional teachings in hand, my Mother would become the 1st Miss Indian America (1953), she was crowned during the All American Indian Days Celebration held in Sheridan, Wyoming. Then, pageant contestants were judged on their appearance, communication skills, knowledge and practice of culture teachings, knowledge of tribal, federal and state governments and talent in traditional and contemporary tribal skills.

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During her reign as Miss Indian America, my parents would meet.  At this time my Dad worked in the shipyards and for Boeing, in Seattle, WA. He was attending the the Pioneer Days Powwow held in Lake City, WA, when they met.  Ernest Charles James Teeias (a descendant of Chief Teeias) and Arlene Josephine Wesley were married in 1954, they were the first couple to be married in the Log Church, located in White Swan,WA.  They were married for 57 years when my father passed on in February 2011.  I believe strength in family and in life extend from the examples set from this type of commitment to one another.  Honor, grace, dignity, respect and commitment – all go hand in hand – this is what they taught me.


I am second to the youngest, of 8 children.  I was born in Yakima, WA, raised and educated on the Yakama Reservation.  Given my Mom’s background, I was raised in both the Christian Log Church and in the Toppenish Creek Longhouse; in the Longhouse we follow the Washat, 7 drums religion.  I am also a part of the Wasco, medicine society taking part in those spiritual, healing ceremonies.  We would spend some Sundays at the Christian Church and other Sundays following our Longhouse ways.  I think this type of an upbringing provided a strong sense of ‘self’ in learning to identify ‘who’ I was in relation to the rest of the world.  I take pride in the fact that I can recognize the land, culture and identity of being – Yakama.  I was raised within the Powwow circle and still enjoy and participating in these types of celebrations although, it is much more difficult to find the time to participate while working and going to school.

Now that I’m here on a college campus, at 42 years of age, I can honestly say that I’m not the ‘traditional’ student, by any stretch of the imagination.  I graduated from White Swan High School in 1987.  During my high school years, I excelled in sports; was selected as the senior female athlete of my graduating class and considering the company that I was in; that was truly an honor.  I lettered in each; Volleyball, Basketball and Track served as Captain of the Volleyball team and represented our school while playing in the State Tournaments, in both Volleyball and Basketball.  I also represented our school at the State Track and Field meet during my Senior year.


Academically, I took as many advanced courses that I could have taken, at that time.  I took Algebra in 8th grade, college English during my freshman year and was the only student enrolled in my computer science class.  Back then, computer science had nothing to do with writing ‘Smartphone Apps’; back then, my computer programs were written onto cassette tapes!  My Son can’t even begin to understand that!  This was also a time in which; college was not on the radar.  However, I was fortunate to have someone like Mrs. Heffner and Miss Hubert to introduce those ideas to me.  Miss Hubert started me in College English, earning me credits at YVCC; while I was still in High School. Mrs. Heffner, my computer science teacher and my Volleyball coach, soon had me dreaming of becoming a sports trainer, so much so, that I began attending the Eastern Washington University, Sports Medicine Camps every summer.  I was then gaining experience in HS, as a student trainer.  I may not have ended up as a sports trainer however; it did introduce me to the collegiate environment.

Coming from such a humble background, if I was going to attend college, I knew I needed to make it happen on my own.  I worked my way through my Associate of Arts & Science at Yakima Valley Community College; this was not an easy task.  I went to school at YVCC and Heritage University (College) attending school on nights and/or weekends to gain the AAS.  All the while, I was working full time and managing crews at the Yakama Nation.  I would then enroll at the University of Washington to begin my BS in Forest Resources – Wildlife Science.  I would maintain a partial employment with the tribe to help me work my way towards my BS degree.  Nearing the age of 30 and nearing the end of my BS degree program, my life would radically change course and I would become a Mother.  As sometimes happens in life, I would also become a single parent and was forced to leave school and return to work full-time.


I never gave up on my desire to finish college but, it would have to wait a few years.  While working at the tribe, I continued to work hard and gain valuable skills in the field of Forestry and Wildlife.  I would eventually become the first Yakama to be recognized as one the Wildlife Conservation Society’s, international research fellows.  With this distinction, I was able to utilize the grant funding to begin a GPS Mountain Goat study, on the Yakama Reservation.   Eventually, this fellowship provided the data to return to school and finish my BS degree in Wildlife Science. I still had a one-year, Bachelor’s thesis remaining on the degree; I returned to school, when my son was 10 years old.  I then began my quest for a graduate degree. First, I set out to expand upon the mountain goat work on the Yakama Reservation via, a statewide habitat assessment of habitat.


