Scientist at Regeneron
“I’m a lifelong learner. I like to learn something new from every single person that I meet.”
A chance administrative mishap led to Dr. Jennifer Rico-Varela’s college application winding up in the Biomedical Engineering department of The City College of New York (CCNY). “This mistake was for a reason,” she says. This blunder rerouted Jennifer from the pre-medicine track into the world of bioengineering, labs and scientific research. Initially unsure of what she could do with a bioengineering degree, she sought advice from her academic adviser, Dr. Maribel Vazquez. Seeing Jennifer’s potential, Dr. Vazquez invited her to join her lab and became an important scientific and life mentor. In her lab, Jennifer became fascinated by the engineering of special devices used to study pediatric brain tumors. Empowered by Dr. Vazquez, Jennifer paved a successful career in biomedical research defined by her intelligence, dedication and overarching desire to support and uplift those around her.
Relocating from a small town in Colombia, Jennifer and her family arrived in Queens, New York when she was just 14 years old. She felt insecure and culturally shocked. Undeterred, Jennifer went on to excel academically, especially in STEM subjects. She joined Newcomers High School, where she was encouraged to engage in community service and joined Project Happy, an initiative in NYC that develops recreational and educational activities for children and young adults with mental and physical disabilities. She found the experience important and rewarding, igniting a lifelong passion for community engagement and outreach. When the time came to apply for college, she chose to stay near her family, attending CCNY. “So many times, I doubted myself,” she says. “[Doubted] that I could be successful…because I didn’t have any scientists in my family to come and say everything was going to be alright.” But with the encouragement, financial support, and guidance of Dr. Vazquez and others, Jennifer believed in herself. She built up her scientific acumen via academic internships, presented her work at conferences, and ultimately set her sights on applying to doctoral programs.
“So many times, I doubted myself. [Doubted] that I could be successful…because I didn’t have any scientists in my family to come and say everything was going to be alright.”
Jennifer went on to pursue her PhD in Biomedical Engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, New York. There, she joined the lab of Dr. Qun Wan , where she studied the effects of pharmaceutical drugs on human development. Healthy embryonic development during the first trimester of pregnancy is critical as this period is sensitive to disruption, perhaps even by medications like antidepressants or pain relievers. Jennifer screened drugs to determine whether they had an impact during this critical window. She used an experimental system that incorporated human embryonic stem cells to simulate early embryonic development during the first trimester. Using this system, she looked at the effect of drugs on the movement and directional preferences of cells, which help govern how cells correctly shape and position internal organs. She found that several pharmaceutical drugs changed cell’s directional preferences, which could have major ramifications and lead to birth defects. This research is vital for building our understanding of healthy and safe medication during pregnancy. Throughout her PhD, Jennifer leveraged her background in bioengineering and stem cell biology to accomplish her goals, but also found it crucial to form collaborations and seek guidance when necessary.
“Be comfortable failing and use these opportunities for growth and reinvention.”
For Jennifer, building relationships is a vital part of a scientific career that is often overlooked, and makes a point to highlight this to her students. In addition to guidance, peers and mentors can be future collaborators in science or outreach. One such person Jennifer approached was Dr. Brigitte Arduini, the director of the Stem Cell Core at RPI, who ended up becoming her co-advisor and scientific mentor. Dr. Arduini taught Jennifer about how to proactively approach the unexpected and frustration in science. “With research you realize it is a trial and error process. Failure is something you’re going to experience more than the victories,” she says. “Be comfortable failing and use these opportunities for growth and reinvention.”
A consistent cornerstone in Jennifer’s life and career is her drive to motivate and empower future scientists. This comes, in part, from difficult experiences she faced and witnessed. She encountered professors who discouraged minority and LGBT students, making them feel isolated and attacked until many left their graduate programs. “[The students] felt like they didn’t fit in this environment,” she says. Despite how demoralizing these experiences were, they strengthened her drive to build strong, supportive communities within these institutions to ensure that the next generation of scientists had positive role models to turn to.
When Jennifer joined RPI, she was the only Latina in the entire PhD program. As there was no Latino association for graduate students, she found solidarity with and joined the Black Graduate Student Association (BGSA), which welcomed her with open arms. Through them and the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, she furthered her work in diversity and inclusion advocacy by hosting panel discussions on career options after graduation. She emphasized to students from underrepresented backgrounds that “you belong here”. Jennifer sought to demystify the graduate school application process and the PhD experience, and help students discover research opportunities.
Knowing the importance of mentors in her own success, Jennifer strives to serve that same role for future scientists. Beyond mentoring students at RPI, she participated in initiatives such as the RPI Summer Pre-College Teachers Training Program in Stem Cell Biology & Bioengineering, co-led by Dr. Arduini. This program partnered teachers from low-income high schools in New York with RPI researchers to design modules on stem cell biology aimed to spark students’ interest in science and teach them to think critically. These programs helped Jennifer discover her passion for science communication. Whenever there were seminars or events at RPI, Jennifer was always in the front row, armed with questions and eager to give back to the community. “I’m a lifelong learner. I like to learn something new from every single person that I meet.” She strives to learn more about cultures, scientific fields, and people themselves. Her curiosity about the world led her to pursue academic internships at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden and at the Technische Universität Graz in Austria.
After her PhD, Jennifer was curious about exploring career opportunities where she could leverage her skills and create an impact, leading her to join Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, Inc. as a Process Scientist. In this role, Jennifer develops assays and performs investigations to assist with the manufacturing of Regeneron products. Before this point in her career, Jennifer examined how drugs manipulated cellular behavior. Now, she manipulates cells to make components of biopharmaceutical drugs. Jennifer was able to employ her expertise in precise cellular control to smoothly pivot into her new position. At Regeneron, she has maintained her passion for diversity advocacy and is constantly seeking out opportunities to benefit and bolster others. Jennifer now collaborates with the Women in Industry, Science, and Engineering at Regeneron (WISER) group on virtual outreach activities amidst the Covid-19 pandemic. She designs fun and inexpensive experiments to introduce the Girl Scouts of Greater New York to important concepts in STEM and encourage them to think creatively.
“A PhD and a scientific career is not a straight line,” she says to aspiring scientists. “We’re going to face failure every single day. And we are not alone in this journey.” A good support system was vital for Jennifer to face these challenges, and she passionately advises students on the value of gaining skills in collaborative work and communication in addition to technical skills. Communities, such as BGSA, and incredible mentors were crucial for her professional growth and to reassure her that she “wasn’t an outlier”. For Jennifer, her greatest ambition is to ensure that future generations of scientists from underrepresented backgrounds can achieve even more, and that the barriers she overcame are eradicated. Through her charisma, intelligence, and sheer willpower to change the world for the better, Jennifer is the kind of trailblazer that will pave a legacy for all those to follow within and outside of the lab.
“A PhD and a scientific career is not a straight line. We’re going to face failure every single day.
by Nainika Roy