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A Scientist’s Life Beyond the Bench: Serving the Community with a Ph.D. in Science and a Passion for Research

In the middle of the pandemic, Wistar graduate student Kevin Alicea-Torres is living a busy and exciting life, preparing to defend his thesis and graduate with a Ph.D. in cell and molecular biology from the University of Pennsylvania at the end of the month and starting a prestigious fellowship in science communications in the early summer.

Just a few years ago, he would have never thought days like these were in his future. What his parents modeled for him was quite different. When Kevin was 14, he got a job in a bakery to earn extra money while in high school. "I loved music, especially reggaeton, but I didn’t have a good singing voice, so I won trophies in lip syncing just for fun," said Kevin recalling how science was not in his life’s plan. "I didn’t know about college and careers beyond that."

Luckily for him, his 11th grade girlfriend had a different mindset and was preparing for college. Following her to college exposed Kevin to the idea of pursuing higher education as an alternative path. He worked hard to improve his grades and was accepted into college. Though he started as a business administration student, he soon discovered an interest in science and had the opportunity to attend research seminars and cultivate that passion.

Kevin’s own dad was battling prostate cancer and this personal adversity inspired him to join a cancer research lab where he was supported by the McNair Scholars Program, a federal scholarship at the University of Puerto Rico. Later, with the help of the Maximizing Access to Research Careers (MARC) program of the National Institutes of Health, Kevin would transition to the University of Pennsylvania for his postbaccalaureate, which helped him improve his curriculum, learn English and gain more lab experience in a pancreatic cancer research lab.

"At Penn, I was lucky to find a large community, a lot of support and great mentors who really cared about me and were invested in my career," said Kevin. "They helped me overcome my fear of not being good enough, of being different because of my background and my winding path to science."

Kevin was then accepted into the Penn graduate program and chose  to conduct his research in the former Wistar lab of Dr. Dmitry Gabrilovich because it was a great fit for his scientific interests. His project focuses on the regulation of immune suppressive cells by type 1 interferons in cancer.

"I was a little afraid of leaving the Penn community and joining a Wistar lab, because it was outside of the environment I knew well and where I had an established community," said Kevin. "But the lab turned out to be a very good choice. Besides the outstanding scientific caliber of the lab, I loved the international environment and that almost everyone had a foreign accent: French, Italian, Indian, Chinese… I also had an outstanding mentor in Filippo Veglia, a former postdoc who was my direct supervisor."

Mentors were critical in shaping Kevin’s path and helping him understand his calling in science.

One in particular is Dr. Arnaldo Díaz, director of Penn’s Office of Research and Diversity Training, who became a role model and helped Kevin realize the ways a scientist can have an impact on other people’s lives and give back to the community, besides doing research.

"I realized that minorities, just like me, and many others have no access to career development support, especially in science," said Kevin. "And I learned there are other professional options that can be pursued. My personal journey, finding inspiration in science and pursuing higher education, inspired me to help other students, especially from underrepresented backgrounds, find their paths."

"I had my first experiences working with student organizations in college and I was very passionate about it. Working with Arnaldo, I became involved with the student community at Penn and helped start a local chapter of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) in 2016."

For his work with SACNAS that ‘has made our community stronger and more welcoming for all students’, Kevin was recently honored with The President's and Provost's Honor for Developing New Initiatives in Graduate & Professional Student Life at the University of Pennsylvania. This award is presented to graduate or professional students, upon their graduation from Penn, who have acted as catalysts to enhance graduate and professional student life at Penn.

While serving as president of the SACNAS chapter, Kevin met Enrique Lin Shiao, president of another student organization, and together they had the vision of starting a podcast for Latin American science students.

"Caminos en Ciencia is another way of serving the community," said Kevin. "We interview Latin American scientists in the U.S. and ask them to share with our audience how they developed their career, how they got to where they are, the challenging aspects of their journey, for example language barriers and lack of mentorship, and how they overcame them. And the podcast is fully in Spanish because we want to create as strong a connection as possible between our hosts and aspiring future scientists."

Throughout graduate school, Kevin worked with dedication to further his cancer research in the lab at Wistar and at the same time to advance his community-building vision through his work with SACNAS and Caminos en Ciencia. He progressively realized he wanted to follow in Dr. Diaz’s steps and apply his scientific training to work for retention and recruitment of underrepresented students in STEM while also maintaining his motivation to help cure cancer.

"Balancing these two aspects was a challenge but I’m happy I was able to carry both my interests forward," he said. "I’m still very passionate about my research project and I’m very excited that we were able to submit my results for publication in a prestigious journal."

His outreach activity and the podcast experience also gave him a taste of what science communication is about. "I realized there is a huge need for Spanish-speaking science communicators to serve the Latino population."

So, he looked for training opportunities and applied to the prestigious American Association for the Advancement of Science Mass Media Science & Engineering Fellows Program, a 10-week summer program that places science students and postdoctoral fellows at media organizations nationwide to sharpen their ability to communicate scientific issues to the general public. 

"I’m truly honored to join this year’s AAAS Fellows and grateful to my mentors and the people who supported me."

What’s next? After receiving his Ph.D. at Wistar, Kevin will temporarily move back to Puerto Rico to complete his AAAS fellowship at the newspaper El Nuevo Día writing science stories. "I am beyond excited to go back home for a while," he said.

"After that, I don’t know what the future will hold, but I would love to serve as a mentor and guide the next generation of scientists," said Kevin. "While I will always be impassioned about cancer immunology, I have discovered an interest in the human aspects of science: communications, student recruitment and retention, and creating a support system for underrepresented trainees. And I see myself as a good fit for that."

Kevin shows us how Ph.D. scientists with research experience can explore different horizons and put their training to use in fields beyond academia. There is no such thing as one degree, one path.

If you were wondering, Kevin got married and has a daughter with his high school sweetheart, who first inspired him to go to college and get exposed to all the opportunities that go along with a higher education in science.