After spending a year in the remote sensing and geospatial lab at UW; I was introduced to the UW Bioenergy IGERT director and my path would once again, change.  I accepted the IGERT fellowship and would soon be working in the Bioenergy arena.  After a year of coursework, I established collaboration with the Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) of Montana.  During our IGERT year, we completed bioenergy assessments for the tribe and; I would define a separate Master’s Thesis topic, with the CSKT Forestry Department in Fire Ecology.  I am now working to finish the MS degree and I’ve begun planning for my PhD which, could incorporate: forest policy & law, education and workforce development needs of Tribal Nations.

If you had asked me in 1987, where I would end up… I would never have been able to dream of the reality that I’m living today.  I am a single parent, graduate student and I’m holding down 2 AMAZING part-time positions that truly bring my education and professional work experience, full circle.  Native teachings talk about the cycle of life and how everything is ‘inter-connected’. I think my background truly represents this belief – I’ve come full circle.

I may have accomplished many things in my life however; my greatest achievement, to date, is being a mother to Joe.  At less than a week old, a special ceremony was held for him in Warm Springs, OR where; he was blessed by members of the Wasco Medicine Society.  He has truly been a blessing to so many others, since his birth.  Joseph is Yakama/Navajo, is an enrolled member of the Yakama nation and is learning the traditional teachings of his tribe. He will undoubtedly envision a brighter future for himself, in large part, due to the bright inspiring minds that we are surrounded by, here at UW.  Joe, is a freshman at Roosevelt High School, is a member of the UW MESA program and an extended member of the UW SACNAS chapter.  He is truly the source of my strength and inspiration to ‘finish what I’ve started’; in terms of my college aspirations.  It is not easy to take the route that I’ve taken in life.  However, I’m proving that it is possible; possible to dream of things that may seem out of reach, due to the financial hardships.  It is possible to overcome barriers, with strength and determination, all things are possible and I know this is something that many tribal members also face.  I could not be prouder of this young man, young violinist, young teacher and budding scientist. This past year, he presented his 8th grade science project as a part of the American Indian Science & Engineering Society, pre-college program.  He represented himself well and placed second, for his work pertaining to water quality.  He even practiced his presentation at one of the SACNAS, monthly chapter meetings!  He is thriving in this environment!

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While Joe is carving out his path, we’ve definitely relied heavily upon the ‘extended’ family that we’ve built up here in the UW & Seattle area.  My fellow colleagues, from the UW campus and SACNAS environment have all had a hand in helping me mold and shape him into the bright, young aspiring scientist that we see today. Our SACNAS chapter is a part of our family!


Throughout life, you live, and exhibit the characteristics that you develop throughout life.  Strength and weakness, kindness and humility, love and compassion; cannot be taught, they are learned.

My parents taught us to ‘do as much as you can’, everyday.  Help when you can….don’t wait to be asked.  In fact, you should always jump up and jump in, do what you can, before someone has to ask you to help out.  That was our teaching.  During Joe’s younger days, we were living with my parents to help them care for my elderly Grandfather; (Joe’s namesake) Joseph Nekewyema Wesley.  My assistance provided some relief to my Sister (Launa) and Sister-in-Law (Connie); they were also providing care for my Grandfather and; between the 3 of us, we were able keep him at home and out of the nursing home.  This was hard work; sometimes I’d get home from my 10-12 hour days of working in the forest and would immediately begin the night-time ritual in providing care for him.  Joe also had long days since, I would drop him off or pick him up before and after my day of work.  So, he kept the same hours that I did (Albeit, he had the opportunity to nap during the day 🙂 but, he was a child.  Joe and I would be responsible for gathering or bringing in the fire-wood, to help reduce the electric bills.  So, as a young boy, Joe was learning that life is not always fun and filled with hard work.  He also learned that family comes first.  You take care of family and you treat ALL people with dignity and respect.  Visiting with his great-grandfather while I provided the nightly care; taught Joe a thing or two about compassion and empathy.  It definitely prepared him for life’s next challenge; in which we all watched and adjusted to his Grandfather (my Father), transition through the stages of Alzheimer’s and dementia.  Until my Dad’s final days, Joe was the one individual that could still bring a sense of calm peace to my Father’s day.

