Anjelica Gonzalez

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ORAL HISTORIES
Angelica Gonzalez

Credit: Michael Marsland

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
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Interview of Anjelica Gonzalez by David Zierler on October 21, 2020,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/46923

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Abstract

Interview with Anjelica Gonzalez, associate professor of biomedical engineering, and Faculty Director of the Tsai Center for Innovative Thinking at Yale. Gonzalez explains the origins of the Center and the challenges of getting it started during the pandemic. She recounts her family’s diverse background and her childhood in Las Vegas. Gonzalez describes her early interests in science and her undergraduate experience at Utah State, where she focused on biomedical engineering. She discusses the opportunities that led to her graduate studies at Rice, where she conducted thesis research on neutrophil engagement with soft tissue mimetics and her interest in applying therapies for sepsis. Gonzalez describes her research assistantship at Yale to work with Mark Saltzman and Jordan Pober, and she explains the collaborative nature of immunobiology research. She describes her faculty appointment and the positive changes that Yale has embraced in advancing diversity and inclusion, and she explains why biomimetic development is at the heart of her research and how this work could be useful for Covid research and therapies. At the end of the interview, Gonzalez reflects on the ways science benefits when it embraces diversity, and she conveys optimism for the positive health impacts that her future research can yield.

Transcript

Zierler:

Okay. This is David Zierler, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is October 21st, 2020. I am so happy to be here with Professor Anjelica Gonzalez. Anjelica, thank you so much for joining me today.

Gonzalez:

It's my pleasure to be here. Thank you.

Zierler:

Okay, so to start, would you please tell me your title and institutional affiliation?

Gonzalez:

Yes. I am currently associate professor of biomedical engineering at Yale University. I also hold the title of Faculty Director of Tsai's Center for Innovative Thinking at Yale.

Zierler:

When did the Tsai Center appointment come together for you? Was this recent?

Gonzalez:

It's recent. I started this appointment in September of this year. There was discussion over the summer about taking over this role from the previous director, and I stepped into the role in September.

Zierler:

And what is the Tsai Center all about? What's their mission and purpose?

Gonzalez:

The mission of the Tsai CITY is really to provide a place for students to access resources that allow them to engage their entrepreneurial dreams. We provide resources that come in the shape of workshops, mentoring, and physical resources, funding, etc, to make sure that students who come in with either a desire to become part of a start-up already have an idea and a prototype, also have a launch pad to make sure that their entrepreneurial aspirations are accelerated and move from the academic space into the real world.

Zierler:

Now, I can see of course from your subject area of expertise, biomedical engineering, that's obviously a field that's ripe for entrepreneurship and innovative thinking and things like that. But to what degree is the center multidisciplinary? To what degree does it branch out from the hard sciences? Or not, necessarily?

Gonzalez:

It really is a requirement that these kinds of initiatives or programs are multidisciplinary because the science and the design components are not enough to get something off the ground and into the real world. Innovative thinking requires that we not just teach students how to build a prototype, how to get manufacturing or supplies, but also how to pitch to a VC, or a venture capitalist, and how to think about market strategy. It also requires an element of design that we've not appreciated for some time; that is that when we're designing for humans, it requires a human like the aesthetic. Understanding the human/technology interface. And that is really where artists come into play. Where anthropologists and demographers come into play. They place context around how this entity, this device, is going to change the projection of a population. To answer your question, it's a requirement that we have multidisciplinary input, expertise from students that come from economics, sciences, the humanities, in order to really have a successful venture. Otherwise, it doesn't get off the ground.

Zierler:

So, sort of a strategic question, of course schools like Berkeley and Stanford benefit from having that start-up culture in Silicon Valley, and schools like Harvard and MIT also have that very strong start-up culture in the Boston area. So in some ways, is the Tsai Center looking to situate itself as, you know, being part of a regional start-up culture in New Haven, or is it more sort of strictly a Yale initiative, and it's not thinking of the larger research base around Yale?

Gonzalez:

That's a really great question. I think there's a little bit of both. Tsai CITY was only started about three years ago. It's a really new initiative, and we're at the stage now in which we have a solid footprint at Yale itself. That allows us to now reach out to different entities across Yale, including the school of public health, the school of medicine, the law school, in order to bring all of that multidisciplinary expertise to our students. At the same time, though, there are projects and programs. Companies here in New Haven and in the surrounding Connecticut area – right now, my mind is on medical devices because that's where my expertise lies.

So, companies that we are looking forward to partnering with are those associated with medical devices and technologies. But you know, one of the things that's really great about Yale, the students who come here, the faculty who are here already, is that we're really doing science, again, for humans, right? So humanitarian efforts. And one of those things that makes me very excited about engaging the sciences, Tsai City's entrepreneurial mindset, and the faculty at Yale, is that we have connections with the World Health Organization, we have connections with UNICEF, with Doctors Without Borders, or MSF. And what that means is that we can reach a global market. We're thinking about things that aren't just, you know, made for Americans, made in America, right? We're thinking about how we can take these devices, these ideas that are going to do good globally, and use our partnerships throughout the world to do that.

Zierler:

Now, your appointment, obviously, in September of this year means that it was born remote, of course. It was an appointment made well within the pandemic. So you know, for so many of these conversations, and we'll get to this on the laboratory side for you, but in what ways is being appointed in a born-remote reality that we're all living in, where are the opportunities and challenges as you set up an agenda, think about the ways that you want to grow this program under your directorship?

Gonzalez:

That's another really great question. And something I hadn't considered prior to this engagement. You know, I think in this kind of remote world, we just jump in and try to do our best. And I think one of the challenges really are around the interpersonal engagement. Every aspect of the work that I do, whether it's the teaching, the laboratory research, or the engagement with Tsai City's staff, faculty, and students, requires that I have a connection with the people that I am working with. I want to know whether they're understanding what I'm saying and that I'm understanding what they're trying to communicate, so that we have a productive meeting, a productive experience. And that's very difficult to do in this setting.

As you can see, I talk with my hands, and I look for social cues. I think that's part of the person that I am, even as a scientist or an engineer. [laugh] And so that's been one of the difficulties, but I'd say one of the advantages, or really the opportunities, has been that I can schedule my day much more broadly. I don't have to run from the medical school to main campus. I don't have to run across New Haven or to Boston for that matter. Everything can be done by switching screens. [laugh] So I think that is one of the opportunities that when we go back to however the "real world" interactions manifest, one of the things that I hope to take is being able to have more engagement in far-reaching environments. In schools that I wouldn't have time to visit, but be able to communicate with students there and faculty there as well.

Zierler:

One of the opportunity questions for Coronavirus, of course, is that beyond work, it's making us rethink everything, right? That perceived wisdom is like right back to the drawing board. So given the fact that the Tsai Center is sort of built to engage with new ways of looking at things, and for students, particularly undergraduates who are now looking at a very different reality upon graduation, whatever that means, they know that it's going to be very different. Where is the Tsai Center in terms of positioning itself and the students for confronting all kinds of known unknowns, as it were?

Gonzalez:

One of the things that we've been able to do with Tsai City itself is to figure out how to engage students, making sure that workshops, engagement with our partners, those in New Haven and elsewhere, still continue. One of the issues is not having those connections maintained through everything that's happening. We wouldn’t want to lose the momentum that would have been started a year ago and risk stalling the initiatives that have gone forward. Therefore, Tsai City's been really good about programming for engagement to continue, even remotely.

One example is that Joe Tsai, who is the donor for whom the program is named, held a fireside chat in which students were able to ask questions, able to really probe him about the very question that you're asking. Now that COVID has changed our world, how has it changed the markets? How has it changed the way companies are being run? And beyond COVID, we're in a socially changing environment. So, what does that mean for students as they are thinking about their next steps, graduation and the job market, or let alone how they are going to engage in their classes? It’s caused us to think a lot about what resources are available to students, what they’re trying to get out, what they're trying to communicate, and making sure that they can position themselves so that they are getting everything they need academically.

This also requires that students work on building some resilience. And that was one of the keys that Joe Tsai really made sure to impress upon students, that everybody is upside-down right now. Nobody knows how to forecast the markets right now. Nobody knows, how medical care and which vaccine is going to be effective. Nobody knows when deployment is going to happen. So being able to recognize the value of resilience, that you have to be able to switch your ideas on the fly and be versatile, are really the new tools that students, programs, and directors need to come out of this time with.

Zierler:

Anjelica, I'm sure this is a theme we'll touch on throughout our conversation, but I want to ask, specifically with the Tsai Center, as a woman, as a person of color, what opportunities do you see given the fact that we are in a historical moment nationally, within higher education, and within STEM particularly, about making all of these environments more inclusive, more fair, more equitable, how do you see your role in this way promoting those values?

Gonzalez:

Again, a really great question. First and foremost, I think the fact that Yale put me in this position, a position of leadership which is very rare for women of color, let's just be frank, sends a message about diversity. Especially in the sciences. So, the fact that they viewed me as a person who could lead a program, who could bring something new to this, because of my work, my science, my teaching, my entrepreneurial efforts, as opposed to just being a Black woman. [laugh] Because you know, a lot of times, we'll be put in as the face of a diversity effort, but not in the face of the scientific effort. Not in the realm of our expertise. I'd say that in and of itself, this appointment was a step in the right direction.

Zierler:

To be clear, you're saying this is not tokenism here. This is real.

Gonzalez:

Exactly. [laugh] Thank you for clarifying. Because again, what that does is it gives the next generation, it gives my graduate students, our undergrads, it gives high school students the opportunity to see, that there's a Black woman who's doing the kind of work that they are interested in. And I think that's very exciting.

But beyond that, one of the things that I'm very interested in is making sure that students understand that when you're communicating with somebody who may be very different than you, someone who may have very different experiences, as long as you have the same goal in mind - whether that's, pitching your product or building out your prototype - then you can work with that person. Your ideologies may be different, your backgrounds may be different, but in the end, if we all have the same goal, then we can all contribute to making sure that we move the project forward. I think with that mindset, and having had the experience of being an under-represented minority in the STEM field, then that's one of the things I hope to bring to Tsai CITY. Those experiences and that idea to our students.

