Eliza Herrero emailed her high school chemistry teacher last year and told him, “I want to let you know that I’m doing chemistry because of you.” Herrero, who is now a third-year graduate student in chemistry at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, says it’s important for teachers and other mentors to know how big of an impact they have had on their students. In fact, Herrero has had many mentors throughout her life who have influenced her career path.
Herrero grew up in Scarsdale, New York. She credits her Cuban grandmother, whom she calls Abuela, for her dedicated work ethic. “She had a really hard life,” Herrero says of her grandmother. “She moved here from Cuba, and she faced a lot of adversity.” Her grandmother used to say to Herrero, “If you have the no, then you have to keep going until you come back with the yes.”
While Herrero was researching colleges, she learned about the American Chemical Society’s ACS Scholars Program. “Finances were a big decision in my college career, so knowing that I could pursue the degree and have financial support from ACS was a huge factor in me deciding to continue to pursue chemistry,” Herrero says.
In 2010, Herrero started college at the University of Notre Dame. “I remember one of the requirements for my first semester was to connect with a faculty member, let them know I was an ACS Scholar, and ask them to mentor me,” she says. “As a freshman in college, this was a terrifying experience. I didn’t come from a family of scientists. No one had really been interested in STEM, so it definitely pushed me outside of my comfort zone. But having that mentor [biochemistry professor Patricia Clark] throughout my time at Notre Dame, and learning how to ask for mentorship and ask for advice, that was one of the best things I got from being an ACS Scholar.”
Another mentor who made a significant impact on Herrero’s career path was Marya Lieberman, her undergraduate adviser at the University of Notre Dame. “I worked in her lab for 2 years, and in her lab I started developing devices to detect counterfeit pharmaceuticals in developing countries,” Herrero says. “It was during that research experience that I learned that you can really take chemistry and have direct impacts on improving the everyday lives of people.” Herrero says her experience working in Lieberman’s lab helped her marry her love of chemistry with her desire to do good in the world.
Herrero opened up about the issues she has encountered as a Hispanic chemist. “When you’re reading papers, or when you’re in classes, or when you’re talking to other professionals, you can feel sometimes on the outside,” she says. “I’m of Hispanic descent, and it’s not that common to come across Hispanics in the field.”
One of the ways she was able to cope with her feelings of being an outsider was through her semester studying abroad in South America, where she conducted research on techniques to measure trace levels of metals in water samples. “That was a really cool experience no longer being in the minority but being in the lab and speaking Spanish and realizing that while the majority of papers I’m reading are published in the United States, there is really great research being done internationally.”
After earning a BS in chemistry from the University of Notre Dame, Herrero volunteered with an orphanage in Nicaragua for 18 months. When she returned to the US, she got a job as a science teacher at Success Academy Charter Schools in the Bronx, New York. She then worked as a quality-control chemist with LNK International before starting grad school at the University of Minnesota. “I decided that I really wanted to pursue a PhD because I was very interested in research and analytical chemistry,” she says. Herrero’s research uses ion-selective electrodes to determine electrolyte levels in blood samples. Her advice to other ACS Scholars is to take advantage of mentorship opportunities and ask people for advice. “Broaden your horizons, and learn as much as you can,” she says.
Aside from doing chemistry research, Herrero loves chemistry puns and jokes. In her free time, she enjoys training for half-marathons, hiking, and backpacking. It’s important to have work-life balance, she says. “Make sure you take care of yourself and take some time off.”
Hilary D. Fokwa, a recent ACS Scholar, graduated this year from the University of Richmond. She is currently a graduate student in chemistry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This series brings together current or recent ACS Scholars with early- or midcareer alumni for a conversation. To learn about the ACS Scholars Program or to make a donation, visit www.acs.org/scholars.