Pia Rodriguez

Neuroscientist
PhD candidate at Duke University

What would you say to aspiring scientists?
“Even the scientist role models that you look up to thought they weren’t good enough at many points in their career. You feeling this way is completely normal and doesn’t take away from your talents, your abilities, or your scientific potential.”

The smells of the marketplace in Arequipa, Peru overwhelmed her with memories. She thought first of her late grandfather, who would take her to buy fresh seafood for a day-long feast. Traditional música criolla playing in the background. Laughter. Family. It was the first time in 15 years that Maria Pia Rodriguez Salazar, now a 3rd year PhD candidate in Cell Biology at Duke University, had been back to her native country since immigrating to America at 10 years old. Until going back, she had lived in the US undocumented and was unable to travel.

“I didn’t know if I was ever going to be able to go back [to Peru],” Pia says while recalling her time in the US. For her, going back to her native country was transformative. “The experience was so emotional, beautiful, rich, and the country was different from when I left it. I was different, too.” She realized that she had grown and changed, and that close family had either passed or grown much older. She struggled with “feeling like an outsider not only in the US, but also where I grew up,” she says. But after spending two weeks in Peru, she knew that it still was her home, her foundation.

I didn’t know if I was ever going to be able to go back [to Peru].”

For the first ten years of her life, Pia lived with her family between Peru and Bolivia, while her parents juggled a slew of jobs to support her and her three siblings. However, her parents wanted more for their family and decided to move to America to give their children better opportunities. It paid off. She studied hard and made her parents proud by getting excellent grades in school, even while they told her, “after you get your degree, you can paint socks if that’s what makes you happy!” She had another calling, though: because of the nature that surrounded her in the lush ecosystems of Peru and Bolivia, she was drawn to science at an early age and grew determined to become a conservation biologist.

At the time, there was really no dialogue about undocumented people in America. There’s millions of us, but social media was not really a thing, and it wasn’t something people really talked about.”

In pursuit of this dream to become the Latina version of Marjory Stoneman Douglas, she reached a watershed moment in her life at the end of high school in 2009. She was deciding where to go to college to pursue biology, but had the stark realization that being undocumented presented a number of unforeseen challenges. The biggest challenge? Many states and colleges charge undocumented students out-of-state tuition with no option for loans, federal aid, or scholarships. “At the time, there was really no dialogue about undocumented people in America. There’s millions of us, but social media was not really a thing, and it wasn’t something people really talked about,” she says. “There were no networks for someone like me to tap into.”

Even with no knowledge of how the education system in the US works, she was admitted to several universities and even made it to the final round of interviews for a full-ride scholarship to the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill. But, she didn’t know nor did anyone tell her that she was ineligible because of her status. Thus, even after all of that, she didn’t receive the scholarship. “With both of my parents working several minimum wage jobs just to make ends meet, it was impossible for us to pay tens of thousands of dollars in tuition out-of-pocket,” she recounts. She noted that this is what many undocumented youth struggle with today. 

One day, Pia was sitting in school and got called into the principal’s office. There, she found her parents crying. She immediately thought something terrible had happened. But, to her relief, it was UNC on the phone with the principal. They were so impressed by her scholarship application, and regretful that they couldn’t give it to her, that they were funding her tuition through other means. “At that point, I blacked out, I literally passed out,” she says, laughing. “Then suddenly, I was at UNC. It was a one-in-a-million opportunity and it happened to me. It was a very formative moment that I am forever grateful for.”

Throughout her years at UNC, she majored in Biology and did fieldwork towards her goal of becoming a conservation biologist. Pia also became a leader in undocumented student advocacy and campaigned for tuition equity for undocumented students. “UNC gave me the opportunity to fully embrace myself, both my passion for biology and my undocumented identity,” she remembers. But because Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA)  was not passed until her last year at UNC, she could not work in a research laboratory and was limited in scientific training opportunities outside of the classroom. While she had made it to UNC, her path after graduating was as uncertain as before. Therefore, when DACA passed and she graduated, Pia decided to pursue opportunities previously unavailable to her, such as a stem cell biology internship in industry.

She interned at the new Regenerative Medicine Lab (RML) at United Therapeutics to work on cell therapy treatments for chronic lung disease. That summer internship turned into four years of paid work: she adored it there. “I learned all of the stuff we learn in textbooks, but in practice,” she says. “It was completely eye-opening to translate basic science into therapies that can improve people’s lives, and I fell in love with it.” Even though her dream was always to be a conservation biologist, she was hooked with the impact cell biology can have on therapy development and happily switched to this new and unexpected passion. She was able to get her hands in many different projects because of how small RML was at the time, which proved invaluable to her growth. She also started gaining more confidence and even training new interns herself.

It was completely eye-opening to translate basic science into therapies that can improve people’s lives, and I fell in love with it.”

