Written by The Business Journal Staff
Over the last decade, many programs have been developed to encourage women to pursue careers in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). Now thanks to Visalia native Cindy Quezada, young women from the College of the Sequoias (COS) are learning what goes on behind the scenes in the medical labs at Adventist Health centers in Hanford and Selma.
Quezada, who was awarded a L’Oreal USA for Women in Science (FWIS) fellowship in 2005 to pursue research in multi-drug resistant tuberculosis, was one of four FWIS alumni to win a $2,500 Changing the Face of STEM Mentoring Grant awarded by L’Oreal USA. The grant is meant to support former FWIS fellows in their efforts to inspire the next generation of women in STEM.
While Quezada has not lived in the Valley since graduating high school and has used much of her scientific expertise abroad, she decided to use the grant funds to give back to the community she grew up in by launching a new summer program for young women from COS.
The summer program, in partnership with Adventist Health, focuses on teaching interns how to detect infectious diseases in blood and urine samples in the laboratory. Students also learn what happens chemically to cause certain diseases and conditions, what methods are used to treat them and why treatments work or don’t work.
In addition to the program at Adventist Health, which has seven interns, there is also one intern learning about water scarcity and agriculture at Bravo Lake Botanical Garden in Woodlake.
Quezada said she wanted the program to zero in on issues that affect the Central Valley, as well as California and the nation as a whole. Water and agriculture are vital to the area, she said, and the future of agriculture will depend on finding scientific and engineering solutions to the Valley’s water scarcity. As for infectious diseases, Quezada said they can strike anywhere in the world. The current Zika virus is just one example.
“With this grant, I wanted to focus on areas important in the San Joaquin Valley, in California and in the nation,” Quezada said.
Nina Cano, a clinical laboratory scientist and lab site manager at Adventist Health, said interns at Adventist switch between the lab in Selma and the microbiology lab in Hanford. In Selma, they learn the clinical aspects of the lab like how to do chemistry on blood draws and how to analyze results. In Hanford, they learn more specifics about certain infections, the pathogens involved, how they are tested and identified and once identified, what antibiotic or medication is used to treat them.
After the six-week program ends, Cano said students will present projects they’ve worked on at a poster symposium in Visalia on Aug. 12.
“One project is how to test for a urinary tract infection and another is how to detect whether an antibiotic is killing an infection or not. There are many projects interns can pick from,” Cano said. “It is an amazing experience for them. Some have commented that they weren’t aware of all that went on behind the scenes.”
The main goal of the program is to introduce young women to careers they may not have considered.
“I want to expose young girls to careers they’ve never thought of,” Quezada said. “Many want to go into health care as a doctor or nurse and they aren’t exposed to the laboratory aspect of health care, which is huge in assisting doctors and diagnosing patients and determining their care. I want to expand the mindset of girls interested in health careers.”
Quezada said this is exactly what she hoped to accomplish with the STEM program — she wanted to change lives with the program, just as the L’Oreal USA FWIS fellowship changed hers.
Before receiving the L’Oreal fellowship in 2005, Quezada was working in the lab as a post-doctorate researcher at Rockefeller University. Once she got the fellowship, she was able to bring her knowledge and skills overseas.
“It was life-altering because I was able to pursue an area I was passionate about — doing science in developing countries. I used the grant to analyze a new diagnostic for tuberculosis in Rwanda,” Quezada said.
The experience shifted her career. Rather than go back to work in the lab after her fellowship, she was awarded the AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowship and became an advisor to the secretary of state and the under secretary of state for civilian security, democracy and human rights.
“I transitioned from experimenting in the lab to creating policy that used science to solve problems the region was facing related to diseases, water, agriculture and energy,” Quezada said. “Had it not been for L’Oreal and the international experience I gained as a result of that grant, I would not have been allowed to do that.”
Quezada later served as the science, technology and innovation advisor for the USAID (United States Agency for International Development) in Egypt. While her contract with USAID is over, Quezada still resides in Egypt, where she works as a consultant to companies and nonprofit agencies. She plans to return to the U.S. later this year.
Quezada said she hopes this STEM program will be the first of many projects she is able to do in the Central Valley.
“My career went international, but I wanted to do something for the community where I was raised,” Quezada said. “I’m hoping this will be the beginning of me being able to do things in this region.”