Science Chat with Dr. Paola Moreno-Roman

May 22, 2024
Interview conducted by Siobhan Keegan, representing Watershed Bio.

Dr. Paola Moreno-Roman is a passionate science advocate who is involved in a number of science outreach initiatives in both the U.S. and Peru. Originally from Peru, Dr. Moreno-Roman moved to the U.S. to pursue a doctoral degree at Stanford University. She is now a Professor at Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heredia and a Strategic Partnerships Consultant at Foldscope Instruments, Inc.

Siobhan: Hi Paola! Would you be able to give us a quick introduction?

Paola: Thank you so much for having me! I'm happy to share a little bit about my path, and I am hoping this will resonate with others in different ways. I am from Peru (born and raised), and actually went to college in Peru and majored in Biology, at the Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heredia. After that I moved to the US for grad school at Stanford, where I got my PhD in Cellular and Molecular Biology. After that I pivoted and started working for Foldscope Instruments for a while, then eventually moved back to Peru and now I work remotely as a consultant for Foldscope Instruments, Inc. - a company that aims to increase science accessibility- and teach at Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heredia.

Siobhan: That’s such a cool journey! What did you study in grad school?

Paola: My PhD thesis was studying how stem cells become intestinal cells in fruit flies. It was very cool, very interesting, very at the intersection of genetics and cell biology. I really really loved that.

Siobhan: I know you’ve done a lot of really impactful outreach work. How did you get started with some of these initiatives?

Paola: Throughout undergrad and grad school, I was involved in a number of initiatives mainly focused on supporting women and young girls in STEM, but also Latinos and Latinas in general. I co-founded a couple of organizations for this at Stanford, and then was also leading a few other organizations in Peru that supported Peruvian students. So for me, that was always something I felt passionate about, the whole science outreach aspect of science.

Siobhan: That’s amazing! And then once you finished grad school, did you already know that you wanted to really focus your career on that type of work?  

Paola: When I was finishing grad school, it became really clear for me in that moment that I wanted a break from the wet lab research. I also wasn’t sure if I wanted to continue doing research in academia. So I pivoted a bit and started working at a company called Foldscope Instruments that was actually born at Stanford. I started working there as the Director of Strategic Partnerships for a few years, and then a year ago I decided to move back to Peru for a wide variety of reasons. I’m still working at Foldscope as a consultant, and still have a very strong connection with the company.

Siobhan: Tell me a little bit more about Foldscope - what do they do? How did you become involved?

Paola: Foldscope is a paper microscope that works like any other educational microscope, but it’s low cost and portable. For me that was something that drew my attention, the whole idea of frugal science and developing high-quality low-cost scientific tools that can increase science accessibility. I met the founders as a first-year student at Stanford volunteering at a nearby school, where they went to prototype this paper microscope they were developing. It actually worked! Then we had a professional relationship where we’d overlap at conferences and workshops and it just worked out eventually. I’m still amazed at how things are continuously evolving, even now.

Siobhan: That sounds super exciting, and really lines up with the focus of a lot of your other initiatives. What motivated you to start the process of building some of those outreach initiatives?

Paola: It’s a wide variety of reasons. Learning from my experiences, reading about and seeing others go through very difficult experiences as women, and mixed with many other different identities I have (i.e., a woman of color, an International student, a Catholic, Indigenous Quechua). Coming from a country that’s more like a community-oriented society, where families have a huge role in daily life, and then moving to the US and not having that network of support, I was just there by myself, so for me that was another reason that drove me to have these safe spaces to discuss these things and really celebrate our successes, and to also lean on each other when things got hard, which, happened, that’s life.

Siobhan: Many of your initiatives support women in STEM. Is that intentional? Is it a specific interest for you?

Paola: The component of gender in this case - thankfully things are changing every decade. I haven’t struggled that much with impostor syndrome, but I’ve met so many young girls who do. In a lot of households girls are not necessarily discouraged, but also not necessarily encouraged to pursue a STEM career in general. They just don’t encourage them to investigate more and be curious. That’s one of the reasons that for this organization I work with we wanted to have workshops just for girls, just for them to have the safe space. We wanted to address some very specific issues, or rather very specific thoughts, that some of these girls (not all) had internalized subconsciously.

Siobhan: What are some examples of this that you’ve seen, and how could the approach be different?

Paola: Like a girl will express her interest in makeup, and parents say oh, for sure she won’t pursue a STEM career and they kind of stereotype that, but while they see their son playing with trucks and cars and getting interested in that they say oh, he’s interested in something STEM related. And that’s actually such a great way to talk about chemistry with that girl. They could talk about so much chemistry that is behind the development of makeup. Like they (girls) could love makeup and STILL pursue a career in STEM. They are not mutually exclusive, which sadly was a belief for a long time. I know it is changing now, but for a while it was something that was either this or that. But no, it can be this AND that.

Siobhan: What are the most rewarding results from what you’ve been doing?