Zierler:

You said, of course, Yale wanted to put you in this position for the reasons as you discussed, but of course Yale is a generic entity. Who are the people high up in administration at Yale who specifically have that vision? Who recognizes the importance of these decisions and really making decisions that are designed for real impact? Who are some of those champions that promote what you're doing?

Gonzalez:

That's another really great question. So, one of the people that come to mind immediately around, for example, this appointment, is the new provost. His name is Scott Strobel, and he was, I think he's only been in that role less than a year at this point, and [laugh] a lot of upheaval. But he is the person who officially appointed me. In addition, the dean of the sciences and the school of engineering, shared amongst those two schools, has demonstrated a true commitment to making sure that inclusion, welcoming and belonging, are part of the sciences and engineering at Yale. And what's interesting to me is that, for the longest time Yale, and its leadership, have been champions for having a diverse undergraduate population. They have done very well at that. There is now a majority of under-represented minorities now, or first-generation college students, socioeconomically challenged or low-income college students. What hasn't happened is the same investment in diversification of the faculty.

Again, in the STEMs, in medicine, diversification of faculty and leadership hasn't happened. And the detriment of that is that minority students and majority students will not see people of color, women, in roles of leadership. And so, when they go out into the world and they do have to engage with a manager or a CEO who is unlike themselves, they're not going to have that experience. And so, I think that the relatively new dean, Jeff Brock, and the provost, are in line with that idea. That having, at every level, diverse people with innovative ideas is of benefit. Everybody comes with different ideas. Diversity does not just mean, as you said, tokenism, having a Black woman in the front of the classroom. It means that there might be somebody who comes in with a very different engineering experience and can share that with the students.

Zierler:

Right.

Gonzalez:

And so I think those two gentlemen specifically are very in line with that way of thinking.

Zierler:

Now on the science side, with the pandemic of course and the laboratory, in what ways are you-- I mean, are there graduate students whose sort of trajectory is on hold right now? Are you able to social distance in the laboratory and essentially keep things running? Where is automation and remote data analysis in all of this? How is everything sort of staying on track or not, as it were, for you and your research?

Gonzalez:

Right, how are we staying alive? [laugh]

Zierler:

Yeah. [laugh]

Gonzalez:

Speaking of resilience, graduate students are some of the toughest people [both laugh] in the world. And I'd say at that first, when everything shut down, February, March, April, my graduate students and postdocs, is we would come together virtually for our lab meetings and say, "You know what, this is an opportunity for us to write a review." This is an opportunity to really get into the nitty gritty of experimental design, of doing some biostatistics, and doing whatever we could remotely. Image analysis and all of those things that you usually do in the middle of the night when you're not in the lab. And so putting those things in the forefront where we could actually move some projects forward was beneficial.

By June, we were able to do our first Phase 1 entry into the lab, and that meant one person at a time, with communication remotely with me or another person, just to make sure there weren't any accidents or anything like that. Keeping safety at the forefront. Students got the ball rolling, and I think that preplanning in May in preparation for June was smart. By June, they were ready and eager to go. I have one student, her name is Rita, between February and now, has submitted two manuscripts and has another one that's ready to go. With all that said, students are resilient and I think they're restructuring the way they work. They're thinking about how to be versatile with the hypothesis they generated, the data they were able to accumulate when they're in the lab, and really turning it into something that's going to help push their thesis and keep their projected graduation dates in line. So again, I think resilience, being able to pivot when unexpected barriers and hurdles are put in front of you, has been one of the things that I've been both impressed by and is a requirement for these students to survive now.

Zierler:

Let's go all the way back to the beginning now. I want to start first with your parents. Tell me a little bit about them and where they're from, just to set the narrative of your journey, your trajectory.

Gonzalez:

When I talk about my parents, I talk primarily about my mom. My mother is a blackjack dealer, and she is a Mexican American woman. And was raised partly in Texas. There's an area in Texas that's kind of a border town called Ysleta, Texas. And moved with her family at a very young age to Nevada, into an area called Moapa Valley. That area is a farming community, even though not a lot of people think about farms out in the desert, [laugh] but it's a farming community. And my grandfather, who spoke very little English, had a third-grade education, he ended up towards, by his 40s, being the director of the Moapa Valley irrigation system. And so, my mom was raised on that farm. I'd spent some of my summers on the farm, and at some point my parents, my dad and my mom, were divorced, and I went to live with my grandparents for some time. And so I--

Zierler:

Where did your parents meet?

Gonzalez:

Where did my parents meet? Oh, so my parents... Well I guess I should also preface by saying that my dad, who I call my dad, is not my biological dad. But he was there at my birth, he was the dad that raised me. They met in Las Cruces, New Mexico. My dad is from Las Cruces, and my mom moved to Las Cruces when she was little. They knew each other since they were five years old, grew up together, married and ultimately divorced when I was about eight.

Zierler:

So you never had a relationship with your biological father?

Gonzalez:

I met my biological father when I was 18. And you know, it's an interesting thing. The other complication in that story is, as I mentioned, my mom is Mexican American, my dad who raised me is Mexican American, my little brother, who's a year younger than me, is Mexican American, and I'm the only half-African American, half-Mexican American person in my family. From that perspective, I've always been, you know, unique. [laugh]

Zierler:

Right, even within your own family, you're unique.

Gonzalez:

Even within my own family. And you know, on one hand, your family is the place where you feel the most comfort. You feel like, “all of me is open and they know everything.” On the other hand, to be the one person who's very different, it always puts you in a place where you try to communicate a lot more clearly to be understood. I think I learned early on that communication was going to be really important in my life. Because I never had the feeling that people just knew what I was thinking. I don't know how to describe that inherent sense of, they know me, they're my family, right? There's always this little thing in the back of my head that's like, "Okay, they know me, they're my family. Everybody loves me. But let me try to make sure I communicate clearly what I'm actually thinking."

Zierler:

You have all kinds of intersectionality going on. You know, tri-sectionality, right?

Gonzalez:

[laugh] Exactly.

Zierler:

So I'm curious, growing up, because the African American part of your heritage was not really physically present, and yet earlier you referred to yourself as a Black woman, so in terms of developing your identity, and I mean there's a duality to that. There's who you feel you are on the inside, and there's how the outside world perceives you regardless of how you feel. So these are obviously, there are no rulebooks to these kinds of things. There's not game plan. So, my question is, growing up, what were the identities that you felt yourself that were most natural without external stimuli, and what were those identities that you felt were placed on you, either by your family or society?

Gonzalez:

When I think about nurture versus nature, I don't know. Mexican, I don't know that I have a Mexican feeling, or a Black feeling. What I know is that the food I ate was all Mexican. I have two ten-year-old boys. And they eat mole, they eat pozole, they eat menudo. All those, the foods that I grew up on, is what they eat. So culturally, I'm very much a Mexican woman.

Zierler:

So much so that you didn't call it Mexican food, you called it food growing up. [both laugh]

Gonzalez:

You know, some of my best memories are my grandma’s tortillas, fresh tortillas every day. That was like bread for us. It's just the way that I grew up. In fact, I don’t remember having peanut butter and jelly until I was in college. [both laugh] Very different from what my American counterparts, or my other friends were eating. But I think you're right, that the perspective from the outside, even from my family, my aunts, my uncles, cousins, was that Anjelica, was that I was “La Negra.” So it was never far from my mind that I was different or that I was black. That was clear. And that that was the perspective that the world would have of me, that I am a black woman.

So, that's how I interact with the world. Like I said, I don't know that there's a Black or Mexican feeling that causes me to be one way or another. The people who were around me, and the way I engaged with the world, I knew what I was and who I am, and I think the nice part about that is that I can develop into my authentic self. The real difficulty was that there wasn't a Black woman around me to tell me how to do my hair. [laugh] I've had decades of looking like a crazy person [laugh] with wild hair. But the other parts are just me. So, I can be me and still be a Black woman. And you know, I'm going on and on, so just tell me--

Zierler:

No, no. This is great.

Gonzalez:

I think the part that's exciting is that we're coming into an era where people are starting to appreciate that not all Black people are democrats. Not all Black people live in urban areas. Not all Mexicans speak Spanish. There is diversity within a diverse group, right?

Zierler:

Of course. Of course.

Gonzalez:

And I think we fail to see that so often. And that's how tokenism becomes an issue, because then we say, "Well, okay, we have a Black woman. Oh, we have a Latino. We have check, check, check." But that Latino is very different from the next Latino that you see. This Black woman is very different from the other Black women that you might see.

Zierler:

And ironically, it could create new problems that didn't even exist beforehand, by doing something like that.

Gonzalez:

Exactly. So I'm okay being different from other Mexican American women. From other African American women. I'm okay being uniquely me. [laugh]

Zierler:

Did meeting your biological father increase your feelings of blackness at all?

Gonzalez:

That's a good-- You are very good at these [laugh] questions. That's why you do what you do. Let's see, I think what it did-- So I mentioned I met him at 18.

Zierler:

And what were the circumstances of meeting him? Did you feel like at 18, you were an adult, it was something you were ready for? It was just happenstance?

Gonzalez:

He contacted my mother around my 18th birthday and said he wanted to begin engaging. My mom asked me if that was okay with me, and I said yes. It's something that I wanted to experience and wanted to get to know a little bit more about his family.

Zierler:

So you were clear growing up that your biological father was not the father in your life? You knew that, no one kept that from you?

