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Paying It Forward: Penn Scientist Works In the Lab to Make Discoveries and Discover Leaders

JuradoKellie Jurado, PhD, a Presidential Assistant Professor of Microbiology, devotes most of her time to her research, focused on how the human immune system interacts with viruses. 

As a Latina scientist in academia, she is also devoted to building the community and infrastructure to ensure underserved and underrepresented students get the support to thrive at Penn, and beyond.

Jurado said from the time she was in elementary school her grandfather talked to her about college. Though he couldn’t read or write himself, he knew the importance and value of education. Now years later, Jurado is paying it forward — running a lab at Penn and leading and supporting equity and justice initiatives for her department. This month, Cell Mentor named her to its list of “100 Inspiring Hispanic/Latinx Scientists in America.”

In the Q&A below, Jurado discusses the importance of mentee-led conversations and how the road to leading a lab is not always a straight one.

Briefly describe your background, how you came to Penn, and what inspired you to do the research you’re doing.

My path to Penn was made by way of some very kind and invested mentors. 

I did not meet a scientist until college, but somehow found the nerve to pitch a very naive, and in retrospect, quite silly, idea to one of my undergraduate STEM professors at New Mexico State University. This professor did not scoff at my thoughts and instead recognized a curiosity that she chose to encourage. She pointed me in the direction of further reading and even went to the extent of connecting me to her colleague at another institution for a summer research experience. This act of kindness and inclusion is the first of many that I have been fortunate enough to be on the receiving end of throughout my career. 

That curiosity, initially aimed at evolutionary anthropology, has since been shaped by time and other experiences to ultimately be directed at understanding how emerging viruses cause disease.  

What research are you currently undertaking?

My research program is aimed at understanding how our bodies fight off emerging viral pathogens. I am particularly interested in antiviral immune responses in the nervous system and placenta, since these are two tissue regions where collateral damage caused by an immune response aimed at ending infection can be detrimental to survival. This has resulted in these regions being armed with intricate immune control mechanisms, and we are interested in defining these complexities. 

What are the biggest challenges you face as a scientist and where do you see the greatest opportunities?

Honestly, right now I would need both of my hands (and maybe my feet) to count the number of challenges I am facing. The transition from a postdoc to a faculty member is intense to say the least, but I recognize that all of these learning curves are opportunities and the small trip-ups are proof of “growth-in-progress.”

Can you tell me about the diversity and equity initiatives you’re working on in the Microbiology department, and why you got involved?

My postdoc pointed out some areas within our department that could be improved upon to ensure we uphold an inclusive environment, and a student reminded me of the importance of having difficult conversations about race in moving toward actionable items to mitigate inequities in STEM. These mentee-led conversations reminded me that we all, including myself, have room for growth and a responsibility to act.  

Equity will never happen unless we begin to have hard conversations with others and ourselves. Being a diverse scientist in academia, I understand the importance inclusive acts and environments have had in my success and therefore have an intense desire to provide this for others. Instituting an environment where justice, awareness of past and correction of current inequities, and inclusion are prioritized is the goal. 

The elephant in the room is that this hearty objective requires buy-in from the majority, not just the individuals who are affected by these initiatives. So, I challenge everyone to recognize that they play a role in making science and society more just and to act accordingly.

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