One of the other areas that I’ve tried to stress to Joe is the need to volunteer and make a difference in someone else’s day.  For years, I volunteered with the Crisis Line at Central Washington Comprehensive Mental Health in Yakima; while I worked and went to school full-time.  A few hours, answering phone calls during the middle of the night; was enough to make a difference in the lives of those individuals that needed someone to listen to them.  I’ve also been able to volunteer in other arenas where my academic and or professional training, came in handy.  Volunteering is a great opportunity and I wish we could do more.  Joe has volunteered the past 4 years at an after-school program here in Seattle and feels the rewards of being involved and making a difference in lives of those kids that he works with.  To those kids, he has made a tremendous difference.

All of these experiences combined speak volumes about compassion, humility, strength, determination and perseverance.  I honor my parents:  First, my Dad for teaching me about strength and the idea of ‘never quitting’.  I honor my Mom, for showing me how to hang onto the things that are important, without the expectation of getting something in return all the while, persevering and knowing who you are; while walking with grace and dignity.  I honor my teachings and my cultural beliefs; all of these things were shown to me and are all things that I hope to pass onto my Son.  These experiences have shaped me into the woman that I am today, a woman engaged in science and totally blessed to be a woman that is also a Mom!

Laurel James is a graduate student in Forest Resources at the University of Washington.

Outreach Event: Sacnistas Volunteer at Seattle Expanding Your Horizons 2012

On Saturday March 10th 2012, at Seattle University in the Capitol Hill, nearly 400 middle school young ladies attended this year’s Seattle Expanding Your Horizons (SEYH) conference event. SEYH is a daylong event where girls from Seattle and surrounding areas are given the opportunity to participate in workshops in the STEM fields. This event is particularly special because local women in the STEM fields are encouraged to design and host workshops. Women biologists, engineers, physicists, and many other local professional women volunteer their time annually to host hands-on workshops that introduce girls to exciting careers involving math, science and computer technology. Most importantly, this conference allows young girls the opportunity to meet and interact with many women in a variety of STEM fields.

This year, several of our UW SACNAS chapter members volunteered with SEYH. I chose to host a microbiology-based workshop with the help of two other women in the UW MCB graduate program. With support from the BioQuest program at Seattle Biomed, a program devoted to introducing high school students to laboratory science, we designed a short workshop using fluorescent bacteria and common household antibacterial agents. After briefly introducing some interesting facts about bacteria, the girls were asked to mix the non-infectious bacteria provided with several different cleaning products including Lysol, bleach, Febreze, antibacterial soaps and natural cleaners. We then “fed” the bacteria a biochemical substrate that when metabolized fluoresces bright yellow. Using handheld black lights and goggles, the young ladies explored which reagents could kill the bacteria and result in no fluorescence in comparison to their bright yellow untreated control.

This activity proved quite popular with most participants, but as a presenter, what I really enjoyed was the time we spent talking with the girls in between the lab protocol steps. During this time, my partner presenters and I discussed our academic background, how we ended up in the sciences and what we plan to do in the future. The girls also shared their experiences with science and talked about whether they were thinking of studying science in college. This was a very important portion of the workshop, providing the girls with diverse personal stories of finding a career path in research.

Also participating was UW Sacnista Natalie Garcia, a PhD student in Medicinal Chemistry. A few of her pictures are posted in the gallery below. Sacnista Tzitziki Lemus also spent some time speaking to the parents of the girls about our SACNAS chapter. She represented us well!

Can’t wait to participate next year. I hope that even more local women in science will be inspired to get involved either as a workshop presenter or event volunteer!

Erica Sanchez is originally from northern California, where I attended UCDavis for my Bachelor of Science in Molecular Biology. I am currently a second year graduate student in the Molecular and Cellular Biology program at the UW and the UW SACNAS chapter Secretary.

Guest Blog: My Lineage of Strong Women

What do you get when you cross a bookkeeper and a baker?  You get, Me!

