Dr. Kellie Ann Jurado’s exposure to scientists was minimal growing up. When she thought about the field of science, only the image of “White, crazy-haired rocket scientists” came to mind.
Feeling as though she did not identify with that narrative, Jurado never considered a science career. That is, until she took an intro to psychology course as an undergraduate student at New Mexico State University (NMSU).
She gained laboratory experience while participating in an extra credit experiment.
“I learned so much from this experience that I somehow found the nerve to pitch a very naive and, in retrospect, quite silly idea to a different undergraduate science professor at [NMSU],” says Jurado, who serves as presidential assistant professor of microbiology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine. “This other professor did not scoff at my thoughts and ideas. Instead she recognized a curiosity that she chose to encourage.”
Through support from professors and by being involved in multiple research groups, she discovered her passion for scientific research.
Learning that she needed additional training to “obtain a more independent role in science,” Jurado went on to earn a doctoral degree from Harvard University.
As a first-generation Ph.D. student, being far away from her support network meant finding a new community to be part of.
“I learned the importance of embracing differences as strength,” Jurado adds. “During graduate school, I also began to appreciate the many different paths that fed into academia and that everyone’s journey occurs at various speeds with varying resources. One of the most important lessons was that because of these wildly different journeys, it is simply not productive to play the comparison game.”
Upon graduating, she went on to complete a postdoctoral fellowship at Yale University in the Department of Immunobiology.
In 2019, Jurado joined Penn Medicine’s faculty, crediting mentorship from her postdoctoral advisor, Dr. Akiko Iwasaki.
“My path to Penn Medicine was by way of some very kind and invested mentors,” she says. “In all honesty, I did not initially think I would apply for faculty positions at the time I did. I think a lot of times, for many reasons, we do not see ourselves as good enough or ready to move to the next step, especially in academia. It really took someone else seeing it in me before I saw it in myself.”
Her current research program focuses on how bodies fight off emerging viral pathogens, specifically in the nervous system and placenta.
“These are two tissues where collateral damage caused by an immune response aimed at thwarting pathogen invasion can be detrimental to survival,” she says. “This centrality to survival has resulted in these regions being armed with sophisticated mechanisms to tightly control immune responses to prevent excessive damage. Our group uses viruses to understand and appreciate these complexities.”
Jurado also spends time mentoring her trainees and students. She finds that there is “nothing better than seeing their growth as scientists.”
Being new to her current position, Jurado still faces more “learning curves to transcend, growth to cultivate and lessons to learn.”
“My goal for the future is to be able to persist in the role with more ease, to have impact by actively opening doors for others and to lead by example and with kindness,” she adds.
Jurado has also published a number of research papers on topics such as the Zika virus and its impact on cells as well as the HIV-1 virus.
Additionally, this year, she was named one of Cell Mentor’s 100 Inspiring Hispanic/Latinx Scientists in America. Candidates are chosen based on their scholarly achievements, dedication to mentorship and commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion within the science field. Another Penn Medicine faculty member, Dr. Arnaldo Díaz Vázquez, was also featured in the list.
“It brought me so much happiness and pride to scroll through all of the amazing scientists listed from across the country — many of whom I am lucky to know personally,” she says. “It reminded me that I am not alone in this climb upward and academic journey. It gave me hope that we, together, can work to change the culture of academia to be more inclusive and to actively open up doors for others.”
Jurado describes herself as being a “proponent of small wins.”
“In science, we commonly learn to do the right thing by initially doing the wrong,” she adds. “This results in very slow progress, but meaningful progress, nonetheless. I have learned to leverage small wins in order to accomplish larger feats and apply this mentality to all new challenges.”
This article originally appeared in the November 26, 2020 edition of Diverse. You can find it here.