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Image Courtesy of Andrea Gomez.

Dr. Andrea Gomez

Andrea has been interested in science since childhood. “I was always nerdy,” she says, “and I guess I was influenced by my peers, mostly boys. I was kind of a tomboy.” Growing up in Las Cruces, New Mexico, she spent her free time playing video games, forming a Science Club, and making Jurassic Park trading cards with her elementary school friends. In line with these budding interests, she explored scientific research in high school, but she didn’t have a clear idea for what she wanted to do as a career.

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Image Courtesy of Andrea Gomez.

Her enthusiasm for science continued into her undergraduate years at Colorado State University. Andrea studied Biological and Biomedical Sciences and planned to pursue an MD. In keeping with this goal, she took anatomy and physiology courses, where she found she was more interested in understanding why things work the way they do as opposed to memorizing disjointed facts. After a particularly crushing exam, she found herself questioning whether becoming a medical doctor was the right fit for her. At the same time, she had been working as an undergraduate research assistant in a lab studying crustacean biology. Andrea enjoyed doing research and was drawn to her mentor’s easygoing attitude and seemingly mellow career. In hindsight, she admits this was a limited view of life as an academic, but her positive research experience and view of her mentor’s relaxed life inspired her to pursue a research career.

Andrea then moved to New York City to pursue a PhD at New York University, where she was introduced to a more realistic view of the rigors of an academic career. Nonetheless, she loved her time in New York. She enjoyed being in such a diverse environment, both in academia and within the city. Andrea came out during her time in New York, an experience she describes as “a synthesis of my science identity and my inner queer nerd identity that bloomed in this time.” Despite the rigor of graduate school, she credits some of the more difficult aspects of her training with making her a tough and thorough scientist. In one period during the fourth year of her PhD, Andrea felt particularly defeated and felt she wasn’t smart enough, but she persisted. It was during these challenging times that she realized the importance of finding a good mentor. She advises trainees to actively ask their mentors specific questions about mentorship so they can learn what style works best for them.

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Image Courtesy of Andrea Gomez.

After successfully completing her PhD, Andrea moved to Switzerland for a postdoc at the University of Basel. Switzerland was an amazing place to do research and expand her scientific career, with a lot of support for science and for trainees. During this time, Andrea was able to perform experiments she felt she couldn’t have done anywhere else in the world and pay off her student loans. But despite the positive impact on her career, this transition felt like going back in time. Andrea felt stifled going from New York to a much smaller city, where she didn’t feel like she could be herself. She never saw herself fitting in with the Swiss culture, due to the language barriers and her queer and Indigenous identity. People stared at her in public because she looked different. On her first day of work, a colleague asked her about her ethnicity and asked if she was like Pocahontas. Andrea and her wife wouldn’t have been able to have kids in Switzerland, had they wanted to at the time. Despite these barriers, she was able to find a community among other foreigners and advance her scientific career during her time in Switzerland. At the same time, she also knew she wanted to live in a more open-minded place.

Andrea therefore moved to UC Berkeley after her postdoc to start her own lab. She was drawn to Berkeley because she wanted to be in a place where she could find scientific rigor and also connect with an Indigenous community and other queer people. Her lab studies the molecular cues that organize synapses and brain activity, with a specific focus on the molecule RNA. She is very excited about all the RNA research and technologies at Berkeley, which she describes as “the RNA Mecca.” One of her favorite parts of being a scientist and a new PI is discovering new ways of thinking about how things happen and having a toolkit to ask the questions you want. Andrea also enjoys being a mentor, and says: “I think my students are the best!”

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Throughout this journey, Andrea never really considered taking time off or changing her career trajectory. She attributes this tenacity partly to not having the money to take time off and additionally to always working towards her next goals. She also has found a lot of excitement in moving around, first to New York, then to Basel, and most recently to Berkeley. Despite never wanting to leave her career as a scientist, she has run into problems in her research that she felt she couldn’t find a way around: “I never felt like I wanted to quit, but I definitely felt like I couldn't make it, like there's no way I can do this,” she says, “There's so many things that have to line up to be a scientist, and it sometimes seemed like it wasn't going how it needed to go. So I just felt like, ‘Oh, I don't know how I'm going to get past this thing that seems trivial for everybody else.’” She attributes her success at overcoming her research roadblocks to an inner drive, which she describes as being like “a fire from within.” “It was like some kind of survival mechanism that kicked in for me,” she adds, “that was like, I'm tired of feeling like I can't do something and I've learned enough to know that the questions that I’m asking are interesting. So I had to learn to follow my intuition.”

Outside of the lab, Andrea enjoys art. She recalls getting some pushback in grad school for spending too much time making her presentations look more interesting, and being told that if she wanted to do art she should have gone to art school instead. She didn't let this criticism deter her from her creative hobbies. In Switzerland, she started woodworking and creating wooden sculptures. Andrea enjoys exploring modularity in both her scientific and artistic pursuits. She finds the repetitive nature of woodworking meditative and enjoys using this outlet also as a space to think and let her mind wander. Despite not having much free time as a new faculty member starting her own lab, she continues to enjoy woodworking, watching TV, and playing video games. “If I were to have one addiction, it would probably be to gaming,” she admits.