Visiting the Mayan ruins at Caracol

My name is Amber Caracol and I was born and raised in Hawaii.  I am in my first year of teaching Biology after receiving my PhD in Molecular and Cellular Biology from the University of Washington last summer.  I am a first generation college graduate and the first person in my family to pursue a doctoral degree.  While a graduate student, I studied DNA repair mechanisms and how they related to cancer and chemotherapy.  I love teaching science and am passionate about promoting diversity in higher education, especially among women and other underrepresented minorities in the sciences.

I have been influenced by many great women including my family members, friends, teachers, mentors and women in history. I am so lucky to have many positive influences within my family, including my Aunties, Cousins and Sisters.   In honor of Women’s History Month, I would like to share stories of my family and how I became who I am today.

As a child, I often wondered what I would be when I grow up.  Would I be a baker like my Dad or a bookkeeper like my Mom?  Or maybe a clerk typist or a clinical service representative, like my Grandmothers?  When I was 7, I remember thinking that maybe I could be a doctor to help people when they get sick.  I had a couple of part-time jobs throughout high school- a teacher’s assistant at a preschool, a summer camp counselor, and then an assistant at a pottery shop.  I enjoyed these opportunities because I was able to interact with children and help them develop into their own person.  Many kids had their birthday parties at the pottery shop and although sometimes exhausting, nothing was better than helping them create masterpieces of art and seeing the joy and smiles it brought.

I attended La Pietra School, a private all-girls college preparatory school in Honolulu, from 6th through 12th grade.  I learned many important study skills and gained confidence in academics that would serve as a foundation for my life as a scholar.  When I entered my high school years, I still didn’t really know what I would be.  I excelled in school.  I was very involved with extracurricular activities like student government, peer leadership and yearbook.  I was active in sports- at one point I played volleyball, basketball and paddled.  If I were taller, I would have liked to pursue playing volleyball, but I was pretty sure that wasn’t going to happen and decided to focus on my education.  Somewhere deep down, I knew that education was going to be the key to my success and a way to help others while making the world a better place.

After many, many years of schooling, first for my high school diploma from La Pietra School, then my Bachelor’s degree from the University of Hawaii and most recently, my doctoral degree from the University of Washington, I know that I would not be where I am today without the influences of strong women in my family.

Although I didn’t have the privilege to know them, I would like to share the stories of two of my great-grandmothers (one from my maternal Korean side and the other from my paternal Filipino side), who were both strong women and pioneers in their day.

My maternal great-grandmother, Mallak (Yee) Choi, was a picture bride from Korea.  She came to Hawaii to marry my great-grandfather, Sum Cho Choi, a man whom she had only seen in a picture.  Her parents died when she was 10 and her brother thought she could have a better life in Hawaii.  He paid a middle man in Hawaii who matched her with my great-grandfather, Sum Cho. Great-grandmother Mallak was 16 when she arrived in Hawaii to marry a man whom she thought was in his 30’s.  She soon found out that her groom-to-be was an older Korean man and that he sent a picture of himself when he was younger.  Great-grandfather Sum Cho thought he was about to marry a woman in her 30’s, not a teenager.  The middle man had tricked them, but she didn’t have any money to go back to Korea.  Despite their age difference, they married and started a family together on the island of Lanai.

Great-grandfather Sum Cho worked really hard in the pineapple fields and cleaned the bath houses to earn the little money that they had to raise their family.  Great-grandmother Mallak did whatever she could to contribute.  She did laundry and made “swipe”, fermented pineapple juice that she made in bottles under the house to serve to the plantation workers.  Because this was illegal, the police would come to the house to break the bottles she had stored under the house.  She had seven children, one of whom is my maternal grandmother, Sarah (Choi) Palisbo, who would share some of her stories of growing up in old Hawaii and working in the fields.  My great-grandmother Mallak had no idea that she would marry and start a family with a man 30 years older than her or live her life on the plantation.    I can’t begin to imagine what she felt throughout her life other than complete love for her children and wanting to give them a better life, which she did exactly that!

My great-grandmother Mallak at the age of 82.

