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'Science Doesn't Have Borders'

Heart researcher and DREAMer finds a place at Rush

By Mark Donahue
April 17, 2017

In one way, Yuriana Aguilar, PhD, is like most research scientists working in the United States today. She has a focus — the heart — and wants to deepen her knowledge of her subject in the hope it can someday lead to a discovery that helps others.

In another way, though, Aguilar is very different. She came to the U.S. as an undocumented immigrant, and her path to a PhD was filled with many roadblocks that at times appeared insurmountable. As a working scientist today, she still faces challenges because of her status in this country.

A postdoctoral fellow and instructor in the Rush Medical College Department of Physiology & Biophysics, Aguilar is looking specifically at cardiac functioning on the cellular level. She’s studying proteins that regulate calcium signaling, which is critical for contraction and electrical functions in the heart. Seeing how this process works in a normal heart can help her detect differences in an unhealthy one.

It’s taken incredible courage and hard work to get where she is — qualities Aguilar says she learned from her parents, who brought her to California from Mexico when she was 5 years old.

Now 27, she has a chance to take on roles rare for scientists: spokesperson, advocate and inspiration for others who, like her, wish to contribute to science but may feel obstructed because of ethnicity, gender or citizenship.

A ‘very shy person’ thrust into the spotlight

"I'm a very shy person,” Aguilar says. “I never thought I would be in a situation where I would have to speak in the name of other undocumented immigrants. But I think it would be cowardly to say 'I'm not talking anymore' or 'I'm too scared I'm going to hide now.'"

Few actions could be more visible than the one Aguilar took in March, when she attended President Donald Trump’s first address to Congress. Invited by U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris and Julie Chavez Rodriguez, the granddaughter of legendary activist Cesar Chavez, Aguilar helped represent thousands of people who, like her, were aided by legislation such as the DREAM Act and executive orders like DACA.

Aguilar called the experience in Washington “amazing,” but she could also see the hardened division in the congressional chamber. That divisiveness could have a significant impact on the lives of many people in her situation.

Overcoming limitations

Aguilar’s family settled in Fresno in California’s Central Valley. There were five children and her parents, who are small crop farmers and also raise livestock.

None of the kids she grew up with talked much about their backgrounds, says Aguilar. But things began to change as college approached.
"Up until twelfth grade there was no difference between myself and the other kids,” she says. “We didn't realize that there was a distinction. I didn't have a social security number, and the others did. I was going to be limited in terms of financial aid for the university, and maybe others didn't. And I was not going to qualify for grants like others did."

Despite these limitations, Aguilar was accepted to the University of California, Merced. It was there her love of science was first sparked.

The UC system ran an extracurricular program aimed at undergraduate students interested in science, and despite it only being open to U.S. citizens and resident aliens, Aguilar was admitted. She’d heard science was a good field and was considering medical school.

Aguilar did a summer research project at UC Davis, studying atherosclerosis of the heart, and it became clear then what her focus should be. 

Following a DREAM

But where a hard-working student could normally look forward to a clear path to a PhD, Aguilar would have to face far more uncertainty.

As an undocumented immigrant, she had little financial assistance for her undergraduate studies, paying with help from her parents, her own work and what few scholarships were available. She was thankful to benefit from the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors, or DREAM Act, which allows undocumented students from California and other select states to pay in-state tuition rates.

With her other siblings coming up for college, Aguilar knew she could not ask for family help for postgraduate studies. Work study is a significant aspect of the PhD experience, but because of her status she was not allowed a work permit. When she graduated with her Bachelor of Science in 2011, with a GPA of 3.8, she spent a year volunteering in the lab of Ariel Escobar, PhD, at UC Merced, studying the heart to stay ready for any sliver of hope. 

Hope came in 2012, with the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, an executive order issued by former President Barack Obama, which allows undocumented immigrants to obtain work permits. Aguilar was able to pursue her postgraduate studies at UC Merced, becoming the first DACA recipient to earn a PhD at that institution, in December 2016.

Traveling an uncertain path

UC Merced’s Escobar was a collaborator of Josefina Ramos-Franco, MD, PhD, an assistant professor in the RMC Department of Physiology and Biophysics, and Ramos-Franco invited her to do her postdoctoral work at Rush. Aguilar began in November 2016 under a DACA work permit.

The life of a postdoctoral fellow is itinerant but exciting, and Aguilar says she will go wherever there is a chance to learn more. She says she likes the environment at Rush and likes Chicago, even though it’s very different than the small town she came from.

But some obstacles still remain because of her citizenship status. Many grants and fellowships are still not open to her, and travel is more complicated as well. Aguilar is unable to leave the country to attend conferences and symposia for work.

DREAM and DACA offer no path to citizenship, and the traditional road to naturalization is slow. Her mother’s quest has been in progress for more than 20 years. For children of those who reach the front of this line, there is an opportunity to apply for an immigrant visa, but this chance has passed for Aguilar because she is over 21 and married.

"I stand with all undocumented immigrants when I say I'm scared,” she says. “On a daily basis I'm fearful of my family getting deported."

A worrisome climate

The Trump administration has been explicit in its views on certain aspects of immigration, simultaneously issuing executive orders banning travelers from select majority-Muslim countries (which currently are blocked by courts) while increasing internal monitoring and deportations of undocumented immigrants already in the country.

Regarding DREAM and DACA, the messages from the White House have been less clear, with tacit shows of support that might still be undermined by larger deportation efforts.

These are large and scary factors beyond an individual’s control. For Aguilar and her husband, who also is undocumented, they must have contingency plans for themselves and their one-year-old daughter in case one or both of them are taken away. They are alone in Chicago, without family support.

Aguilar understands these choices are doubly hard for women.

"I do feel what women feel,” she says. “I am a professional, but I feel for the stay-at-home mom whose sole income is based on the husband who might not come home. I feel for them and feel like them at some point."

Standing strong

Aguilar continues to closely watch the political situation around immigration in the U.S. She’s noticed a lot of misunderstanding in social media of basic details and the impact changes may have on real people. But she thinks the tumult around the issue can lead to meaningful discussion.

Just as her becoming a scientist was surprising, Aguilar continues to grow into other unexpected new roles. She recognizes she can now serve as a model for others.

She would like to have her own research lab in California, if possible in the Central Valley where her family settled. She says that region needs a research hospital like Rush, and she would like to be a part of establishing it. 

Though she’s very aware of the challenges she faces, like a good scientist, Aguilar always keeps the bigger picture in mind. "Science doesn't have borders,” she says. “It's all for the good of humanity."