Adam Pérez obtained his B. Sc. in Biology, with a minor in Chemistry, from the University of Bridgeport in 2010 and then went on to obtain his Ph. D. in Biochemistry, Microbiology and Molecular Biology at The Pennsylvania State University. Adam is passionate about science outreach and communication and has participated in numerous programs, including the ConnCAP Pre-Engineering program and the NSF GK-12 fellowship. Currently, Adam is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Louisville working in the Dr. John P. Wise Laboratory of Genetic and Environmental Toxicology. In January 2018, Adam will be starting a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellowship at the startup company Photanol B. V. and the Universiteit van Amsterdam. The day before his Keynote Speech at UB’s first Summer Scholars Program, UB News sat down and spoke with Adam about all this and more.
Q. How did you first hear about the University of Bridgeport?
A. My family is from the Dominican Republic. I was fortunate that my mother is American so I had a double citizenship, which allowed me to come to the U.S. to work. In 2006, our family settled in Stratford, Connecticut. I never experienced snow before I came to Connecticut, ever. It’s pretty to watch it fall, but then it gets dirty. After all these years, I’m still not okay with it.
Anyway, when I first came to the states, I had no intention of going to college. Period. I landed a job at Kohl’s working the register and was totally content with that opportunity. Then on one uneventful day, one of the customers struck up a conversation with me. He took an interest in my life and inquired whether I ever considered going to college. I told him no, I wasn’t interested, I had just graduated high school and was making good money. I honestly didn’t think college would improve my life at all. It seemed like a waste of money at the time.
Then this customer told me about an Open House being held at the University of Bridgeport and encouraged me to check it out anyway. I had never heard about UB or any other university outside the ivy leagues, but I decided to give it a chance. There I learned that despite being a private institution, UB was still affordable, and even with my background I had a good chance of being accepted as a student. Overall, I left with a great impression of the UB community.
Out of the possible career opportunities that I was presented with at the Open House, it seemed that Nursing or Optometry would be most interesting. When I asked for more information as to how to become a nurse or an optometrist, UB mentioned their B. Sc. in Biology as a great way to prepare for these careers, so that’s the major I selected.
Q. What was your initial impression of UB once you were a student?
A. I was a commuter student so I headed back to Stratford at the end of each day. Attending UB was the first time in my life that I met a multitude of different nationalities. I was blown away by people that I would have never otherwise met. My best friend was Japanese during the full four years. I met people from India, Egypt, and all over the world. In contrast to the Dominican Republic, which is culturally homogeneous, UB was my gateway to an international community. My life opened up in ways I never imagined before. My world was a small island before UB; here, UB became the world.
Q. When did you first become interested in research?
A. Actually, my research interests began in chemistry, at a part-time job. In my first semester, I realized I needed money to buy pizza, have coffee with friends, etc., but my part-time job at Kohl’s wasn’t enough to cover these expenses. I looked into opportunities to work on campus in between classes, and inquired about becoming a technician to one of my chemistry professors. That’s when my research interests ignited. I cleaned glassware and prepared the laboratories for general chemistry courses. Obtaining hands-on experience with all these chemicals, instead of following a “recipe” in lab class, made me want to learn more about life in a laboratory.
After this experience, I decided to learn more about working in laboratories. Next I worked in biology labs, prepping them and also tutoring and teaching biology. There was a class with Dr. Kathleen Engelmann, Biology 100 or “Biology Study Skills,” that was an experimental course then. The Biology Department realized a lot of people were interested in biology but were afraid of the workload. It’s an open course for non-majors, and what was unique was that this course was student-run, with three senior students in charge of teaching. The professor was the supervisor who gave the exams and graded them.
This experience was groundbreaking, as I learned I had a passion for teaching. Perhaps instead of nursing, my calling was to teach? I definitely was inspired by Dr. Engelmann and other faculty at UB, and I wanted to emulate them. Maybe obtaining a Ph.D. was the right way to go.
