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.