Around the same time that my great-grandmother Mallak left Korea, my paternal great-grandmother, Maria (Segocio) Caracol, left the Philippines as a stow-away on a ship bound for Hawaii.  It was on this ship that she met my great-grandfather Damian Caracol.  The story goes that the Filipino migrants on board started taking picks of whom they would marry when they reached Hawaii.  Papa Damian picked Mama Maria and they wed once they got to Hawaii.  They had seven children, including my paternal grandfather, Theodulfo Caracol, and made their living working in the sugar cane fields.  Papa Damian also was in the bootleg liquor business to make ends meet any way they could and raise their family.  I often wonder how Mama Maria felt when she decided to make the journey to Hawaii and then as a stow-away on a ship to a place that she had never been before.  What a brave woman to seek a better life for herself, despite the risks.  I just can’t imagine what it would be like to live on a ship with the constant fear of getting caught.  I am so thankful that ALL of my great-grandparents made it safely to Hawaii and started their families.

My great-grandparents, Papa Damian and Mama Maria Caracol

Papa Theodulfo Caracol, my paternal grandfather married my grandmother, Mama Victoria (Tangonan) Caracol.  Her parents, Teodorico and Emiliana Tangonan, came to Hawaii from the island of Luzon from the Ilocos region of the Philippines.  They first arrived on the island of Kauai and worked on the sugar cane plantations.  They had 4 children, my grandma Victoria and her siblings, Victor, Robert and Mary.

Papa and Mama Caracol had six children, my Dad, Richard, and his siblings Theodulfo Jr., Debra, Roy, Guinevere, and Ariadne.  Mama Caracol is such a strong and loving woman.  She is the backbone and cares for everyone in our family: her children, us grandchildren and also now, her great-grandchildren, my nieces and nephews.  She is nurturing and supportive, sharing her wisdom no matter what the situation.  She is a great example for me of someone who does what she is passionate about, which for Mama is traveling and seeing the world.  She is in her seventh decade and still lives her life to the fullest: working, traveling, and spending time with the family.  As our family continues to grow, she still maintains a close relationship with each of us and has provided support, strength and nurturing whenever I need it.

Mama and I at her 75th Birthday Celebration!

I come from a lineage of strong women and my mother, Paula Caracol, is no exception.  Her paternal grandparents, Angel and Gaudencia (Humalon) Paalisbo, also came to Hawaii from the island of Cebu in the Visayas of the Philippines and had my grandfather, Theodoro Palisbo (he changed the spelling of his last name to Palisbo).  Grandpa Palisbo was in the Army and Grandma Palisbo was a clerk typist.  They had three children, my Mom, Paula and her younger siblings, Peter and Amy.

My grandma, Sarah Palisbo

My Mom has been a bookkeeper since she was a young woman and one of her clients was a bakery, which is where she met my dad, Richard Caracol, a baker.  It is from my Mom that I get the analytical and innovative traits while inheriting creativity and originality from my Dad.  For as long as I can remember, my mom worked very hard to raise my sisters and me herself.  She filled multiple roles in her career and as a parent.  She worked three jobs and would say that she had three jobs, one for each of us.  While growing up, her main job was running her own tax and bookkeeping business.  She also ran a preschool and was a Christmas card salesperson.  She worked around the clock in order to provide for us and allow us to receive good education.  With the help of scholarships to defray the cost of tuition, my sisters and I all received college-preparatory education in high school that enabled us to be successful in college.  I am the second person in our family (after my older sister, Karisa) to receive a Bachelor’s degree.  I earned my Bachelor of Science in Biology with distinction from the University of Hawaii in 2004.  Karisa received her Bachelor’s degree in International Business from Linfield College in 2002 and our younger sister, Charity, earned her Bachelor’s degree in Sociology from the University of Hawaii this past December.  It is from my mom that I learned hard work and perseverance.  She never gave up when things got hard but just kept pushing forward.  She has instilled this work ethic in me and a desire to pursue my interests no matter how daunting or difficult.

Mom and daughters, Karisa, Charity and I

When I was in high school, my Mom always told me that the grade doesn’t matter, only to be sure that I did the best that I could and I truly believed it.  In high school, I was very active in many things, as I mentioned above.  Despite the busy schedule, I liked to participate in all the activities and took hard classes because I thought they were interesting.  I knew that my grades didn’t really matter and that I would only be content with myself knowing that I have done my best.  It is the latter sentiment that allows me to push myself every day.  Becoming the class valedictorian and earning various awards, scholarships and fellowships throughout my schooling was a by-product of trying my best.  I wouldn’t necessarily say that I was the smartest in my classes, but I do believe that my dedication, perseverance and giving my all no matter what the situation, is how I have gotten to this point in my life.  My mom is someone who possesses all of those qualities.  It is through all of these experiences both inside and outside of the classroom that I have learned about subjects like Biology and Math and also about life and inner strength.

