Published 26 June 2017 by Ulrike Böhm
“The world deserves well-educated women.” – Ana Torres from Mexico
Interview with #LiNo17 young scientist Ana Torres
This interview is part of a series of interviews of the “Women in Research” blog that features young female scientists participating in the 67th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, to increase the visibility of women in research (more information for and about women in science by “Women in Research” on Facebook and Twitter). Enjoy the interview with Ana and get inspired.
Ana Torres, 33, from Mexico is a Postdoc at the Texas A&M University in the US. Her research is focused primarily on the theoretical study of the interfacial phenomena relevant for the development of next generation rechargeable batteries. She is also studying the confinement effect exerted by molecular sieves, solvents, nano-structured materials, an inert gas matrix over the chemical reactions, which are important for chemical catalysis. Her motivation is to assist the novel frontier materials design (with enhanced features) using theoretical and computational methods to optimise resources and facilitate the materials implementation for the manufacturing process of technological devices.
What inspired you to pursue a career in science/chemistry?
Since forever, science books were the only reading material available at home. Both my sister and I grew up with my two parents who are successful biologists despite the difficult circumstances they had to overcome to pursue a career in science. Their personal stories encouraged me to appreciate my education and science in general. I spent a lot of time surrounded by students, immersed in school, math competitions and science fairs. Also, my parents took my sister and me with them on their field research in natural reservations and archaeological zones. I went with my mother to her postgraduate courses and academic workshops. There was not a lot I could do in my small hometown in Mexico but fortunately, I was invited to participate in the Chemistry Olympiads and I enjoyed it all the way through the National Competition. I discovered my passion for chemistry during high school and I decided to travel a long way daily to Mexico City to the UNAM University and get an academic career in science.
Who are your role models?
In many ways, I have been inspired to dedicate my life to science when I pictured my parents doing their daily academic activities with a genuine delight. I enjoyed reading stories about inventors like Edison, Gutenberg, and González-Camarena and enjoyed the Sherlock Holmes adventures. As a child I had the highest scores in school triggered by the discipline at home and motivated by the guiding hands of several exceptional teachers and academicians who invested professional resources into my training. I keep evocative memories of my math teacher, during middle school, who was very dedicated in preparing his students for national competitions. After middle school, I participated in the National Chemistry Olympiads where I met devoted teachers and researchers of the UAEM-Mexico who trained the team and encouraged us to pursue a career in chemistry. My bachelor and postgraduate studies at the National Autonomous University of Mexico contributed to my personal and academic growing. I have been inspired in many ways by committed theorists and advisors: Prof. Fernando Colmenares, Prof. Serguei Fomine and Prof. Perla Balbuena and also the leading academics and theorists Prof. Raul Alvarez, Prof. Fernando Cortes and Prof. Tomas Rocha. Likewise, I shall mention the Nobel Laureates who are my academic life models: Prof. Mario Molina, Prof. Roald Hoffmann, Prof. Robert H. Grubbs, Prof. Walter Kohn, Prof. John Pople, Prof. Konstantin Novoselov, Prof. Andre Geim, Prof. Rudolph A. Marcus and Prof. Martin Karplus.
my parents took my sister and me with them on their field research in natural reservations and archaeological zones
How did you get to where you are in your career path?
The way throughout my current academic position was not easy but constructive and challenging in some aspects. I come from a small, quiet and traditional town in the state of Mexico. Thankfully, I was blessed with my parents’ commitment to provide my sister and me a good education. During my basic education, I participated actively in several science and academic contests. Later on, I enrolled in the public high school and was benefited with a scholarship. That stage was meaningful for my further decision to study chemistry since I was selected to attend Mexico’s National Olympiad of Chemistry. That privilege implied a strong commitment by means of traveling two hours to the school of Chemistry of UAEM-Mexico to be trained for the competition, and then two hours more for the way back. I traveled with my mother after the school in an old van provided by the principal two or three days per week during some months. We arrived at home almost at midnight, tired but enthusiastic about my preparation and the encouraging support within my family. After that fruitful experience of attending the national contest, I decided to study Chemistry in the School of Chemistry of the National Autonomous University of Mexico. So therefore, I spent four hours in a round-trip each day to the Mexico City to pursue my bachelor degree. Sometimes I traveled by car with my father before dawn, but others I had tiring trips in the overcrowded subway and the bus, which arrived in the middle of nowhere where my parents picked me up. After I had my first course of Quantum Chemistry in the university, I joined a theoretical research workgroup. The Quantum Chemistry captivated me and one year later, I obtained my bachelor degree with honours. I continued my postgraduate studies in Chemistry supported by a grant of the National Council of Science and Technology. Usually, there are few students willing to pursue a career in Theoretical Chemistry in my program. Thus, while I studied my advisor and other theorists dictated Quantum and Computational Chemistry post-graduate courses, indeed some of the lectures were first given. As well, during that time, I started my own family and I had to organise my time efficiently to get a functional balance between motherhood, research and teaching. Therefore, through family joint efforts, hard-working and passion for science important achievements were scored: my son loves math and I graduated with honours, gaining the MSc. and PhD. degrees in Chemistry. At present, I am thankful for the support of Prof. Balbuena and I am committed to my post-doctoral stay in Texas A&M University, US. Likewise, I am sharing this experience with my supportive family; we are all growing in academic and personal areas.