At UB my main interest was in the field of toxicology, spearheaded by Dr. Katsifis, who actually helped me obtain a summer internship at the University of Southern Maine to work in the lab of Dr. John P. Wise. This was my key research experience at UB; in short we investigated the carcinogenic effects of metals on marine mammals and humans. There I participated in a research project funded by a NASA grant. At the time, the U.S. was still focused on returning to the moon by 2020 and was interested in studying the long-term effects of lunar dust on astronauts. After that experience I came back to UB and helped Dr. Katsifis to set up his own tissue culture laboratory to do his own toxicological experiments. This lab is still present today.
Other UB faculty mentors who impacted my research career included:
- Dr. Angela Santiago, my mentor throughout the four years
- Dr. David Burton, my supervisor in the chemistry labs
- Dr. Raja Mani, my organic chemistry instructor
- Dr. Spiros Katsifis, the head of the Biology Department
- Dr. Jinnque Rho, my microbiology instructor
- Dr. Michael Autuori, my anatomy & physiology instructor
Q. When did you first become interested in science outreach?
A. UB helped me discover my other passion aside from teaching and research: science outreach. As a member of the Biology Club, we participated in the ConnCAP program, a pre-engineering program offered by many universities in Connecticut. We interacted tremendously with local college-underrepresented students at the middle and high school levels that were interested in pursuing a college education. This had a huge impact in my life. I learned that I loved showing the students how much more they could do than they thought possible, much like myself at that age, and was happy to steer them in a new and challenging direction. Students need to know they can do anything they want if they’re ready to face the challenges. Between my sophomore and senior years at UB, we would constantly go out to schools and bring kids to campus. It was a fantastic time. I cherished the outreach and teaching opportunities at UB so much so that I sought the same when I became a grad student at Penn State.
Q. At your Keynote speech, you point out that “A career in science needs not to be a linear and isolated affair. Scientists can, and should, go beyond the bench at least once in their career.” Please expand.
A. I truly believe as scientists we are quite isolated. We’re comfortable with what we do on a daily basis and often share our work only with our closest peers. This is a mistake. Everything is interconnected. Everything we do is part of a bigger picture, and the bigger picture cannot just be described by our own particular expertise.
For instance, building a rocket requires more than engineers. It requires scientists to explain physics, economists to outline costs, and so much more. We all work together to make the bigger picture work. How does your work fit into the bigger picture? That’s what I always ask my students. It makes you overall a better citizen when you know the basics of all these different components. At the end of the day, I believe as many scientists do: if you can’t explain your science to someone who’s not a scientist, you don’t know your work at all. This concept is even more important today, because to have an interconnected society we must be open to share our expertise with everyone, and stay open to receive expertise from others in different fields.
Being a scientist isn’t just about working in a laboratory. There’s a whole world out there. You can work in a clerk’s office, for the government, or for a company. It doesn’t matter. Being a scientist is not a linear affair. You don’t have to obtain a Ph.D. and just become an academic and that’s the end of the story. That’s acceptable, but science can lead you to so much more.
Q. What have UBecome at UB?
A. In one word, BOLD.
In other words, I became more of an extrovert, unafraid to engage people and opportunities available to me. At UB I learned that even if you’re unsure of a risk, do it anyway because it’s okay to fail once in awhile. Don’t let fear of failure prevent you from pursuing opportunities.
When I jumped into Penn State University, a much larger institution, I was no longer afraid to start things on my own.
Q. Any further thoughts?
A. It was so exciting to take a tour this morning of UB’s campus. The first floor of the library, the basement of the Student Center, the University Hall dormitory, are all brand new. I was especially pleased to hear that the nursing program is back after a 30-year absence from campus! It shocks me that so many new health-oriented programs are available to UB students. Also, when I was a student our program was mostly teaching. If we wanted a research experience, we had to look outside this University. Now that has completely changed for the undergraduate community. I am thrilled about all the options available to prospective students today!