Editor’s note: In celebration of National Hispanic Heritage Month (Sept. 15-Oct. 15), UTHealth Houston is featuring outstanding members of our community.
From a young age, Raquel Ybanez Salinas’ father told her she has a great talent in seeing the potential in others, and as she was navigating through early career decisions, it was the guidance and vision of her mentors that set her on the path to help budding scientists bloom.
Salinas, PhD, serves as the director of student affairs and career development at MD Anderson Cancer Center UTHealth Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences. She works with students and trainees to facilitate career exploration and experiential learning opportunities for graduate students, and provides coaching and mentorship to them as they navigate the muddy waters of figuring out how to become a scientist. She is also a trained scientist, earning her PhD in pharmacology, cell and molecular biology from Duke University.
“I think about my dad’s words often,” she said. “I think of my mentors who saw potential in me. We all, especially our students, are capable of so much more than we may realize. I love helping students figure out their passions, and seeing that potential in them when they may not see it themselves yet.”
Salinas, an Austin native, showed an early aptitude for sciences. In middle school she was accepted into a science-based magnet high school, and felt that science brought her connectivity to the world through understanding how it works on a molecular level. That passion prompted her to study chemistry at The University of Texas at Austin as an undergrad.
From there, she taught chemistry for five years at Austin-area high schools, using the skills honed in the study of science to help students transition in their next steps.
“Teaching allowed me to use science to develop critical thinking skills and basic science literacy in students, which helped prepare them for whatever their next experience was,” Salinas said. “Through that process, you get to know students, and help them think beyond what their current vision for themselves is. What I did then is still what I do now. Just through a different lens.”
After five years in the classroom, Salinas decided she wanted a more in-depth science experience, so she attended graduate school at Texas State University in San Marcos to study biochemistry. There, she had her first true experience in research and loved it.
“I had deep interactions with my mentors, and they encouraged me to move on and expand my vision — that I could go to a prestigious university and that I could leave Texas,” Salinas said. “These were not things I thought for myself, but they were seeds that were planted in me. I never would have applied if it hadn’t been for my mentors suggesting it. Their advocacy of writing letters for me made that a reality.”
Salinas said it was exciting to be accepted into Duke’s cellular and molecular biology program, but it was also isolating as the only person of color in the program.
“I knew I was well prepared; I was well trained and qualified to be there, but it was definitely a struggle in terms of feeling like I belonged there, and working through my own perceptions that other people thought I didn’t belong there because I was a minority student,” she said. “There weren’t many resources on campus at the time, and there were many times I thought about dropping out. It was not easy that first year.”
Fortunately, the intervention of a mentor helped her navigate her transition into graduate school. She joined a lab, where she was excited about the research and able to quickly make contributions to the work. “I joined a lab, and I had a great mentor who gave me the confidence that I belonged there,” Salinas said. “He was excited I joined his lab; he was excited in the project we were working on and he gave me confidence that I was contributing. He became one of my biggest cheerleaders in grad school.”
From there, it all fell into place. Duke University was working to increase its services to and recruitment of minority students, and Salinas was part of the winds of change. She began volunteering for the new Office of Biomedical Graduate Diversity, and teaching workshops and mentoring others.
“I was advising graduate students on how to get on their best footing in grad school, and how to integrate into their graduate programs. I love doing that kind of work, and I felt so connected,” she said. “I had such a challenging first year, and it was meaningful to me to help other students get the best start possible so they could do more in their research programs, tackle their projects, be productive in their labs, and enjoy their graduate training.”
After more than seven years away from Texas, Salinas decided it was time to come home. She returned to Texas State as a faculty member teaching a fundamentals of research course in the classroom, and continuing to mentor underserved students.
Salinas came to UTHealth Houston in 2019, looking to expand her mentoring footprint. She said she was instantly enamored with the graduate school.
“The university cares genuinely about the students,” she said. “They create this familial experience, and it becomes a central location. We are here for you, we care about you, and we will be your family while you are away from your family. Everyone here cares so deeply about the students, and I wanted to be a part of that. I felt I had a lot to contribute to the mission of educating and training graduate students.”
Salinas’ work at UTHealth involves helping new students learn the cultures of graduate school, helping students explore and be introduced to new ideas, and validating experiences.
“What helped me was to hear other people say, ‘This is normal. You’re at the beginning of your graduate training; you are a learner here,’” she said. “They explained, ’Your job as a graduate student is to work hard but also to ask questions, ask for help, and to accept help from others who offer it to you.’”
She likes to think of herself as a “transition specialist,” helping students at pivotal moments in their training, including navigating the transition out of graduate school and into the workforce or a postdoctoral program.
“A lot of what I do is help students find their direction,” she said. “Students who have a direction are more productive in their labs and in their training because they know what they are working toward. I love to help students explore all of their options, and find things that excite them.”
That spirit of giving back, and of training the next generation is embedded in the culture of science.
“Even for those who no longer practice science in our day-to-day, this idea of improving our community, growing it, and helping the next generation of scientists along is incredibly motivating,” Salinas said. “At the end of the day, we all think about what we leave behind in our work. As educators, I think we give back by knowing we gave the students the best experience while they were here. That they can positively reflect back on their time, and that we instilled something in them — a desire to give back. It’s a small part of paying it forward, and helping train our future scientists, who will go on to make their own impacts on science and the people they train.”