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Cherise Smith, Ph.D, Director JES A232A, Mailcode D7200, Austin, TX 78712 • 512-471-1784

Warfield Faculty Research Highlights

Faculty Feature: Dr. Lydia Contreras in Chemical Engineering


Dr. Lydia Contreras is an Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering. She has a BS degree in chemical engineering from Princeton University and a PhD in chemical and biomolecular engineering from Cornell University. She is a prolific scientist who has published in a number of journals and she has won a number of awards including an NSF CAREER award and an Airforce Young Investigator Award in 2012 as well as a Defense Threat Reduction Agency Young Investigator Award in 2011. Dr. Contreras’ research combines biomolecular engineering, genetic studies, and computational modeling to understand molecular features of RNAs and proteins, with the goal of developing new applications that derive from her experimental work to make beneficial impacts in the area of human health. Dr. Frank Guridy, Director of the Warfield Center interviewed about her reasons for becoming an engineer and her current research.

Frank Guridy: Dr. Contreras, how did you decide to become an engineer - a field that tends to have very few woman or women of color?

LC: Almost everyone you talk to about engineering will tell you the stereotypical thing – “I liked math and science.” But, actually, I did not want to be an engineer – I just wanted to do big things that would help my community and people. I’m a native of the Dominican Republic where the only engineering that’s commonly recognized is civil engineering – or the building of bridges. I come from a family who saw doctors impacting society – but I was very fortunate to learn that engineers can actually have a lot of impact in the world - because they can change things and make life different for people. Given my cultural background, I began to wonder how I could target problems that really help a community that I am familiar with. I didn’t feel that certain problems were getting proper attention, or that there were enough people really thinking about things – so I thought my focus on engineering was really a creative and innovative entry to change things that I consider important, like health.

FG: So, is that why you studied chemical rather than civil engineering?

LC: Yes, I wanted to directly work on drug development technology. Growing up in New York City I got an early appreciation for diversity. One of the things that happens with biology is you get diversity – which shows you where everything comes from. To me, the transition from genes, to people, to bacteria, to everything we have in the world is truly fascinating.

FG: Tell us about your background in the Dominican Republic

LC: I was born in the capital, Santo Domingo. I lived there until I was ten when my Mom decided to move to New York with my brother and I spent the rest of my early years growing up in the Bronx.

FG: What was the transition like from the Dominican Republic to the Bronx?

LC: Well, for one, the accent never left! It was definitely different - there were many challenges in being of color and having been labeled Black. Although in the Dominican Republic we have a range of people of color, the perception of what that means is different – because everybody’s considered Dominican. In Austin most people think I’m Ethiopian, but if I move somewhere else they might think I’m Indian. One of the last things that come to people’s minds is that I’m Hispanic. You can even talk to other Hispanics – and the notion of what they recognize as Hispanic is very different from what I look like, from what I sound like, from what I dance to, and from my expressions. It was very interesting to find myself being strongly guided towards a certain identity.

FG: Did you experience that in New York, too? Were there many Dominicans in your Bronx neighborhood?

LC: The majority of Dominicans, as you know, are concentrated in Washington Heights, which I visited often because my Grandfather lived there. There were few Dominicans in my neighborhood. The main shock came to me from one of the first questions people asked me: “Where are you from? What are you? Are you Black?” And that was very different for me. In New York I lived in a relatively poor community where I went to public school up to the eighth grade - so, that was another big change. I was very fortunate to get a scholarship to attend Riverdale Country School, a private school that’s a huge feeder for many top universities.  

FG: I think your comments resonate with the experience that a lot of Latinos across the racial spectrum encounter in this country, particularly if they were born and raised somewhere else. And if you were raised here, it still resonates on many levels. For example, your experience that even Latinos seemed not to recognize you is perhaps because despite the actual Latino racial spectrum, the notion of Latinidad means that somehow they’re lighter, rather than dark, or they don’t look like somebody who might look like you.

Tell us about your current research – what do you want interested folks outside of your field to know about what you’re doing?

LC: One of the main problems in drug development – when it comes to antibiotic development, for example – is resistance. You make a drug and despite whatever the drug is targeting, you find days or months later that the organisms have acquired another way to survive and do something different. We are looking at those responses in bacteria. The reason why that’s really important is because effective drugs are not reaching poor and African countries where diseases such as tuberculosis and meningitis are predominant. But even at the science level the ability to generate products that are generically useful across a spectrum of users is not very efficient. There are a lot of new technologies out there now – and you’ve probably heard the news about individualized genomes. Engineers in my area are going to play a big role in looking at the array of information – what can be done with this? How can it be organized? How can it be applied and what does it mean for the biology that we currently know? A lot of what we do in the lab is to focus on bacteria – pathogenic bacteria that cause diseases or bacteria that can do things that are easily translatable to applications.

FG: Let me ask you about accessibility. As a scientist generating knowledge, how do you think about accessibility in your work on drug development? Is accessibility a general consideration or something that results from your possible interfacing with drug companies? What are the steps between the work that you’re doing in the lab and how it gets applied?