At RML, she gained not only valuable scientific skills, but also a lifelong mentor: Dr. Sara Hogan. Dr. Hogan looked after her growth and development as both a person and a scientist. “Dr. Hogan is who I aspire to be,” she says. “I want to be as passionate in the growth of the people who depend on me for my mentorship as she is. She’s the reason why I started to see myself as a scientist and believe that I could actually go to graduate school for this and fully pursue it as a career.” 

Neurons have been the focus of brain research since the birth of the field, but the story is incomplete without the important and fascinating ways in which glia shape our brain development and health.”

After her positive experiences with Dr. Hogan, Pia gained an affinity for strong female mentors and was drawn to the work of Dr. Cagla Eroglu at Duke, whose lab she now works in. She fell in love with Dr. Eroglu’s out-of-the-box approach to tackling neuroscientific research: with a focus on glia, cells in the brain that control neuron growth and function. Pia gets giddy when talking about her research, and her passion for it shines. She notes that not too long ago, these cells were thought of as “functionless glue” in the brain. “Neurons have been the focus of brain research since the birth of the field, but the story is incomplete without the important and fascinating ways in which glia shape our brain development and health,” she says. She is interested in glia’s fundamental role in supporting the growth and function of synapses, or the connections between neurons that allow them to “talk” to each other. If glia can’t do their job, however, then the neurons have no support, and they are in trouble; people can develop psychiatric and neurodevelopmental diseases. She asked herself: what if these diseases start at glia rather than at neurons? What if we have been looking at disease pathology all wrong?

To answer these scientific questions, she came up with her own project: to understand how mitochondria, the powerhouse of the cell, contribute to the development of astrocytes, a subtype of glia. She was surprised to find out that though scientists thought mitochondria were too big to occupy the fine branches that radiate from astrocytes, recent data showed that mitochondria are actually abundant throughout these cells. No one has yet shown whether mitochondria are the key to an astrocyte’s healthy growth and development. She decided to be the first to explore how disturbances in mitochondrial function impact astrocyte development, and how this can lead to severe diseases such as schizophrenia, epilepsy, or autism spectrum disorder. “I’m asking basic biology questions now in hopes that my findings can be applied to a translational approach later,” she says. She has already found that removing mitochondria from astrocyte branches leads to structural changes in the cortex that are hallmarks of neurodevelopmental diseases. In the future, she hopes to apply preventative approaches to these diseases. She notes that if it weren’t for the balance between guidance and freedom Dr. Eroglu gives her, she wouldn’t be asking these questions. She even hopes to one day make a career out of studying this unexplored territory of the brain. “I am very thankful that Dr. Eroglu is a devoted mentor who gave me the opportunity to pursue my own research question.”  

Due to the positive mentorship and experiences she had as a student, she decided that she wanted to give that back to others who are walking similar paths and lack guidance. She applied for and received the PD Soros Fellowship for New Americans, a grant that funds immigrants and the children of immigrants in their academic endeavors. At an event to celebrate the recipients, she met Dr. Robert Fernandez, who also received the fellowship and co-founded Científico Latino (CL), a group that provides mentorship and community to underrepresented groups at all stages of their academic careers. She reached out to Dr. Fernandez to get involved, and he encouraged her to think of ways to grow the CL community. Pia learned that the focus of this group was primarily on mentoring individuals wanting to get into grad school, but did not yet have programs for them after they became grad students. She pitched Robert an idea: building a support network focused on the retention and mentorship of current grad students. She and two others spearheaded the Graduate Student Engagement and Community (GSEC) branch of CL, and now in its inaugural year, over 70 people are involved.

Looking towards the future is something Pia is getting better at; being undocumented for so long, planning for the future was something she always considered risky. Her current long-term goals are to have her own cell biology laboratory and possibly become a CSO of a company that specializes in translating basic science to therapeutic discovery. No matter what she does, she knows she wants to keep mentoring others. “Advocacy and mentorship have shaped me,” she says. “I’m always looking for ways to share that [mentorship] with other people, as it can make or break you.” Because of her positive experiences, she wants to be an advocate and a mentor in academia for the next generation. “I would like to be at this junction of research and mentorship,” she says. “I believe we all have a responsibility in really shaping academic environments and trying to make them less toxic and more inclusive.”

I believe we all have a responsibility in really shaping academic environments and trying to make them less toxic and more inclusive.”

I just want to tell undocumented people that I see you, I hear you, I am here for you, and you’re going to do great things.

In the spare amounts of free time she has in between her advocacy work, research, mentorship, and being an overall stellar human, she loves to spend time with her family and go backpacking. At least a few times a year, she goes with her husband and her dogs to the mountains. “That is my reset when I get out into the woods, and it does wonderful things to my mental health and my body,” she says.When asked what she would say to individuals who are now in a similar situation she was in, her voice broke with emotion, saying that while she is no longer undocumented, “I just want to tell undocumented people that I see you, I hear you, I am here for you, and you’re going to do great things.”


by Josephine McGowan

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