Gonzalez:

Obviously, I look in the mirror and I see that I'm very different. But, there was no direct conversation until I was probably about 13, 12-13. And then there was a conversation. And that conversation was, you know, "Your dad is your dad. He loves you." And my dad, he's, like I said, they were divorced early. He's an alcoholic and there's a lot of issues around that. But he's my dad. He's the person who was there. But then the idea was introduced that there's another guy [laugh] out there who's also your biological father. And at that age, I have some science knowledge, biology knowledge, so can grasp that concept. When that connection was made when I was 18, I think there was a... I mean you go through so many emotions, right? You go through—

Zierler:

Plus, you're just, you're also 18 years old on top of everything else. [both laugh]

Gonzalez:

Exactly. This is a new person. And I remember having the typical teen conversations, "I don't need a dad," … all of those things that are stereotypical of the teenage girl. But I do remember when I met his mother and his father, who would have been my paternal grandparents, I had a warm feeling about them. I felt good about those interactions and felt that they embraced me and felt that they had missed something by not being part of my life. I realized that I missed the history of what that family was, the interactions and as much of the traditions that I have from my Mexican family. I don't have those of my Black family, and so I had a desire then to make sure I kept in contact with my paternal grandmother, especially, and to see what her life was like and to learn more about that.

Zierler:

Just geographically, we haven't even gotten this far, where did you grow up? Where were your formative childhood years?

Gonzalez:

The easy answer is, Las Vegas and it's, again, an odd story. Las Vegas the city is where I went to the first part of my elementary school until my parents were divorced, and then I moved to Moapa Valley, where my grandparents had that farm that I mentioned. Very urban city life, and farm life. That's kind of where [laugh] I--

Zierler:

So your earlier years were more diverse, in terms of your classmates, in terms of the neighborhood?

Gonzalez:

Absolutely. And so, when you asked that question about, you know, I always knew I was-- I obviously always knew I was Black. I remember, I mean this is going back to like first grade, and having a crush on a little boy named Quakoo Stewart and thinking, "He looks like me, we're meant to be because we're so much alike." [laugh] In first grade. And you know, I didn't feel different from my classmates. I didn't feel that race or even, there were smart girls, smart boys, good at math, and all of those things.

When I moved to Moapa Valley which is majority white, majority LDS, Mormon. There were a lot of differences that were very apparent. Within my first year in that community, I noted that there were not any, I don't think, other Black people. There were Native Americans, so Navajo Nation is out there, Mexican Americans, because again, it's a migrant farming community. But I don't remember any other Black people. And so again, pointing out that I am the only Black person in my immediate everyday family, but now in my class, I'm the only Black person there. And I don't even have a sibling who can relate to what those issues are. That was difficult and there were a lot of challenges around that.

But, I think the experience that I got from that, being the only in one in an environment, enhanced my ability to communicate with people who are different from me…by necessity. If I were to only have been around Mexican Americans, it would have limited my ability to communicate with a broader community. Also, I try not to think about it as assimilation. I didn't become white. Obviously, that's impossible. I didn't act more white. But I learned that I share some interests with white little girls. I liked the same Barbies that they liked, played the same sports that they played, or I liked the same TV shows that they liked. And so being able to find similarities and make connections with people who are very different from me has been one of the things that I would say has been of benefit. It led me to understand that anybody can be good at science. Anybody could be a good writer. But being able to communicate important ideas to others and having a willingness to work with somebody else who's very different from you, those are skills that got me through school at Utah State. Those are skills that got me into a graduate program. I think, those are skills that got me to Yale.

Zierler:

Right, right. When did you start to get interested in science?

Gonzalez:

Pretty early on. I think I remember my third-grade teacher telling me I was good at math, and I liked that I was good at math. And then I remember my grandpa-- As I mentioned, by the time I was maybe eight, nine, he would take me with him to go and check the reservoir in Moapa Valley, to go check the ditches, and they used to call it the pump, to see how much force was being used to push water through the ditches and through field irrigation. Around that time, I knew that I liked the idea that whatever you're doing, whatever the job is, has meaning not just for you, but for all of the people who are going to eat the onions, tomatoes, etc. that you're irrigating fields for. That was my initial association with engineering and science. I associated science and engineering with something real, tangible, that is meaningful to a lot of people. Therefore, I would say, as early as eight years old, I knew I wanted to be an engineer or an anesthesiologist. [laugh] So one of those two things.

Zierler:

Well, biomedical engineering is a great way to split the difference.

Gonzalez:

Yeah, it's a solid mix of the two.

Zierler:

What kind of high school did you go to? Was it a small school?

Gonzalez:

Yeah, it was a pretty small school. So I think my graduating class was between 100, 150, somewhere in there. And as I mentioned, the town of Moapa Valley is a place where families stay forever. It’s largely LDS, community of large families. The high school I graduate from was the same school that my mom graduated from, and all of her brothers and sisters. It's the school that many of my cousins went to as well. So, to some extent, there was some family history, but then being black, nobody really associated me with my family. [laugh] I got both the benefit of knowing what to expect in high school and knowing a lot of the history of the people, but also being seen as kind of new. [laugh]

Zierler:

And what were the frontiers in higher education in your family? In other words, when you were starting to think about undergraduate programs, was this a new world entirely for your family? Were there college graduates in your family whose experiences you could draw on? Or you were really first in?

Gonzalez:

Yeah, I was the first. I'm trying to think back… Of my older cousins, one went to the Air Force, but the others didn't go to college. Definitely none of my uncles, aunts, or my mother, or anybody on my father's side, had gone to college. I guess the idea of college percolated was maybe middle school, in talking to teachers and them telling me, "You're smart. You're smart and you can do something. You can be something." The other, side of that is that at that point, my mom was a single mom. We were living in a trailer. She was having a hard time making ends meet, food, and all the necessities were scarce. That experience meant knowing that I needed to do something that was going to help us, that was going to help make our lives better-- Make my mom's life easier, do something so that my brother could have a better life, just make things better.

The one thing that my grandpa always told me was that being smart or becoming educated is the one thing that nobody can take away from you. A lot of things can happen in life. People can take your money, your house; a lot of things can happen. But whatever you've learned, nobody can take that away from you. They would tell me, "You're not the prettiest, you're not the fastest, you're not the most athletic. But you're the smartest. So use that and that's going to be the thing that moves your life forward." I'd say around 8th grade was really when I started thinking, "Okay, I've got to figure out how to get some money, because I'm going to have to go to college." [laugh]

Zierler:

Were you thinking about science programs specifically? Did you know you were going to major in science when you were applying to schools?

Gonzalez:

Yes, I did. Pretty early on I started looking for programs, even in middle school and high school, that were about engineering and science. Because, again, those were the kinds of programs that I could imagine would help me to get a job. I had some interest in journalism, and actually, in my freshman year won a scholarship from the Las Vegas Review Journal for an article that I'd written. I thought, "Oh, I kind of like journalism, I like thinking about what's happening out in the world." But I didn't know if journalists made money. I didn't know how to translate journalism into achieving my goals of making my family's life better.

Zierler:

Utah State University, it's a big question mark on your CV, of all the places. Did you think about, I mean did you see an opportunity to embrace your identity and find a college where there would be a lot of people of color? Because I've never been to Utah State University, but it must be among the whiter schools in the country.

Gonzalez:

[laugh]

Zierler:

Just a guess.

Gonzalez:

Yeah, yeah. Good guess. I joke, you know, with my friends when I tell these stories, is that at any given time, there were five Black girls on campus and one's getting ready to graduate as the next one is coming in.

Zierler:

Right. (both laugh)

Gonzalez:

So the reason for Utah State, is that my high school principal had gone to Utah State, he was a graduate of Utah State.

Zierler:

Is there a Mormon connection here as well? Is that part of it?

Gonzalez:

I think so. I think Utah-- Well, the majority of my classmates were going to BYU or University of Utah, if they weren't going on a Mormon mission. Many of them were going on their missions. But also, many of the young ladies didn't go to college. They were going to get married. So there wasn't a lot of talk around me about college. I don't remember which colleges I applied to, but they were just the colleges that my counselor said that you should apply to these schools. Utah State recruits heavily in Las Vegas, and surrounding areas. Because of my family’s lower income status, because I am a minority, and I was valedictorian, straight-A student, and all that stuff, they gave me a full scholarship. That was what I needed [laugh] to go to college. Free college was all they had to say to convince me.

Zierler:

Right. When did you settle on the major of biological engineering?

Gonzalez:

At Utah State, the department I matriculated into was the department of biological and irrigational engineering. I had gone primarily with the goal of getting an irrigational engineering degree. My goal was to go to Utah State, figure out how to do computational irrigational management, write computer programs to automate irrigation, and then go back to Nevada and take over my grandpa's job, but do it through computer systems. [laugh]

Zierler:

Oh wow.

Gonzalez:

I went through that program, but my junior year, I was taking biology classes because they were required, anatomy and physiology were required. Coincidentally, I received a flyer in the mail from a program called the Summer Medical and Research Training Program at Baylor College of Medicine. It was in Houston, TX, and I'd never been to Houston. [laugh] But I thought, "Okay, this is my summer before I graduate and have to go get a job. So let me apply to this program, see if I can get in, and have some fun in Houston."

Zierler:

[laugh] So far, and I'm delighted to hear it in your narrative, I'm not sensing that there were any negative influences on you, in terms of being a woman, a person of color, that science was somehow not an appropriate path for you. So, I want to ask specifically for your college years, and particularly because it was not a diverse place whatsoever, if your general feeling was that this was a place that was encouraging to you specifically?

Gonzalez:

Yeah. So, I guess a few things. As I mentioned before, because my high school was largely LDS or Mormon, largely white, I didn't feel that I was so out of my comfort zone when I went to Utah State. However, the differe--

Zierler:

And there are Black Mormons. I mean that is...

Gonzalez:

I didn't meet any there! So you’d think, right? [laugh] I'm not Mormon, so maybe that's why I didn't meet any. But the difference between Utah State and where I was coming from was that I'd gone to fifth grade, sixth grade, and all through high school, with kids who would have known me well by high school. So, for them, I guess there was some comfort level around, "Oh yeah, I have a Black friend." A level of comfort for them and their parents, right? But at Utah State, I was completely new and completely foreign, and Black people were completely foreign to many of those people. Those students. So it was very different. It was a very different experience.