While studying at the University of Hawaii, I initially planned on being a History major, but I got hooked on science after I took Introduction to Cell and Molecular Biology and did undergraduate research through the Haumana (IMSD) and MARC Programs.  I loved learning about DNA, how our bodies can repair damaged DNA and how cancer can develop when these pathways stop working.  It was around this time that I realized how much I loved science and doing research as much as I loved learning new things and helping others.  Shortly after, I decided that I wanted to pursue a doctoral degree and become a Science Professor.  I had no idea what to expect from graduate school or what it meant to be a graduate student.  Matriculating into the Molecular and Cellular Biology Program at the University of Washington was an exciting and very daunting challenge.  This meant leaving my family, friends and everything that I had ever known to start a new life as a graduate student in Seattle, not entirely unlike what all of my great-grandmothers did when they came to Hawaii.

After transitioning to Seattle and UW, I created a great network of support which included my friends, classmates and lab-mates.  I helped to start the Society for Advancement of Chicanos / Hispanics and Native Americans in the Sciences (SACNAS) Student Chapter at UW.  The Chapter has become my science family with a long list of strong women and colleagues who have been my support system and inspiration throughout graduate school.  This list includes Amanda Bruner, Dr. Charla Lambert, Katrina Claw and Savannah Benally, dear friends that I would have not gotten to this point without.

My SACNAS Family

After seven hard years of graduate school, I finally earned my PhD in Molecular and Cellular Biology with a certificate in Molecular Medicine.  I learned so much about DNA repair, conducting research, experimental design, data analysis, scientific writing, working with human tissues, and communicating science and my work to others.  I worked on many projects throughout graduate school and completed my dissertation, “Involvement of DNA repair factors, WRN and MRE11, in the response to the chemotherapeutic agent, camptothecin” last August.  When I finished graduate school, my future career was very uncertain.  I didn’t know if I would be able to find a job or get training to be a Science Professor.  I didn’t have a postdoc or full-time job lined up when I submitted my dissertation, but I knew that I had gotten this far and I couldn’t let go of my dream to be a Professor who is successful at teaching biology as well as guiding students to pursue their passions.

University of Washington Class of 2011

During the months leading up to my completion, I sent my CV out to community colleges and small colleges throughout Washington in addition to applying for jobs in Washington and California.  I ended up interviewing and received adjunct faculty positions to teach Biology at North Seattle and Seattle Central Community Colleges in the Fall quarter.  I was ecstatic!  Even though I did not have a true full-time position, I had positions to teach two courses (General Biology with labs) at the community college level and also a weekly lab section at the University of Washington Bothell (UWB), which in a way, seemed like a full-time job cumulatively.  This quarter I am teaching two courses with labs (General Biology and Anatomy and Physiology) at North Seattle Community College (NSCC) in addition to the part-time position at UWB.

Teaching is great.  I absolutely love it!  I enjoy teaching science and about the biological processes that make us humans.  I love seeing that moment when the lightbulbs go on in my students’ heads about science and being able to interact with students, showing them that it possible to pursue your passion no matter how daunting or difficult.  It has been a learning experience which requires transitioning (but that will have to be the topic another blog!). But, I know this is a learning curve well worth it as this is the start of my path to being a Professor and making a difference in my student’s lives, which I know will not be realized without hard work and perseverance.

It is from my family lineage, my upbringing and life experiences that I am passionate about student development, and diversity and inclusion in higher education and the STEM fields.  Just as a protein’s properties are influenced by the genetic code, so are my characteristics and passions influenced by my genetic code: traits of bravery, pioneerism, strength, hard work, dedication and perseverance that must have been passed down through my X chromosomes.

Amber Caracol currently teaches at UW Bothell and North Seattle Community College. She earned her PhD from the University of Washington in 2011 in Molecular and Cellular Biology and is a past president and founder of the UW SACNAS chapter. 

My maternal side of the family back home in Hawaii.