Breaking barriers, helping others up

UC Santa Cruz chemistry associate professor Laura Sanchez reflects on what helped her succeed and how she has tried to help others do the same

Having good mentors, being willing to move, and having adequate financial support are amon
Having good mentors, being willing to move, and having adequate financial support are among the most important factors of success, said UC Santa Cruz chemistry associate professor Laura Sanchez. (Photo by Carolyn Lagattuta)

UC Santa Cruz chemistry associate professor Laura Sanchez has never been surrounded by a lot of other Hispanics as she has built her career in science. 

But the low representation of her ethnic group has only become more apparent as she has risen in her field. 

"The older you get, the more you realize you're the only one in the room that looks like you," said Sanchez, who is also an alumna (Ph.D. '12, chemistry and biochemistry). 

As Hispanic Heritage Month approaches, she stopped to reflect on what helped her succeed and how she has tried to help others do the same. The month—which is September 15 through October 15—is meant to recognize the contributions and influence of Hispanic Americans to the history, culture, and achievements of the United States.

Having good mentors, being willing to move, and having adequate financial support are among the factors that help the most, she said. 

Sanchez joined UC Santa Cruz in January after moving her lab from the University of Illinois at Chicago in the Pharmaceutical Sciences Department, where she had been since 2015. She "specializes in using and adapting imaging mass spectrometry and tandem mass spectrometry for small molecule analyses in complex systems," according to her lab website. 

It's a homecoming of sorts, as she completed her doctoral work at UC Santa Cruz and grew up in the Bay Area. She has enjoyed the chance to reconnect with family and friends, visit the family's house in Clearlake, and adopt a rescue dog. 

She recently represented the university at the "Breaking Barriers through Chemistry" virtual conference, which brought together chemistry professors to promote more collaboration between universities in the U.S., Mexico, and Europe. 

The child of a carpenter and a paralegal, Sanchez became interested in chemistry while attending high school in Antioch in the East Bay. She preferred it to more theoretical sciences like physics and later enjoyed taking chemistry classes in college. 

"It was the only thing that made sense," she said. 

Since her parents didn't have a background in science, it was the mentors she met as an undergrad at Whitman College in Washington and later as a doctoral student who showed her the pathway to follow. Other Hispanic students face similar challenges. 

But finding a good mentor can be more difficult than people think, Sanchez said. A mentor should be someone who wants the best for a student, which is not necessarily always the student's supervisors. Sometimes students find out too late that the person they thought was their mentor doesn't have their back. 

"Finding your support network/village can be difficult," Sanchez said. "You need to seek it earlier. Don't wait until there is a crisis." 

Another challenge Hispanics in science face is balancing work and family responsibilities. Hispanics tend to have a strong connection to family. They may be unwilling to move to pursue career opportunities. Some careers aren't possible in some areas. 

Financial resources are also a barrier. It costs a lot of money to move from one part of the country to another. Sanchez offers to reimburse moving costs to her postdoctorate researchers, but she said that is not standardized. 

Itzel Lizama-Chamu, a junior research specialist in Sanchez's lab, said Sanchez is an excellent mentor and inspiring role model. Lizama-Chamu was so impressed with her that she followed her to Santa Cruz from University of Illinois at Chicago. 

Lizama-Chamu met Sanchez in 2017 when she heard her give a talk about her research. 

"What caught my attention about Dr. Sanchez was the way in which she made difficult concepts easy to understand, and her enthusiasm for her and her students' work," said Lizama-Chamu. 

As a Mexican-American, Lizama-Chama said her family has sometimes been skeptical of her choice to pursue a career in science. They have wondered if the expense and long years of study are worth it. 

"Seeing that Laura was able to do that and she's happy and has a stable work-life balance, that's amazing," Lizama-Chamu said. 

Sanchez is glad to do what she can to help, just as others have helped her. She is heartened that more Hispanics are finding science positions in the academic world. 

"Of the people who've made it," she said, "they're good about turning around and helping you get up the ladder too."