Additionally, as I went through the curriculum and got deeper into my major, I realized that I was not only in a largely white space, but also in a largely male space. Further, I don't even know how to describe it, but, these were the kind of guys that wear jeans and button up plaids and cowboy boots and they had never seen this — someone like me-- [laugh] before. They had never been asked to interact one-on-one or to do coursework with someone like me either. Because a lot of the engineering work is math, and you get in a study group and you work out the problems together, it became a part of the educational experience that I was excluded from. It seemed a difficult thing for a lot of them to do with me. So, I ended up relying largely on my friend, one other Mexican guy there, to get me into study groups when possible. His name was Oscar. He was a really good friend of mine who's now in forestry services in Utah. He still lives in Utah. During school we would work out some of our problems together. Because he was male, he had more of an in with the other student, but, yeah, it was difficult to get the work done sometimes.

Zierler:

Were there professors who served in a really positive mentor role for you as an undergraduate?

Gonzalez:

Most of my professors were white males, so not necessarily role models, in the way that I would think, "Oh, I can be like you one day." But people who would talk to me--

Zierler:

Specifically supportive, I'm asking though. Not so much if you would be like them, to emulate them specifically, but to encourage you that you do have these innate skills, and you're absolutely capable of taking this as far as you want to go. That kind of support.

Gonzalez:

Yeah, not a lot. I will say, the dean of the school would make time to meet with me. So I'd, say... For example, when I was looking for a letter of recommendation to go to this summer program, I went to his office and made an appointment and he was more than willing to meet and write on my behalf. I wish there had been more interaction. And now, being a professor myself, I can't put all of the onus on them. Many of them have large classes, it's hard for them to identify where a student might need additional support or guidance. I will say, I was the only black little spot. [laugh]

Zierler:

Yeah, yeah.

Gonzalez:

In the classroom. So, had there been a desire to provide support, then they could have. But I wouldn't say that there was a professor at that stage that really was encouraging.

Zierler:

I want to ask an identity question that's just specifically academically oriented. So in your field of study as an undergraduate, I see that there are so many discrete skillsets for you to experiment with, see what your talents are, see where your passions are, so there's computational power. There's biology. There's engineering. There's chemistry. There's physics. As you were developing your academic identity, in terms of thinking about the kinds of programs that you wanted to pursue in graduate school, what were those areas within your degree where you said, "This is something I really love, this is something that I'm really innately interested in." Or, "This is something where I'm just really intellectually engaged in."? And perhaps as an add-on to that, the more you got involved on the academic side, I wonder if it started to occur to you that if you're really doing the science well, the salary and the career will take care of itself, because that was not your motivation going in, right? It was sort of the other way around.

Gonzalez:

[laugh] Exactly. So okay, in irrigational engineering-- You do some thermodynamics, you do a lot of mechanics, and tons of physics. All of these principles are learned with the intent of application to pouring and curing concrete, or thinking about water flow, and other liquid flow patterns. We also took courses in biology, related to bacterial oxygen consumption and things like that, again relating to contamination of water sources. Each of those academic principles, those little nuggets like principles of Newtonian fluid flow, are the topics that I loved. I loved the mechanics and physics. The biology felt more like memorizing pathways and processes, which I didn’t enjoy as much. And I also understood, at that moment, that biology was stable in that everybody already knew everything there was to know about biology, so there was nothing new to discover.

So when I went to the Baylor summer program, I was paired with a pulmonary specialist named Aladin Boriek. He was in pulmonary medicine, but also a part of the structural and computational biology program. He used me in his lab to create computer programs that helped to understand how the diaphragm interacts with the lung in, in this case, in dogs, to model muscular dystrophy. I came to understand the mechanical relationship between diaphragm muscle deterioration and respiration. In this way, I could use my own skill set in programming, mechanics and physics, to model the compressive forces that the diaphragm had on the lung. I could write a computer program that could mimic and model those compressive forces, allowing you to add different variables to evaluate the effect of the load on the strain of the lung. That work was the first realization that I had that the math, computational skills, the understanding of mechanics and physics, could translate to the physiological system, to human biology. That was fascinating to me!

And that was also the first time I understood that you don't pay to go to graduate school in the sciences. That they pay you [laugh] to get an education. And again, that same message that always resonated from my grandpa, that education is the one thing people cannot take away from you, stood out then. So, if a college education is good, well then, even more education cannot be bad. Just getting another degree would get me into a career that I can't even imagine yet, that I haven't even heard about. So, I went back to Utah, finished my last school, graduated, and in the meantime, applied to graduate programs, and I got into the Baylor College of Medicine graduate program. So I guess to answer your question, there were the aspects of engineering that I already liked, the physics, the mechanics, that I learned to translate into physiological information, into biological human systems, in ways that I hadn't been introduced to before. It was a transformative and eye-opening experience.

Zierler:

At what point did you start to get interested in the potential human health impacts of the kinds of research you would contribute to? Were there any specific interests in that regard? Or in graduate school, was the idea first very much a basic science, like let's just discover and learn what's going on and then work out the clinical or therapeutic benefits later on? What was your approach in that regard?

Gonzalez:

When I first got to graduate school, the one thing I did know is that I did not know a lot. (both laugh) I learned pretty quickly that especially in biology, my education was not what others either had access to or, if they were a biology major, had experience with. A lot of students had already had some lab experience. I had not. I'd done computation for irrigation systems. So my background was going to be very different from that of my peers.

As a side note, the other thing I will say, again coming from a family that didn't even go to college, going into a graduate school, I had no idea what to expect. I didn't know what my role was. I tell students now, that, at that time, that I didn't even know that it was my responsibility to publish papers in order to get out of graduate school and to graduate. The whole experience was eye-opening, brand new, mind-blowing.

But we did a series of rotations, which were a few week-long work experiences in various labs. In those rotations, I learned to isolate human protein. I got to use computer systems to design Monte Carlo simulations of actin folding. And I also got to start to build, we called them soft tissue mimetics at that point, and evaluate human cell interactions with them. So my first year, it was "biology, biology, biology," and trying to find ways to put the knowledge that I did have to use in some way. I was out of my element, completely. But what really kind of resonated with me was this idea that I could keep using my hands in lab and I like tangible development. The computation was fun, and it was interesting, but it wasn't something that I was going to be able to actually see come to life and I wanted to be able to build something out. I wanted to be able to use human cells. Use human tissue. Make sure that the work I was translatable to humans, not animal, or not so dependent on mouse models, the way most human biology research is done. And so I really gravitated to projects that Larry McIntire, who was faculty at Rice and chair of the department of bioengineering at Rice, was doing. He was using engineering to create human mimetic models and evaluate the effects of mechanics on human cells.

Zierler:

Did you ever give theory a hard look in terms of an outlet for your talents? Or were you always gravitating towards the experiments and the instrumentation?

Gonzalez:

I think application was always in my mind. One reason is that I was focused on -- and I think a lot of people from first generation or low-income families think this way -- what can I put out there in the world because that means tangible value coming back. The other aspect of that is that I had to explain this to my family, what I was doing. [both laugh] And if I was explaining theory, it was not going to fly.

Zierler:

What was the process of developing the relationship with your graduate advisor? How did that come about?

Gonzalez:

As I mentioned, in your first year of graduate school at Baylor, you rotate and you do these small project rotations with multiple investigators. With multiple PIs. And my last rotation was with Larry McIntire. All the other rotations had been with biologists, pure biologists. The rotation I did with him was one in which I felt like I wasn't so much a fish out of water. That the engineering concepts, the mechanics, all of those principles that were meaningful to him, were also meaningful to me, and we could have conversations around that work. He's an older white male, and so there wasn't-- and if you've ever seen him on a video or anything like that, he's not an extremely conversational person. So the interactions were very much cut and dry, and I would feel like, "I'm presenting you my data. What do you think of this, Grand Wizard of Science?" [laugh] "Give me your approval. Give me your opinion." And I didn't know how to act in that role of graduate student. But he always engaged. He always gave me, not direction, but gave me permission to experiment. Permission to try things. And I think that was something that I hadn't seen with other advisors, that there was an appreciation for what I already knew, and an expectation that I could try things that might not have been tried before and be very experimental in my approach to science.

Zierler:

What were the academic fields? I mean, so you have your program. And then as you're developing ideas about the larger academic world out there, the kinds of publications that you would want to contribute to, the kinds of conferences that were most compelling to you, where you wanted to get your work out there. What were some of the larger academic fields that were out there nationally that you felt were important to become part of, even as a graduate student?

Gonzalez:

I attended meetings of the Physics Society. I think, later, I gravitated towards meetings where I didn't know enough and I felt that my physics background, my math, my engineering, I was pretty solid in that. What I didn't have a good grounding on was biology, and more specifically, immunology, which is a field that is largely focused on diseases, on autoimmune diseases, on acute inflammatory disease, and that's where my research was going. At first I thought I was going to do cancer research, but then I started looking at leukocyte interactions with soft tissue mimetics. I didn't know anything about neutrophils, macrophages, any of those cells.

So I found myself going to Keystone meetings, to Gordon conferences, and then even to the larger meetings, to get more information about immunology. Where I had previously believed that we knew everything about biology that we were ever going to know, those meetings were eye-opening, because there were people who were presenting new data, and there were questions about, well, what is the next step in the wound healing process? Or what does that data mean to cell migration? Or what does that mean for the human outcome? And again, I found it mind-blowing that, "Hey, I thought we knew everything in biology. So how do you people who, are the experts here, not have an answer to this?" So, there again, I gravitated towards digging further into those areas because there seemed to be a lot of questions that were unanswered and a willingness for the field to embrace engineering tools to help answer important questions.

Zierler:

How did you develop your dissertation topic?

Gonzalez:

Oh that's a good question... How did I do that? So my dissertation topic was specifically on neutrophil engagement with soft tissue mimetics, or with extracellular matrix mimetics that we were developing.

Zierler:

And would you please translate that for our broad audience of researchers? [both laugh]

Gonzalez:

I'm sorry. So, what this meant was looking at white blood cells from the human blood stream--and I'll remind you that in around 2000, 2004 is when I finished, 2005, 2004-- the use of human cells almost exclusively for projects was not something that people were doing. And especially leukocytes, because they are sticky cells and they're hard to work with. So the work I was doing was a unique in that space. And also biomaterials were a relatively new class of materials, polymers and plastics, that were being built to mimic human tissue specifically. My goal was to present the proteins that we see in our soft tissues by way of developing mechanically soft plastics. These artificial tissues, in a sense, were meant to mimic the skin, the lung, all of the soft spaces of our organs. So my dissertation was specifically about how white blood cells, after they escaped from the blood vessel, from the blood stream, interact with those soft tissues.

