Video by: Ignacio Torres
Looking up from a microscope in her tidy lab, Anjelica Gonzalez pauses to take notes and scribbles some observations. A biomedical engineer research scientist and assistant professor at Yale University, Gonzalez is mesmerized by finding a way to use biomaterials to effectively slow down wound inflammation and scarring.
By applying molecular biology, chemistry, computational modeling, biomedical engineering and a variety of other concepts from across scientific disciplines, Gonzalez analyzes the white blood cell components that contribute to the body’s natural healing process. By understanding cellular function, Gonzalez ultimately hopes to design a patch that can be applied to severe wounds in order to reduce traumatic and painful scarring. It’s a complex initiative, but Gonzalez is passionate about using her research to help burn victims and patients with compromised immune systems recover from physical trauma faster and more effectively than ever thought possible.
“I hope that my research will create an impact on childhood diseases and cancer,” says Gonzalez, who is a mom to two adorable twin boys. “Children who have large wounds or burns can often experience debilitating effects that affect their entire life in terms of not being able to move easily and my goal is really to make a difference for those kids.”
Growing up in a Mormon community just outside of Las Vegas, Gonzalez never pictured herself one day teaching classes and conducting cutting-edge research at one of the nation’s most prestigious Ivy League universities. The daughter of a Mexican mother and African-American father that weren’t allowed to marry because of their racial differences, Gonzalez says she always felt isolated, excluded and shy.
“I really felt that I stood out and that made for awkward childhood experience,” recalls Gonzalez. “There weren’t any other black people in my high school. I looked different from my cousins that were 100% Mexican and I had feelings of loneliness – which I later used to my advantage to stand out in a positive way instead of harboring resentment and acting out.”
Determined to stand out from her peers by virtue of her intellect, Gonzalez poured herself in to academics while still in grade school. She became an avid reader, devouring the books at her local library and, finding fellow outsiders through literature, began to carve out a place for herself.
“Books like ‘Anne of Green Gables’ and ‘The Secret Garden’ taught me that you could imagine a place, a culture entirely different from what surrounded me,” says Gonzalez. “So I started to envision a world where I would actually fit in and enjoy being different.”
As it turns out, Gonzalez fit right in her rigorous math and science classes. She loved seeing real-world application of technical skills, just like her maternal grandfather did with his irrigation systems business in dusty Las Vegas. With her grandfather as her role model, Gonzalez set her sights on getting a college scholarship in order to learn how to become an irrigation engineer.
“I was the first in my family to go to college,” says Gonzalez. “Irrigation was the only profession I’d seen at that time that I could relate to, observing fluid dynamics at work and seeing how useful it could be in making fields ready for harvest that season.”
Gonzalez graduated from high school as valedictorian and with a full scholarship in hand, enrolled at Utah State University (“there were so many tears at my high school graduation, as well as some trepidation because my family wasn’t sure how I was going to pay for my education,” says Gonzalez). Once again, she found herself in the minority as a woman in the university’s engineering department but, just as she had in grade school, Gonzalez threw herself into her work. And when an opportunity to conduct biomedical research at the Baylor College of Medicine came while she was just a junior in college, Gonzalez took it – a lucky break she says, that launched her career as a biomedical engineer.
“It was the first time I was able to take everything I had learned as an engineer and apply it to the human system,” says Gonzalez, who later applied to Baylor and entered as a Ph.D. student in its structural and computational molecular biology program. “Understanding disease and how foreign bodies relate to immunobiology became my passion.”
Gonzalez was still a doctoral student at Baylor when she was recruited to join Yale University as a research scientist. In 2009 she became an associate professor in the biomedical engineering department and now teaches two highly popular courses a year.
“I’m always learning from my students because they have so much to offer with their minds and actions,” says Gonzalez, whose biomaterials class has swelled from an enrollment of eight students two years ago to a pre-enrollment list of 80 students for the current semester.
She loves the opportunity to mentor students, explaining that her goal as an instructor is to offer encouragement and support for their ideas. Under her guidance, several of her female students have gone on to pursue graduate study and research fellowships, accomplishments Gonzalez counts with more pride than she does her own work.
“I don’t know how exactly I made it – there’s no secret,” explains Gonzalez. “But what I do know is that I took every opportunity offered and didn’t shrink away even if I was afraid or shy.”
“I want all Latinas, all women to know that their ideas are important – I can’t even begin to imagine what we could all contribute if we just stood up for what we believe in and saw our ideas come to life.”