LC: There are a lot of steps between me and how it gets applied. In my lab we look at fundamental ideas with the application eye. If we have something that proves to be promising then that’s something that we publish to disseminate the findings. The hope is that it would inspire somebody else so that it can one day turn into a useful technology or discovery. That’s as far as we go in the moment – because sometimes it’s just a matter of understanding more mechanistic information that could lead to something else. It’s still pretty early in my career and a little far off from the commercializing of the research.  That being said, UT Engineering has a huge effort underway to commercialize technology and trying to really push technologies out of the school. So, I think we will begin to think more about how to bridge industry and technology and the commercialization of what we do.

FG: Tell us about the workings of your lab.

LC: When I got here I had to establish a lab – I had two empty rooms that looked like a garage full of storage boxes – and then we turned that into a lab. The first semester, in addition to ordering and buying equipment, and testing and calibrating it, I had to train students. I trained my first student, my first student was critical in training the second group and now we are on my third front of students. A group of graduate PhDs and undergrad students who work with me in the lab are now independently working on their own projects. For them it’s a job - they get to the lab early in the morning, they have offices and hours. They do a lot of the hands-on work in the lab and they do a lot of the thinking, as well. They plan experiments, they run experiments, and analyze their data. I help generate and steer their ideas, teach techniques, and help them manage their  projects. There’s troubleshooting – for example, should we cancel an experiment and substitute it with another? There is a lot of interaction and moving projects forward but the students have to do a lot of background reading to understand the science and come up with potential plan A or B – for example, to figure out what needs to done to show a particular concept.

FG: What’s the typical timeframe of one of your projects?

LC: They are PhD students so they have different steps that they undertake during a five to six year project. Typically, during the initial stage of their PhDs they establish a tool – and by tool I mean a new method for assaying or for detecting some molecule in cells (many times we work on developing new methods). So, we do a lot of biotechnology development, in that sense. For example, if there is not a way to track x component in a cell we have to figure out how to do it before we can even look at it. Or, if there is a way, it might be that it doesn’t work as well with some of these organisms that we look at for our applications of interest. So we have to figure out how to change the system so that it works here, and then test it, and then show it, and then apply it and show something new. So, there are a lot of little steps, which is why the PhD and graduate student researchers get intermediate publications along the way.

FG: As you know the humanities is a book driven field and dominated by single author works, an emphasis that is, I think, to our detriment. Often, the work we are doing is collaborative; so, in order to write your book you need to have feedback from colleagues and peers. But in general collaborative work is not something that we do – although I think as we’re moving forward it’s something we have to re-think in some ways.

LC: Because we look at such complex problems it makes having a physicist on board, an engineer on board, and a biochemist on board almost a necessity. We don’t have all of the tools that we need in our lab. For example, we recently started collaborating with a chemist because we want model molecules that are synthetically made. But we don’t have the expertise to synthetically make molecules – we’re not chemists.

FG: So, it necessitates collaborative work.

LC: Yes, which is something that’s amazing. It actually helps to interest some minority students because they are attracted to the teamwork and a network of people. When informally surveying undergrads of color we’ve found that it’s one of the things that they really like about engineering work. The other thing that they really like is discovering the impact that their work can make.

FG: Give us a sense of your teaching and the outreach work that you are doing. Is this a formal project or an extension of other work that you are doing?

LC: I am hoping to start collaborating with Omi Jones and the Warfield Center on an education proposal that would use our own students to reach out to the East Austin community, so that they get the sense of ownership in engineering and science to start making connections with larger populations of underrepresented minorities that may not have extensive knowledge of what engineering degrees involve.. Another component will tap into the notion of service to the community that our parents and churches encourage in us. The students would be involved in a collaborative course with members of the Warfield Center that are experts in cultural features of underdeveloped African countries or Latin American countries. They will do a cultural survey through the lens of technology to determine what kinds of needs these countries express, how those needs are expressed through writing or painting, for example, then figure out what technology can do to serve them. By delving into science students will have to think creatively about simple tools that can really help the lives of people around the world. This is a course I look forward to developing and teaching within the next couple of years.

FG: …which takes us back to where we started in this conversation about what drew you to the kind of research you do. That’s sound great and it’s in line with things that African and African Diaspora Studies is doing, and that the Center likes to do in terms of outreach and community engagement.

LC: Yes, it would be great – because it turns out a lot of our students take classes from professors that are in the Warfield Center but they don’t see the connection to immediate problems in the local and global community. It’s a struggle because we don’t have a community that understands what they do – I went through that myself. Their parents feel proud when students have completed college, of course, but it can be very hard for our students to talk about their work and research with their parents when they go back home. And that’s really frustrating to a student because these are very challenging fields. The other problem is that resources are so poor that only about 14% of graduating high school minorities have the physics, math and chemistry background to even apply for engineering.

FG: Students may say, “I want to be an engineer” – and may only think of civil or petroleum engineering.  They take a class, it destroys their GPA, and it’s over – which goes to the retention issue we were talking about.

LC: I teach the introductory class in chemical engineering exactly for that reason. One of the first things I do is to introduce the idea of engineering tied to service to encourage thinking about the big picture of what they can do. But, I think our students really need a different level of support from what they get. There aren’t enough role models available for them to have a sense of identity in the discipline - which is why I’m really excited about being a part of the Center so that we can begin to bridge some of those gaps with engineering.

Transcription by M’bewe Escobar

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