Therefore, the work required that I think about tissue mechanics, stiff tissues versus soft tissues. The work required that I think about tissue specific proteins and how cells interact with those proteins. And the focus really was to build these artificial organs so that we could observe human cell migration, cell crawling, and events that were consequential to health and disease. But the other thing that really got me excited was thinking about, and I started presenting the idea in my dissertation, was that a cell in our body is not the same cell at every moment.

And specifically, these white blood cells, as they move from the blood vessel, where they're in the blood stream, they undergo some sheer stress. They then transmigrate or they move across the vessel wall, composed of more cells and proteins. And during their journey, they experience these mechanical events and environmental interactions, and are continuously changing in order to adapt to their new environment. So how do they get the signals to change, to adapt to the new environments? How do they know that they are to do good, and eat up bacteria? As opposed to destroy the new environments? How do they get those signals? The concepts that cells are responsive to environmental signals within our own body was really fascinating to me. And that's really what the dissertation topic led me to think about.

Zierler:

Did you ever think about doing an MD/PhD?

Gonzalez:

I thought about it and saw how hard my peers at Baylor were working. [laugh] I changed my mind.

Zierler:

But it is clear, Anjelica, that your research, you did see that it would have immediate clinical and therapeutic value. That you were going to be in that world, even if you yourself were not going to be bedside with patients.

Gonzalez:

Yes. I had a co-advisor in the department of leukocyte biology, at Texas Children's in Baylor College of Medicine, named Wayne Smith. He was the first person who discovered one specific integrin, one specific receptor on the neutrophil that was related to cell function. Therefore, he was a legend in that field. And he is an MD. He didn't have a PhD, but had specifically trained himself on how to use human cells, how to investigate basic science questions that could then be translated to human medicines, to disease states. The interactions between my engineering advisor, Larry McIntire and my immunology advisor, Wayne Smith, really strengthened my desire to apply engineering principles to biology. The two of them, Drs. McIntire and Smith, had collaborated for decades, had worked together for decades, which really taught me that I can have any degree-- an MD, PhD, or an MD/PhD—but the work I did with those degrees would really speak for itself. The work that I was interested in was really going to be about engineering human structures to help us gain information about how to understand and how to heal the human condition.

Zierler:

It's not really a trivia question in your case, because your field and your area of expertise as you're developing it is, it's born essentially multidisciplinary. I think it would be important to know who was on your committee as a representation of all of the different fields that were relevant for what you were putting together.

Gonzalez:

Oh my goodness, yes. My committee-- Oh, I hope I don't forget anyone. [laugh] Obviously, Larry McIntire, my PI, the engineer. Wayne Smith, who was the leukocyte biology expert. Jennifer West, she is a biomaterials expert, and at that time, she was faculty at Rice. Again, where Larry McIntire was. Rice is really where I did the bulk of the engineering work, and then would take it over to the hospital where the leukocyte biology department was and do the human work. Aladin Boriek was also on that committee. If you recall, he was the person that I'd done my summer work with. He was, a mix of a pulmonologist and a physicist, for lack of a better term. He added another perspective, related to the biology. Another member who contributed initially was Susan Hamilton. She was at Baylor and part of the structural biology and molecular biophysics program. She was key in helping me to understand the molecular biology. As you could tell, the committee was intellectually diverse; engineers, MDs, material scientists, molecular biologists and biophysicists.

Zierler:

What did you see with your dissertation in terms of its contribution to some of the broader questions? The broader research questions that were in the moment, you know, really pressing in the field at that time?

Gonzalez:

I would say that my contribution was twofold. One question I worked to address was about the basic methods of investigation. I was interested in developing tools that would allow us to investigate real-world problems, real human problems. This interest would be a broad contribution. As I mentioned, I was developing polymer systems that presented proteins in a way, or protein fragments, in a way that would target specific proteins on the human cell. After attaching to those fragments the cell would act, and we would observe the action. We would observe crawling. We would observe protein degranulation. We would observe function of those cells following their interaction with these signals. Most people prior had done this by coating tissue culture plastic or glass slides with proteins, disregarding the very specific human presentation of proteins in actual tissue. That was what I focused on, presentation of proteins so that cells could identify them in the same way they would identify them in the body.

The other side of that, the biology, was focused on understanding the specific cell response in the context of their environment. For example, within the blood stream, cells behave differently than they would when outside of the blood stream. This is because the cells themselves change. They acquire different characteristics, like changing their protein receptor levels, that allows them to see the new environment and then respond appropriately to the environment. The changes that blood cells undergo as they experience a new environment hadn’t been investigated fully, so I'd say that I was able to make a contribution in those investigations.

Zierler:

Were there any specific human health maladies that you saw would be particularly exciting in terms of applying your research?

Gonzalez:

I was very interested in questions of sepsis. Sepsis is an inflammatory state, in which white blood cells leave the vessel and go into the soft tissue, and if chronic, often leads to organ failure. If you have lung failure and a heart failure, then you're dead. If you have multiple organ failures due to sepsis, then you're not going to survive. I was very interested in investigating cell behavior during sepsis because mortality associated with sepsis is high. The McIntire lab had experience in studying leukocyte behavior outside of the blood vessel. So, in this case, interest and opportunity merged. With Dr. McIntire we were able to study human cells that were harmful to the human tissue once they exited the blood vessels, understanding that these cells look very different from the ones in the blood vessel was a first step in understanding how we could potentially treat sepsis a bit better.

Zierler:

What were your opportunities after you defended? What were some of the most exciting postdocs or research endeavors that you considered at that time?

Gonzalez:

Once you defend, you still have to get papers published. You still have to get some [laugh] of this work wrapped up. And so I stayed on with Wayne Smith specifically to finish up some of the work that we had started. At that time, I was offered a, an industry position. I would be investigating scar formation and working on cosmetics that would reduce scar formation. It sounded like a good job to me. I thought, let me try it out. But, in the interim, between starting that job and finishing up my publications, I attended a seminar. The professor who was speaking was a visiting professor from Yale. He was giving a seminar on two things. One, the development of this new biomedical engineering department at Yale. But, also his own research in neutrophils and neutrophil biophysics. He was discussing blood cells crawling and that the like.

You probably can't tell now, but I am an introvert. [both laugh] And so I get really nervous about the hand raise, and asking question in front of all of the fancy, smart people. So, after the lecture, I approached him, Mark Saltzman, and said, "I had a question about the neutrophil experiment that you did." And I think, he was impressed by the question, perhaps? That I had some knowledge of the field, which led to a conversation. He asked, "What stage are you in your career?" And so I told him that I had just defended. And he said, "Well, if you ever think about an academic position, Yale has a program. Go ahead and apply." I couldn't even see myself in an academic position. And I had just got this offer to do cosmetics. So, I talked to Wayne Smith, my advisor in leukocyte biology, and he said, "That's a good idea. You should apply." [laugh] That was the first time anybody had ever indicated to me, "You know what, you could have an academic career. You don't have to stop here and--"

Zierler:

That seems pretty late in the game for that to be a sort of revelation.

Gonzalez:

I agree. [both laugh] I agree. I usually don't know what I want to do next. I knew that I needed to get a job. And I knew that I needed to get a job that was going to pay me so that I could do better for my family. What I tell my students is, sometimes you don't know the opportunities that are out there, because you haven't seen them before.

Zierler:

Sure.

Gonzalez:

When I think about my professors in graduate school or college, I don't see myself that way. I'm not-- those are amazing people. I don't see myself as one of them. I wouldn't put myself in that category. I just never thought that it was possible. Until somebody puts a seed in your mind, then it's just not there. Yeah. As I said at the very beginning, graduate school was an anomaly to me. I didn't know that I had to publish papers. I thought I was just going to take classes, take exams, which I was pretty good at. So I thought I could get through. But the independence of graduate school, and the independence of a career afterwards? I couldn't wrap my head around that. It was just a foreign concept.

Zierler:

Anjelica, what about on the teaching side? Did you have opportunities to teach as a graduate student? And did you discover that you had any skills in that realm?

Gonzalez:

Absolutely not. [laugh]

Zierler:

Really?

Gonzalez:

And I would argue, I still might not have skills in that realm. [laugh] Baylor College of Medicine is a medical school, and doesn't have an undergraduate affiliation, so there are no TA, teaching fellow, teaching assistant requirement for our graduation. Unlike Rice and other undergraduate-serving institutions, we don't have an undergraduate population to practice our teaching on.

Zierler:

Right, right.

Gonzalez:

Our teaching. And so, when I first arrived at Yale as a faculty member, my first year of teaching was a disaster. I was probably the worst thing that students had ever seen. Students at Yale are not afraid to tell you that you're the worst [laugh] thing that they've ever seen. It took time. It took--

Zierler:

It's probably more about you being nervous than not having a handle on the material, though.

Gonzalez:

Yes, you're right. I think a lot of scientists know their stuff. They know the science. It's being in front of the classroom that is very different from a scientific lecture environment. Being able to engage students in a way that you're accessing the knowledge that they have and advancing that knowledge in a way that's still engaging and interesting to them. And honestly, and I think the research bears this out, a woman in the front of a STEM class, a minority in front of a STEM class, is not viewed as an authority figure. And so there was a little push and pull, like, "Who are you to tell me about biomaterials?" [laugh] But, over time, those barriers are overcome.

Zierler:

How did you go about refining your area of expertise, post-dissertation in that postdoc experience? Did you see opportunities to branch out into new research endeavors? Was this mostly an opportunity to focus even more on the things that you had already been involved with? How did you weigh all of those considerations?