When I encounter people who tell me that my words or actions touched them, or played a significant role in their lives, I sometimes didn’t even remember that interaction. Sometimes you walk around, and they say every interaction you have could impact someone else, and sometimes we’re just not mindful of that.

Siobhan: What’s a memorable example of that for you?

Paola: When I was in grad school, I supported the program that hosted science workshops for Peruvian girls (it was free), and would have workshops whenever I would come to Peru. For one, I asked the Foldscope founders if they could give me some prototypes. They did, and I hosted a workshop with the Foldscopes. Years later, actually earlier this year, one of the founders of Foldscope came to Peru and hosted a workshop. I was there too, and a woman showed up with this super early prototype of Foldscope. She said when she was little, she participated in this program and had a person who gave an amazing workshop that gave her these Foldscopes for free. I said wait, what??? It turns out that person was me! She was 12 at the time, now she’s 21 and majoring in biology.

Siobhan: Wow, that’s so incredible! Did she attribute any part of that workshop to her career choice?

Paola: She was sharing how participating in not just that workshop, but the whole program, played a huge role in her doing that. It’s moments like that where everything comes full circle. I think of these as my science kids of some sort. It blows my mind that the thing that in my head was a small thing had such a huge impact on hers. Having that tool and being able to explore. Just cultivating her curiosity through the one workshop and the one tool she obtained from that workshop. Stuff like that always blows my mind, just like, WOW. Thanks for asking that. I’d forgotten.

Siobhan: Have you seen significant cultural differences in creating these initiatives in Peru vs the US?

Paola: I would say for me the largest one is that overall societies, Peru (and South America in general) is a more community-oriented society. It’s very common to live with your parents in your 20s, 30s, going to college and still living with your parents unless you move to a different city, which also happens. While in the US, the expectation is that if you go to college you are going to move out of your home. It’s actually rare, though it happens, that they’re still living with their parents. You see the differences at such a young age, where people still have this community they’re attached to, versus being forced to find a community which is such a fundamental part of being human beings.

Siobhan: What do you think some of the impacts of that are on young scientists as they develop?

Paola: It can be beneficial to have a healthy community when you start encountering professional difficulties, especially for women in STEM. In the US, because it is more individualistic, it can be a very lonely journey. If you haven’t found a community where you are it’s going to be way harder, you won’t have anyone to lean on. And I do believe that’s why there are so many mental health issues. Having a network of support, it can be 2 people, 10 people, everyone has different needs, but someone to lean on is always helpful. I think that’s just how societies are built. In Peru and in the US this definitely plays a role in the professional development of women in STEM in those two different environments.

Siobhan: What has your experience been being a woman in STEM environments?

Paola: It’s been really interesting. As I said, I did my undergrad in Peru, and in biology at least, almost all of us were women. There were maybe only 5-6 guys, and they were for sure the minority. I started hearing as an undergrad that in some fields there were more men than women, but it wasn’t even an active thought in my head because I wasn’t experiencing it and the people around me weren’t experiencing it, and it wasn’t a conversation that was taking place around me.

Siobhan: Wow, that’s remarkable! Has that stayed the same throughout the rest of your journey so far?

Paola: I had a really positive experience as a woman in STEM, both in Peru and in the US. When I began grad school at Stanford, that’s when I started experiencing more, about the statistics of women as they continue climbing up the academic ladder and professionally overall, differences in policies for men and women. I’m grateful there were all these conversations around me taking place, and that I never had anyone point fingers at me for being a woman and not belonging to a space. I’ve been surrounded by very strong women in STEM as well, but I have also seen people very close to me have horrible experiences as women in STEM, and people being straight-out sexist in their faces without them realizing they were sexist, which still blows my mind. But it’s a very complex situation, I acknowledge everyone’s experiences. It’s very unique for every person. Even if you haven’t experienced it, saying it doesn’t exist is just crazy. There’s still so much to be done in that field.

Siobhan: Anything you’d like to promote or direct people towards? Anything to add?

Paola: Yeah, something I’d like to add, for everyone, is the importance of community. Having spent 9 years in the US and the rest of it in Peru, community is so important. Learning to ask for help, learning to voice your feelings when you’re hurt. And if the other person can’t receive them, learning how to find a group of people where you’re truly safe. I have this initiative called Yachaq Warmi, its a phrase in Quechua that translates to “woman who knows”, or female scientist. It’s centered around celebrating and sharing what Peruvian women in STEM, and really Latinas in Stem in general, have experienced. Feel free to check that out. Also, look for community near you! There are so many opportunities, now with the internet as well. Especially if you’re struggling with loneliness, those heavy feelings in your heart.

Siobhan: Aw, thank you. That’s so inspiring.

Paola: I’ve loved these topics for so long. It’s so needed. Grad school was tough, and if not for the community of support I had, I would have had tons of mental health issues. It’s amazing how love truly heals and protects! Especially from a really close friend.