What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
Every single project I have worked on has represented a hot topic for me. My Chemistry Master Project was crucial for my academic growing, since I was assigned to deal with some kind of reactions that computationally develop through the wrong expected pathway. So given that behind every failure is an opportunity to succeed, I just let the theory to guide me to get the pieces of the puzzle. Hence, the experienced guide of my advisor, Prof. Colmenares, and my chemical background converged into an alternative and plausible new two-step mechanism proposal (alternative to the spin intersystem-crossing) that explained for the experimental results and became the distinctive approach of the research group. By the time Prof. R. H. Grubbs held a lecture in the university, I got immersed in some articles on methatesis reactions which led me to work with Prof. Fomine. It was my luck that he noticed that I could have a complementary role in the nanoscience research he was guiding in that moment in view of my previous experience in multireference and ab-initio electronic structure methods. From then on, I had to deal with the electronic structure of polymers and p conjugated carbon-based linear and bidimensional nanosystems. Furthermore, after the 2013 Chemistry Nobel Prize announcement, I was fascinated by the multi-scale methods and the perspective of deconstructing a complex system into an accurate computational treatable one. This perspective helped me to deal with the molecular simulations of nanostructures and large-size catalytic systems and encouraged me to look for my current postdoctoral position which is working on a project focused on the computer-aided design of novel materials with technological applications. In this context, it is sought to contribute to the science development in the field of materials used in cutting-edge energy storage devices.
I had to organise my time efficiently to get a functional balance between motherhood, research and teaching
What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself/your work?
I feel proud when I mentor other young students and I succeed to transmit my enthusiasm for Quantum Chemistry to them. In particular, when I teach and help other students with their research and studies in chemistry I feel very gratified. As well, I value the research that I carried out in my home country headed by great Scientists and a limited infrastructure. I got some awards, they came unexpectedly as a nice reward for a constant work and joint endeavor of my home university and advisors, I feel pleased about it and double committed with my future efforts.
What is a “day in the life” of Ana like?
Currently, I am doing a postdoctoral stay in the Department of Chemical Engineering in Texas A&M University. My day starts early in the morning, so my husband and I start the day helping my child to get ready for the elementary school. Then I spend most of the day in the office interacting with the quantum world through the computer and enjoying my computational research. There, I read some Quantum Chemistry books or participate in a seminar or workshop. It is a fruitful experience to share the office with two young female students, we have a nice environment of mutual support and cooperation. We all come from developing countries and share a strong motivation and commitment on science. My workgroup is very diverse, encouraging and productive; it is leaded by Prof. Perla Balbuena. In my previous group, I was the only woman. At late afternoon, I go back home to enjoy a delicious and healthy dinner with my family. This, however, would not be possible without the wonderful team effort of my family that supports me. Then, after homework, games, handicrafts and origami at home, I benefit of the calm of the night to carry out some calculations and read before I go to sleep.
when I teach and help other students with their research and studies in chemistry I feel very gratified
What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?
When the bachelor degree is issued by my home university UNAM, the following oath must be taken:
“I affirm to practice my profession with integrity and enthusiasm, always bearing in mind my social responsibility to the community that contributed to my training, ensuring the professional solidarity, the progress of Chemistry and the prestige of our university. For my race, my spirit will speak.”
I am keen to embrace this phrase as part of my everyday service through science and mentorship and willing to impact positively and more directly in the solution of welfare issues and technology development through the research in the field of Theoretical and Computational Chemistry.
What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?
I enjoy walking, running and biking, which let me spend a great time with my son and my husband and undertake physical activity. Likewise, I enjoy the Bible studies, since it provides me a compass to guide my next steps in all the areas of my life. As well, it is a good opportunity to know some colleagues of other research fields and countries out of the office and to enrich each other with great learnings and common goals. I like to talk about quantum chemistry and science with my family and friends, listen science podcasts, computers, hi-tech gadgets, stereograms and the origami. I like farm animals and the country lifestyle, indeed in my home country I have the opportunity to spend some weekends in my parents’ eco-farm to take care of rabbits.
I urge each woman in disadvantaged regions to break away from the traditional molds society has imposed upon us to justify the lack of support to education, science and job opportunities
What advice do you have for other women interested in science/chemistry?
As a woman, I have my own perspective to address problems in several fields of chemistry; organisation and multitask skills enable me to have a good balance between the family and my career. It is important to have a strong discipline and continue motivated along the way to get an academic career on the basis of family ties and academic cooperation. Personally, chemistry can be seen as a high-level marathon that demands several attributes. Endurance to overcome the day-by-day challenges and enthusiasm to keep high levels of motivation to perform high-quality research. To keep the feet on solid ground, persistent academic training and the desire of service and impact in a positive and useful way in the immediate surroundings. The result is reaching the goal bearing in mind that every step is worth the effort! I urge each woman in disadvantaged regions to break away from the traditional molds society has imposed upon us to justify the lack of support to education, science and job opportunities, and to go beyond our own ways and limits to play an active role in our nation and take the challenge to pursue a career in Science.
In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in science/chemistry?
The implementation and widespread usage of artificial intelligence in drug discovery, novel materials design, analytic techniques and environmental phenomena.
What should be done to increase the number of female scientists and female professors?
The world deserves well-educated women. In Latin countries, commonly women are responsible on their own of the children. They are mainly responsible for their education and the most important: they are laying the foundation of the future generations. Empowering a woman translates into well-educated children, an irreversible and fruitful process, which I witnessed by first-hand in my family. In this line, the thrust and support of women in Science represents an axis of transformation in the society. Certainly, job opportunities for women in Science should increase and special programs for childcare and scholarships for women might raise the number of women that continue their studies and pursue a career in Science.