Gonzalez:

I applied to the job at Yale with Mark Saltzman, and met Jordan Pober, who is in immunology in the medical school at Yale. They said, "Yes, we want you. We're going to make you an offer, but because you haven't had a postdoc, we're going to hire you as a research assistant for two years. After that period, you're going to start your lab independently and transition to assistant professor."

Zierler:

Why would the lack of the postdoc-- what exactly was the issue there? I mean, if you know your stuff and you're ready to go, what's the big deal?

Gonzalez:

In bioengineering, different from mechanical or electrical engineering, there's an expectation that you have a postdoc, and that you have that experience to have demonstrated the ability to gain in a skill set, and to apply your science in a different way from the way you did in your dissertation or your PI-led research. I think my research area was exciting to them. It was very complementary and cohesive with what was happening at Yale and the medical school. They had confidence that I could do this. But wanted to give me that ramp-up period. Which is how I viewed it, as opposed to a slight or negative view of my potential.

Zierler:

Maybe this will continue the theme of naivety and not really understanding the bigger picture, but I'm curious if you thought at all about joining Yale as an assistant professor, what the prospects of tenure promotion from within? Was this--

Gonzalez:

Talk about naivety, right? [laugh] Honestly, I had... Yeah, sometimes when I talk about these things, I'm just going to be very transparent. I feel very stupid. How did I not ask these questions? Or people would say to me, "Oh, well you know the tenure clock here is very long." And I'd think "Oh, well that means I have a job for a while." [both laugh] I don't know how I didn't interpret these things as, "That means it's going to be a very stressful time before you have a secure job." [laugh] I had very few peers who were going into academic positions. Very few people from my high school even went to college. Very few people from my college went to graduate school. None that I can actually name. And then few people from my graduate program went on to faculty positions. I was in a graduate program that was all male, and they all went into industry.

So I never had any conversations with anybody about, well, "What's your start-up package look like? Or what's your tenure clock look like?" There was one other woman that I knew at that time who was a year ahead of me who was going into an academic position at Michigan, and she gave me some tips on what lab size I need to ask for and things like that, but we didn't really talk about many of the details. So when they said that Yale’s tenure clock is actually a ten-year clock, I was like, okay, sounds good, I'll sign up. Over time, [laugh] over those ten years, I learned what that meant. Especially as I was seeing my peers get tenure much more quickly than I would. The woman who was at Michigan got tenure within five years, she moved into associate professorship, getting to have security in her position so that she could explore other experimental questions and things like that. And I realized, "Oh, that's what I sacrificed when I accepted this long tenure clock."

Zierler:

What kind of support did Yale give you in terms of the vision you had for putting a lab together? In what ways did they say, "Here's what we're able to do. We'll give you some advice about maybe DOE or NSF or other funding sources." How much did you feel, beyond the tenure considerations, that the right people were committed to your research and were committed to your success from the beginning?

Gonzalez:

As far as the right people, 100%. I could not have asked for better guidance from the school of engineering. Mark Saltzman, who was the founder and the chair of the biomedical engineering department at that time, was extremely supportive. Having a solid foothold in the medical school through my work with Jordan Pober, advanced my work significantly. Working with Jordan Pober gave me the human medicine components, and it was very clear that they, shockingly to me, saw me as an expert in neutrophil biology, in human neutrophil biology. They would ask me questions about the human neutrophil and in that way, the support that I gained from that community was remarkable. I was shocked, to be viewed as somebody who had contributory knowledge. On the engineering side, I was one of the few faculty who was doing anything in biomimetics.

So mimicking human tissue, which meant I understood the complexity of the mechanics, the complexity of the protein structure and their role in directing cell behavior. I was trying to build materials that looked like human tissue. Those two primary mentors, advisors, introduced me to people in pulmonary medicine, and dermatology, cancer, molecular and cell biology, and genetics. People who would appreciate the engineering I was doing and think of new ways to apply it, and people who would appreciate the biological knowledge and the molecular biology that I had an understanding of and think of how we could invent new tools to probe that. I've written a little bit about this, and I wish I could make it more clear. The idea that mentorship and support... without it, you can give a person a job, but if you don't give them a pathway to succeed in that job, through access to resources, advocates and support systems then you're wasting resources. You're wasting time, you're wasting human capital If you don’t provide people opportunity along with a pathway to success. And that requires human investment.

Zierler:

Did you take on graduate students right away, or that sort of came later on?

Gonzalez:

I took on undergraduates who wanted to do small projects [laugh] first. And then postdocs. When you first start out, you go in and you're saying, "Okay, well I just need this experiment done. So here's the experiment. Go ahead and do it." That's not how it works. Undergraduates require a lot more guidance. With postdocs, there's a lot more of an advanced conversation and scientific development. It wasn't until my third year as a faculty member that I actually got a graduate student. I actually got my first two graduate students in the same year.

Zierler:

Did you see specific opportunity to work with the medical school or the hospital? Was that sort of embedded in your research agenda as you were putting everything together?

Gonzalez:

Yes, definitely. As I mentioned, immunobiology collaborations with faculty in the medical school was key to even some of the very first things we were doing. Yale has resources and not just money, but access to human tissues, access to expertise of very rare diseases. There are academic resources at Yale that would push my science forward in a way that I hadn't considered before. For example, when we started working with dermatology, we worked with a physician who was investigating a fairly rare disease, but a detrimental disease, called neutrophilic dermatosis, or sweet syndrome. I'd never heard of this and would not have heard of this had she not understood the basic biology that I was investigating in the vascular wall and how that impacted the human diseases she was observing in patients. By being able to couple the basic science questions I was investigating with a disease state, that elevated the impact of our publications. Elevated the exposure of our science and made clear the value of our basic research to human health.

Zierler:

To come back, Anjelica, to the beginning of our conversation, when you started at Yale, in some ways, that wasn't long ago, and in some ways, in terms of the national reckoning we're going through, it was long ago. So, I wonder if you can reflect from your early years. You know, either in terms of micro-aggressions, or any other forms of lack of support or lack of appreciation for diversity and inclusivity, if you've been able to see in your relatively short career at Yale, right, if you've seen positive change, even during your own perspective. Your own worldview.

Gonzalez:

Yes. Definitely positive change. In that people, specifically my peers, colleagues, or administration, felt very comfortable in my first year saying, "Oh you were just hired because you're a Black woman." That is not something people would feel comfortable saying to me now. [laugh] You know, unless there was some hostility being expressed. So those types of things, which were overtly insensitive, racist and problematic.

Zierler:

Stupid. It's also stupid.

Gonzalez:

Well... [laugh] Yeah.

Zierler:

I'll say it if you don't want to, but you know.

Gonzalez:

[laugh] It’s just not a smart thing to say. So the fact that I don't feel that anybody would say those things anymore is telling. The fact that, I have been named the faculty director of Tsai City shows growth and advancement. The fact that Yale and my colleagues see fit to evaluate me on science, and promote me on science, shows growth. I think we have a long way to go. There are only two women in my department. And we were hired about ten years ago, both around the same time. Someone recently said in a meeting, "We're doing so well in diversifying our department because we have two women." And my response is, "You hired those two women ten years ago!" [laugh]

Zierler:

Right, right, right.

Gonzalez:

-- and you've not done anything since. I think there's a long way to go. But I see us moving. I see movement.

Zierler:

But let's... Anjelica, let's parse this out, because just because nowadays, people would be loath to say, you know... "Well, I'm going to minimize this because it was some diversity hire." There's a difference between people not saying it but feeling it, and knowing that they shouldn't say it because that's no longer acceptable to say, versus people actually understanding, right? This is like, this is something that's so fully-- I mean, I'm lucky for this, because I talk to physicists all-- I mean this is my job, right? I have internalized through all of these stories. I know diversity is not good for diversity. It's good for science.

Gonzalez:

[laugh] I love it.

Zierler:

Literally, it's good for science. So it's a galaxy's difference if you're perceiving that people are not saying, "Well, I'm minimizing this because it's a diversity hire." Versus, "Diversity is good because look at all of the amazing research that's being done that never would have been done." Or the connections that are being made, or the new approaches to doing all of these things, right? So in terms of, this is still very much a narrative in development, right, in terms of people, particularly older white men who come from a very different worldview. They might be well-meaning, but these are things that are tectonic in their shifts, right? So that's really the nub of the question in terms of, during your tenure at Yale, to what extent have these changes been superficially positive, and in what ways substantively are people really starting to understand what's actually happening now?

Gonzalez:

I think what you're hitting on the head is a social issue. People have to be socialized in a way that they appreciate that science and diversity of thought in science is what makes science better. The only way you can do this is to include people with different experiences, with different makeup, in scientific careers so that there becomes a wide-spread appreciation for their influence on innovation. That conversation is happening. And the consideration for scientific excellence becomes the next question. What is scientific excellence? Well, scientific excellence doesn't just mean I'm the same as everybody else and doing the same work as everybody else. It means that there's differences in the kind of approaches we take and the kind of work we do. I don't know that there's 100%-- I think there's not 100% buy-in to that idea.

And again, the reason may be that there are not enough examples that are apparent to the broader population of older, white male scientists that women, minorities, differently abled individuals, etc. have made significant contributions to important scientific advancement. There's not the visibility or the acknowledgement that a person with atypical experience has made a significant contribution, not in spite of, but BECAUSE OF that difference in experience. BECAUSE OF that difference in perspective and perception. And you know, one of the things that I personally try to do is, that is very uncomfortable to some extent, is tell my personal story.

And tell people, "I worked on the problem of premature baby respiration because I became a mother." And I had two babies, and I saw babies with respiratory illness, and I saw that people in different areas did not have access to the right healthcare to save their babies' lives. So that experience of me becoming a mother and being around babies and seeing babies that were going to die, that experience is what changed my science and made my science better. And made my science more valuable to world. So as, you know, difficult as it is to say and talk about personal experiences, I'm willing to do that to bring to light the idea that, this experience is what changed the way I think about my science and what made my science better.

