Unique Scientist: Cesar Lopez

Say hi to future Doctor-Doctor Cesar Lopez (He/him)! Cesar is a dual MD/PhD student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the USA studying viral transmission and pathogenesis!

What kind of scientist are you?
I currently study sexual transmission and pathogenesis of Zika virus using mouse models, as well as dengue and Zika virus serology.
I’m also a medical student, so a couple of times a month I’m also learning medicine by seeing patients in a rural community clinic during my PhD training.

What made you want to become a scientist?
I was always interested in science-y things: TV shows like Bill Nye, microscopes, pH indicator experiments, etc. It wasn’t until I got a little older that my scientific interests narrowed down a lot: now I’m pretty excited about viruses and parasites. My interests in these pathogens then got further focused through my interest in health disparities in the Global South. It’s all so simultaneously fascinating, important. I’m building up my skill set to do this work, and I do love it.

What makes you a #UniqueScientist?
My parents are from the same small town in Mexico, then met in California and subsequently got together, making me a first generation Mexican-American. Though both have some college education, none was obtained here in the United States and their work does not use the training or degrees they earned.

Though I spent most of my life growing up in the suburbs, I still feel like an outlier among my peers. There was a short period that we lived on food stamps while my dad was on strike. Though now my family no longer fears for food on the table, I do not have generational wealth to help with big ticket items I see among friends: extensive travel, cars, a house, a wedding. I was and am still incredibly fortunate to have been raised by parents who focus on our education, enrichment, and well-being.

It can be difficult being an ethnic minority, particularly during times like these where hate escalates beyond rhetoric to action. While many of my white male classmates lives aren’t typically changed suddenly by government policy, people who look like me and have a similar background as me are having their lives changed. It can be difficult to continue and perform at as high of a level as classmates who don’t feel chronically unsafe. I continue on because I love my work plus I know I’m doing it for more than just myself.

Photo: Cesar Lopez and his fiancée, Samantha Molina.

“It can be difficult being an ethnic minority, particularly during times like these where hate escalates beyond rhetoric to action.”

Cesar Lopez

What’s something cool you do outside of work?
I’ve been drinking tea for years, but over the course of graduate school have descended far more into it. I now mostly brew gongfu style: much more tea per volume of water, with many short steeps, where you can taste the evolution of a session as different qualities are extracted at different rates. The sensory experience lends itself well to mindfulness and meditation which I’ve also been practicing for some time. Altogether a way to force myself to focus on what’s in front of me and what I’m experiencing, to manage anxiety. Training up my palate through tea has been a very therapeutic hobby!

If you had one wish and could change anything in science, what would it be?
I’d wish away harassment in the academy. As it stands, the current investigatory systems are unnecessarily re-traumatizing to survivors who put themselves and their reputations on the line, often for no action to be taken at all. We have to stop harboring unsafe work environments.

“I was and am still incredibly fortunate to have been raised by parents who focus on our education, enrichment, and well-being.”

Cesar Lopez

Who has inspired you the most in your journey to where you are now?
I think I’ll have to go with Peter Hotez: parasitologist, physician, and now vaccine advocate & public figure. Though what I was originally inspired by was his dedication to lessening disease burden due to parasites in the Global South, vaccine advocacy has become ever more important with the latest outbreaks of vaccine-preventable illnesses.

This was a tough question though! More and more I’m seeing science as a team effort, not a focus on individuals. All your favorite scientists worked with a team, and we should celebrate that!

Let’s end on a high note! What’s something you’ve done this week that you’re proud of?
This past week, it was the little things (or at least things that sound little): staying on top of obligations and emails!


#LatinxInSTEM

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