Featured Article August 17, 2021

On the brink of change

JAX summer student Natalia Fuentes working at the lab bench
JAX summer student Natalia Fuentes hard at work. Photo by Thomas Fouchereaux.

Former JAX Summer Student Natalia Fuentes heads into her senior year at Harvard focused on a career in biomedicine.

Natalia Fuentes feels like she’s on the brink of change. This summer will be her last time working in the lab of JAX Associate Professor Ryan Tewhey, her mentor since 2019. It’s also the last summer that the Waterville, Maine native will spend in her home state before she packs her bags for her senior year at Harvard. 

The journey of a young scientist

While these last few weeks of August feel like the end of an era, Natalia is just beginning her journey as a scientist. She’s been interested in biology for as long as she can remember, because to her, “life is just the most interesting thing on the planet.” Natalia confirmed that science is her calling when she was still in high school. She found herself getting excited about the smallest opportunities to do hands-on work in class. She remembers geeking out about the chance to use pipettes in chemistry and spending a whole biology class getting her first glimpse at spinach cells under a microscope.

Natalia first heard about JAX during her senior year when her biology teacher recommended her for the JAX College Scholarship Program, a $10,000 award for students in Maine, Connecticut, and California who are low-income or the first in their families to go to college and aspire to careers in biomedicine.

“At that point, I was just applying to as many scholarships as I could. I did the application, and then didn’t think much of it,” she remembered. Natalia’s parents are from Michoacán, Mexico, and she had to learn how to navigate the American education system on her own.

“That’s why I was applying to so many colleges and scholarships,” she said. “It felt like casting a net into the ocean in the pitch dark, and then you open your eyes, and you actually catch something really cool.”

Natalia Fuentes smiling in an informal portrait
JAX summer student Natalia Fuentes. Photo by Thomas Fouchereaux 

 

Stepping into the world of JAX

Natalia found out she had won the scholarship when then-director of JAX educational programs, Mike McKernan, surprised her at school with a giant check. Joined by her parents, she could hardly believe it was real.

“It was so exciting. I couldn’t believe it was my life because it was so much money. It really supported my family financially,” she said. It also introduced to her to the JAX community.

“JAX is a wonderful place. I feel like everyone here really wants you to succeed,” Natalia said.

After her first year of college, Natalia participated in the 2019 Student Summer Program, a 10-week intensive research program. She worked on the Bar Harbor campus under the mentorship of  Ryan Tewhey, Ph.D.Identifying the precise genetic mechanisms for complex traits and disease risk Tewhey conducting research on functional genomics. After work and on weekends, she hiked in Acadia National Park and bonded with her fellow future scientists.

“I think the biggest thing I got from that summer was the chance to meet a lot of wonderful people who are just so brilliant and kind,” Natalia said. “I met people like me, people from underrepresented backgrounds who were getting their first experience doing a serious STEM internship. I realized that this what people like me deserve; we deserve opportunities like this.”

When she first arrived at Harvard, Natalia had the sense that everyone else seemed to know what they were doing. She felt like an imposter. In the Tewhey Lab, she found a community that built her confidence along with her skills at the bench.

“Dr. Tewhey is the most supportive mentor I’ve had in my career thus far. He talks to me like I have something to offer, and it makes me feel like my thoughts are actually valid and important, that I have ideas that matter,” she said. “As a woman of color, there’s a huge pressure to do everything perfectly so you’re taken seriously. In my lab, I found people who I’m comfortable making mistakes in front of, and mistakes make you a better scientist.”

The bright future ahead

The support she’s felt from her lab is the reason Natalia keeps coming back to JAX. She’s spent this summer in Bar Harbor continuing her work in the Tewhey Lab before she heads back to Harvard to finish her degree in organismal and evolutionary biology. She hopes one day to combine her interests in evolution and genetics, possibly by researching the role of genomic regulation in evolution.

“I think a PhD program is definitely in my future. I want to do that for the culture, for my community,” she said. “But I’m not going straight to grad school. I want to travel. I’m looking at some labs in New Zealand and Australia, maybe to do some field research.”

While Natalia’s ambitions could take her across the globe, right now she’s enjoying the waning weeks of summer from close to home.

“This is really the last stretch. I’m graduating next year, and this is probably the last time I’ll spend this long at home,” she said. “I don’t feel bad about it. I don’t feel sad. It just feels final. It’s a different phase of life, I guess.”