Zierler:

I'll ask a really hard question that would ask you to extrapolate into the future. But I think it's important as we develop this historical narrative. So, I'll give you an example. When I talked to Shirley Ann Jackson, who talked about her experience at MIT in the 1960s, right? Some of the things that she said sounded like, that happened 40 years ago and not 140 years ago? Like some of the things that she talked about were like, it's just important that people understand this is stuff that was going on in the 1960s. And not in the 1960s in Alabama. The 1960s in Cambridge, Massachusetts, right? Some of the things that she described, that sounded like ancient but were not, sounded like on the other side of it, were things that these things still happen today. And just because it's 2020 and we're 40 or 50 years past that, we're still essentially where we are.

So my question is, in terms of extrapolating into the future, what are aspects of your career and your experience now that hopefully, you know, 20, 30, 40 years when you think about yourself in an emeritus status kind of thing, would you look back and say, "I can't believe that this stuff happened in 2020?" And what are those things that you're fearful, you know, on that same line of thinking, are just the kinds of things where it's like, we can always be positive and we can always be optimistic, but we always have to be realistic about the appetite of people to change, even from one generation to another.

Gonzalez:

Oh, that's a tough question to tackle. No, I try to be very hopeful about the future, about 20 years from now, but the difficulty has been that within the last four years, we've seen some of those behaviors that we would have expected only to see in the 60s.

Zierler:

Absolutely.

Gonzalez:

Not this again. Not that the 60s were that long ago, but, I am afraid that the inherent state of some people is just to be viscerally racist. Viscerally defensive about their position and what their position is in society. And so that's constantly going to be there. My experience over the last four years has made me very much more hesitant to be extremely optimistic of what's going to happen in 20 years. On the positive side, what I expect not to have to worry about is that women will be so marginalized in the sciences, or in the academic sphere. Because I think women, and I'll say particularly white women, were able to make leaps and bounds in professional settings, in social settings, in ways that underrepresented minorities typically cannot. So just having more women in engineering, and having the opportunity to do impactful science, will be meaningful for all people to overcome a lot of those barriers.

However, I'm concerned that we won't see minority women represented in the same numbers. I'm concerned that the minority women's experience isn't going to be, one without overt aggression and micro-aggressions. Even in 20 years. Because our society views minority women as uniquely aggressive, as compared to white women, and particularly incapable as compared to Black or minority men. So, there is a double negative applied to this sector of our community. While these particular characteristics are assigned to Black women and minority women, there are other groups in our society that are also disparaged, for example, the LGBTQ+ community is not fully appreciated for the unique perspective that could enhance or innovate in science and technology. Therefore, while I am optimistic, I’m not naïve in my hope, based mostly on what I've seen over the last four years.

Zierler:

Absolutely.

Gonzalez:

I think yeah, it's frightening.

Zierler:

And this of course is not to assume that the coming success and acceptance of white women is necessarily going to be a turning the tide moment for all under-represented groups. That's definitely a narrative that may or may not play out that way.

Gonzalez:

You know, it's interesting. What I often see is that biomedical engineering and many biological sciences have good representation of white women, with respect to numbers, and that diversion from the centuries of a male dominated norm is great. Each of these women has very different experiences, but that still means that minority men, minority women are not being-- or any of the other marginalized group and LGBTQ identities, are not being represented. There's a plethora of mindsets that are not being represented. Yet we say, "Oh, well now we're very diverse. Because we have so many women." [laugh] Well, it's just, now you're hiding the problem. Now you're using numbers to hide the real issues. Yeah. I worry about that.

Zierler:

How do you see the tenure process as a means of validation, both on the research side, and also on the more intangible side? You know, your contributions to the department. Your ability to connect with students, right? How do you weigh all of those things, particularly given Yale's only very recent success at promoting both women and minority groups? And by recent, I mean really recent. Like, this century recent.

Gonzalez:

Yes, yeah. You know, I've been trying to get the numbers from Yale about--

Zierler:

Don't look too hard, it's scary. [both laugh] You don't want to know.

Gonzalez:

They don't want to talk about it for some reason. [laugh] Yes, so tenure in itself gives, like I said, some scientific freedom that I didn't understand and only am now coming to appreciate. And it's where my best science is coming from. As I mentioned earlier, personal experience changes my science. My ex-husband had a stroke, and now I've gotten into stem cell biology and created ways to deliver human stem cells into the brain to facilitate stroke repair.

Zierler:

That's very generous for an ex-husband.

Gonzalez:

[laugh] The question was really interesting to me. But you know, what that means is that I had, prior to tenure, I would not have had the freedom to go ahead and start to investigate that question. I think tenure is very meaningful in the freedom it provides. I think for students, I don't know how much they appreciate it, but I think they do see it as a mark of, she's here. She's here for a while. I think for my colleagues, I'm still trying to figure out what it means at Yale. Beyond Yale, just the fact that I was at Yale, that I've been at Yale for as long as I have, it’s helped people in the field generally see me as an expert and appreciate my expertise, and I'm grateful for that. I don't know... it's good to have it. I've been thinking a lot about this question about getting rid of tenure. I know this is a controversial topic, and I'm not saying that I'm going to give it up. What I wonder is, as time is changing, and as we see so many issues with sexual harassment that are usually brought to light after somebody has already received tenure, or been tenured forever...

Zierler:

Of course. The power dynamics surrounding tenure considerations can often be damaging.

Gonzalez:

Exactly. And what I've seen, you know, in my time at Yale, is that tenure is just a means for those people of protecting and enabling these terrible acts. And that is not something that I feel comfortable with. And I don't think that that's what tenure is meant for. It's meant for academic freedom. It's meant for expression of your intellectual ideas. That freedom. It's not meant to abuse others. It's not meant to be wielded as a weapon against others. And that's what concerns me about tenure generally. And because I've only been at Yale as a professor, it is what concerns me about tenure at Yale.

Zierler:

I want to ask a sort of retrospective question about the science. Your research career. And I want to ask in the sense that, because you've been involved in so many different things that are so exciting, that touch on so many different areas, right? I want to ask you, the way I frame this question is open loops and closed loops. In other words, what are the projects that you've been involved in where either you specifically or the collaboration that you were involved in, had a specific research question, and you closed that loop? In terms of the instrumentation, the application, the study of the clinical value, or the therapeutic value. Where you wrote the paper, you gave the presentation. This is a body of research that closes that loop. Now, obviously, in science, closing one loop opens others. But in terms of narrowly defining both the problem and the answer, do you generally see your research achievements up to this point mostly as a series of closed loops that you have not returned to, or are there open loops that you keep open because the science is always changing, and the technology is changing, and there are new ways of approaching the same problem? How do you think about those in terms of things that you can essentially shelve and move on, and things that remain active because they're always subject to change and improvement?

Gonzalez:

Another great question. So I see my work as an open loop. In that... The crux of my work, and I've said this a couple times, is biomimetic development.

Zierler:

I know what that is now. That's great. [both laugh]

Gonzalez:

Developing human tissues.

Zierler:

Right.

Gonzalez:

Outside of the body. And as opposed to people developing artificial organs for transplants, we really want to do this to understand health and disease. One of the ways to do this, or to think about this, is that if we can develop the human lung and the vasculature of the human lung and the complexity of the human lung, and then we can hit our artificial lung with something like cigarette smoke or an environmental factor that causes this thing to turn into a fibrotic lung, then we can start to test drugs that hadn't been experimented within humans. We can also use human models, to investigate therapies that hadn’t worked in mouse models, or animal, rat models, rabbit models. And so, we can really try to narrow down which kinds of therapeutics and drugs strategies might be more effective in humans in a way that we haven't been able to do before.

We have modeled a healthy human lung, we drove it to fibrosis to mimic a disease called idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. And then we took a drug that had uncertainty in its activity, in its ability to prevent or reverse the disease, and we put it in our system. And we found its function, we found the mechanism, and we were able to help our pulmonary medicine colleagues in getting that fast-tracked for clinical trial. What that means is that now we are positioned to trial other therapeutics. Are there co-infection or co-diseases, co-pathologies, that we can create in this model? Are there other drugs to test? Are there other mechanisms and action that we should be targeting?

So what could be viewed as, “Oh, well I looked at this drug and it worked, so now I have an answer” is a closed loop story. But what we have is actually an open loop, because it tells us, that there are more diseases, more combinatorial effects to investigate. Now I can look at the role of inflammation in fibrosis. Or now I can look at this drug and this drug. Or now I can think about this small molecule delivery system in a very different way. So it's hard for me to say, oh, I've solved that problem, because I'm not in the business of solving problems. I'm actually in the business of creating more problems. [both laugh]

Zierler:

That kind of answers my question, because COVID research is definitely an all-hands-on-deck kind of situation, where we're still learning how it affects the body, and there are more scientists than not who have research areas that are of potential relevance. So, I'm curious if you've ever thought about the ways your research might be relevant to this rapidly-evolving international medical response to dealing with COVID?

Gonzalez:

Yeah, absolutely. As I mentioned, we looked at lung disease, and how lung inflammation can be affected by COVID, because one of the things we understand is pneumonia, which is inflammation of the lung, is a symptom of COVID. So thinking about how my human lung models can be informative there. The other thing I've done is, I've started working with collaborators who are thinking about virology generally. And so, Noah Palm and Craig Wilen who are at Yale School of Medicine are people who look at gut microbe and gut virus. Many viruses that are very similar to COVID in mechanisms of transmission, transfection rates, disease outcomes and severity can be used as models for COVID and COVID variants.

And what I've been tasked by them to do is develop an intestinal model that actually has human protein, human cells, and the structural and mechanical components of the human intestine, to see how COVID and other viruses are infecting the human intestine to lead to some of the outcomes that we're seeing in the hospital. And then, on the outcomes and treatment part of the equation, as I alluded to earlier, we work on the creation of a humidified, high-flow nasal cannula respiratory device for premature babies. For an adult, it can be used to help people ween off of ventilators. Because ventilation is a pretty invasive process to making sure somebody can expand their lung and mechanically inflate and deflate and make sure you have good respiratory function. Well, once you're off of the ventilator, you may need a transition therapy. The respiratory device that we've developed is something that could serve as that transition. It’s a device that could be taken home with patients or could be used in the hospital, is something that we're working on now.

