During her first year at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP), Nadia Herrera worked a part-time job at a shoe store to help pay her tuition. She did such a good job that the manager offered to promote her. But Herrera had other plans. She also volunteered in a biochemistry lab on campus, and as soon as she received a fellowship to cover tuition costs, quit the sales job to devote her extra time to research—her true calling.
Herrera recalls doing her own small experiments as an elementary school student in El Paso—pouring water out of a glass over and over, and marveling at the water’s properties. “It just keeps falling out of the glass. It’s so malleable,” she remembers thinking.
University of Texas at El Paso
El Paso, TX
Photo: Victor Calzada for HHMI
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That curiosity about the natural world continued through high school, where she enrolled in the International Baccalaureate (IB) honors program. As a senior project for her advanced chemistry class, she assessed the effects of contamination from factories along the Rio Grande. She and her fellow students collected water samples and then tried to grow colonies of microorganisms on agar plates. “We were just trying to see if there was anything alive in the water, even bacteria,” she says. They found more bacterial colonies than they expected, leading them to conclude that the factories were releasing more organic waste into the water than regulations allowed.
Participating in the IB program also opened her eyes to the possibility of attending college—a first for her family—because that is what the teachers expected. So Herrera, the daughter of a construction worker and a store manager, enrolled at UTEP in the fall of 2008, intending to become a doctor.
“As I started learning more in my chemistry and biology core classes, I realized that I didn’t want to study medicine. I wanted to study what was behind the medicine,” she says. Herrera, now 20, will graduate this spring from UTEP—one year early—with a dual major in microbiology and biochemistry.
In fact, her path toward research began almost immediately after she arrived on campus, and she credits her academic advisor, Marc Cox, with pointing her in the right direction. She discovered that the introductory chemistry course covered material she had already studied in high school, so she asked Cox how she could learn more. He suggested that she talk to professors and get involved with doing research. She joined the lab of UTEP biochemist Ricardo Bernal and studied an enzyme used by a bacteriophage, a virus that attacks the human pathogen Pseudomonas aeruginosa.
Herrera’s goal was to crystallize the enzyme to determine its structure. She had to test more than 500 different conditions for crystallizing the protein before she found one that worked. She’s been optimizing it for almost a year and hopes to obtain a crystal structure soon.
Juggling a part-time job, lab work, and her classes that first year was difficult, Herrera says, because she had no experience or family guidance on paying for college or applying for financial aid. But a professor told her about the Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement fellowship, which provides a stipend for undergraduates in the biological sciences for doing research during the academic year. Since then, a Minority Access to Research Careers fellowship has paid for her studies.
In 2010, her junior year, Herrera was chosen for the HHMI Exceptional Research Opportunities Program (EXROP). She spent the summer in the lab of HHMI investigator Douglas Rees at the California Institute of Technology. Her project at Caltech also involved purifying a protein and characterizing its structure and function. However, “it was a more challenging experience than I had had before,” she says. The protein she worked with is a channel found in the membrane of a bacterium that causes tuberculosis. Because it’s a membrane protein, it prefers a lipid, or fat-filled, environment, but to crystallize the protein, it needs to be dissolved in water. By the end of the summer, she succeeded in creating protein crystals that will be characterized with x-ray crystallography by others in Rees’s lab who have taken over the project.
It’s a little like her other passion, the violin. Herrera began playing the instrument in fifth grade and played for two years in the UTEP orchestra. She still takes private lessons. “I fell in love with it like I fell in love with research,” she says.
Working in a lab as an undergraduate has prepared her well for her intended career as a scientist, she says. “It’s taught me that perseverance is key to research because most of the time in the lab, things are not going to work. If you want to make it work, you have to try new things, open your mind to more ideas. It’s just motivating me more to go to graduate school because now I know what research is. Even though it may be really hard, I know that I have the perseverance to continue.”