Zierler:

Over the course of your career, going really all the way back to undergraduate, in what ways have advances in technology influenced and improved upon your research? And I mean that broadly. Computational power, microscopy, nanotechnology, data, I mean all of the above. There have been so many changes. I'm curious how you might have specifically perceived the way some of those broad changes have positively influenced what you've been able to do.

Gonzalez:

Biomedical engineering uniquely takes in all of those areas of science. Some of the things that I'm most excited about are advances in nano and micro-medicine. As I mentioned, some of the more sci-fi exciting things that I'm doing and just getting ready to publish now include stem cell delivery in microparticles into the brain. Without having an understanding of how small molecules delivery, microparticle delivery impacts humans, we wouldn't be able to even play with this idea. So I'm really excited about that.

On the device side, I am fascinated by many things. Water purification systems and the idea that either, UV irradiation, carbon nanotube methods could be impactful in purifying water in remote and inaccessible regions is important. With this in mind, environmental sustainability and contribution of combating pollutants in water, is also an extremely important aspect of science and technology. This is important, not just for irrigation and food, but important for medical devices too. Making sure that our medical devices are humidified and cleaned with clean water and not bacterial or viral or fungal infected water.

Zierler:

Is there any research accomplishment, to go back to the beginning of our conversation, when you knew sort of intuitively, even as a girl, that you wanted to produce tangible help for people. So right, on that basis, surveying your entire research agenda. Is there anything that stands out in your mind in terms of that tangibility, in terms of that clear help to society and to humanity that you've been involved with that really jumps out in your memory?

Gonzalez:

Oh. That's a tough question. Because I know what my favorite scientific accomplishment has been. I don't know if it's under-appreciated, but the struggle is under-appreciated. [laugh] So when we think about the blood vessel wall, we think about the cells the line the vessel. The large blood vessel structure is what everybody studied for decades. What people have not studied in the small vessel, and the specific cells that contribute to the micro-vessel wall. There's a specific cell type called the pericyte. And this pericyte has mechanical and contractile functions that regulates the blood flow within of the small vessel. And in 2010, 2012, between 2010 and 2012, I developed the first co-culture of human endothelial cells, the cells on the inside of the vessel wall, and pericytes, these cells on the outside of the vessel wall. We were actually able to take human leukocytes, neutrophils, and have them migrate from the inside of the blood vessel stream through all parts of that vessel wall, to mimic the process of inflammation.

And to me, building a model of human micro-blood vessel that then can be used for investigation, is a fundamental and transformative advance. This system has now been used to dissect the function of the individual cells, it can be used to probe molecular interactions between cells and can be triggered to model disease. It's, as small as it is-- literally small [laugh] as it is, it is the thing that I'm most proud of. Creating something that's so close to human, is made of human, will help cure diseases that are detrimental to humans.

Zierler:

I take of course a big tent approach in building this oral history program, in terms of who counts as a physicist, and so I want to ask you, you're not technically a physicist, but as the foundational discipline, I'm curious, you know going back even maybe to high school physics or college physics, what are some of the bedrock principles in physics that might inform your work? Maybe not on a day-to-day, but things that you learned about: thermodynamics, or statistical mechanics, you know? Because physics of course is at the root of chemistry and biology. What might have been some of those concepts in physics you learned as a student that continue to inform how you understand the way the world works and how you might go about setting up your experiments and research?

Gonzalez:

I teach and work with materials. I teach biomaterials and we talk about principles of physics, including material mechanics, energy etc… As an example, we discuss free energy and how it contributes to the destabilization of materials when they are under physical force, extreme temperatures, or even the impact of electricity, which alters the energy state. In the development of solid materials that are made of crystal structures, you always want to have the impose the most energetically stable state in order to have nuclei form, and nuclei growth and propagation of the crystal unit. Materials, energy, physics, thermodynamics, are all principles I carry with me into the classroom and the lab.

With regards to biophysics, thinking about do cells migrate, interaction with materials and other cells, is really thinking about physics and the application to biological entities. This plays a role in examining cells during migration. How do cells generate force in order to pull themselves along a surface? Do they actually use the energy to change shape and push themselves? Do they enact swim like motion or do they crawl using a treadmilling traction force? This really is physics used to understand cell behavior. The most exciting part, in my view, is to understand how cellular processes happen, explain the physical principles behind their activity, and then understand what part of the process is disrupted in disease and disorder. Then we can go back to those basic engineering and physics principles to repair the cells or tissue to get back on track.

Zierler:

Well, Anjelica I want to ask for my last question, it's a forward-looking question, a very broad question, which sort of brings it all together, and I want to end on a note of optimism in two ways. What are the things on the science side for you specifically, and the field that you're a part of-- the fields, I should say, that you're a part of, that you're most optimistic about? In terms of really pushing the boundary on discovery that is going to make that long-lasting and positive impact. And then on the sociological side, because either you've chosen it for yourself or it's been foisted upon you, you are a role model. You are somebody that other people will look to as STEM increases and improves upon its efforts for inclusivity and equity and diversity. What are you most excited about in that regard too? And to come back, to tie it all together, on this idea that diversity is actually good for STEM, what unique opportunities do you have as sort of the complete package, as you continue in your career to push positive momentum in both of those areas?

Gonzalez:

Yeah, wow. Your questions. [laugh] Okay, I would say with regards to kind of the scientific fields, and I guess kind of with regard to the second question too, I'm really interested in what's happening with the human. And so scientifically, I think understanding more about the differences and similarities that are going to inform personalized medicine provides an opportunity to address human health in a much more specific and effective way than before is where we should go. What I mean is, that we are going to be able to extract cells from a human tissue, grow that tissue up, and then use that for transplant. That is personalized medicine at its best. Can we reprogram that individual's cells in a way that they can recover from a potentially death-inducing disease? This is different from the personalized medicine that the politicians talk about it, but this is what I see as the engineering, tissue engineering, contribution to personalized medicine. It's being able to use our own structures to repair, regrow, replace things that have gone bad. And I don't think we're that far off. I think we're much closer than many people currently appreciate.

Zierler:

And what's the tipping point there? When you say we're close, how do you know we're close, and what gets us over the threshold?

Gonzalez:

The part that gets us over the threshold is figuring out how we do this in a timely way. Regrowth and reprogramming and regeneration of a human cell line or human tissue, it's time-consuming. And I think figuring out how to do this in a way that we can contribute to early diagnosis of cancer. Early diagnosis of any pathology, taking those cells out early enough, the healthy cells out, to proliferate them and perpetuate the development of them in a way that would be helpful to the patient. That timeline is very difficult to figure out. Once we can balance the need through early diagnosis and the time for tissue replacement via implantation, then I think we'll be there. And the second question was about role model? Yeah. So, I'm sorry what was the question?

Zierler:

Well, just in the sense that you're representative of this combination that diversity benefits from science and science benefits from diversity. And so you're a role model-- I mean, the model part is just your identity. It's who you are, it's who you perceive yourself to be. It's who the world perceives you to be. But the role in there is your accomplishments as a scientist, as a scholar, as a professor. And so whatever benefits you might be able to make on the model side, it's as a result of you being so successful and respected as a scientist. So how, as you look to continue being that role model, combining these two to continue to demonstrate that real change requires more people understanding that these things are connected.

Gonzalez:

Okay, so one of the things that I'm very interested in, and have been trying to do, is bring people who traditionally would not be in science, or viewed as contributors to science, into science. I've done that in a couple ways, and I'm still trying to do it more effectively. The first is through my own science projects. With PremieBreathe, or the neonatal respiratory device we’ve discussed, we've actually partnered with people at research institutes in Ethiopia and India. The idea behind that is that if we are designing primarily for low resource, low infrastructure settings, if I'm doing that from Yale, I'm not going to do it very well, because I don't understand what the limited resources are. I don't know what type of work-arounds are standard in the environment that have actually worked. I don't understand the human practices around repair and sustainability of medical devices in a low-resource setting, because I'm not in that environment.

People in Ethiopia, or people in Malawi or Uganda have been working under these conditions for decades, centuries. So they can teach me, and they can inform me about a better design, better engineering concepts, more considerations than I would ever be able to imagine. They have skill sets that are better suited to the problems we are trying to address. I feel that it is very important to expose people to the idea that where you thought you were solving a problem and where you thought you were going in with the expertise to fix the world for someone else, they can actually teach you a thing or two. That’s one of the things I'm very passionate about.

On the other side, I’m starting to digest the idea that I am a role model, for better or worse. At first, I shied away from that, and as I said, I'm an introvert, even though I probably talked your ear off. [laugh] I try to tell my personal story, not because I am comfortable telling my story, but because it may resonate with someone, and encourage them to be more than they thought they could be. My story is not going to resonate with every Black woman. It's not going to resonate with every Mexican. It might resonate with a white male who says, "You know what, I was raised in a farming community and I loved irrigation. I didn't realize that the link between biology and irrigation could happen. And maybe I want to become a scientist, a biomedical engineer." And so as singular as my story might be, there are aspects of it that other people, I'm guessing many people--

Zierler:

There are access points for commonality, is what you're saying.

Gonzalez:

Exactly. Exactly. That presents the opportunity for someone to see themselves in a position that they otherwise would not, but also has the opportunity for them to see that they can communicate with somebody who doesn't look like them.

Zierler:

Right.

Gonzalez:

I can communicate and be friends and learn from someone, or engage someone that doesn't look like me. And that's something we really need to work on. I wish I had a solution for that. [both laugh]

Zierler:

Well, Anjelica, for your benefit, for everyone's benefit, I want to wish you a lot of luck and success in both of those regards. And just to state the obvious, it's been so fun and engaging and insightful having this conversation with you. I'm so delighted that we were able to connect, and I really appreciate your honesty and candidness and generosity in doing this, and to the small extent that we will be able to, as you say, convey this story toward productive and positive use for all of those different access points, it's a job well done. So I really want to thank you so much for this.

Gonzalez:

Thank you for the opportunity. I'm honored.