Unique Scientist: Adelaide Tovar

Time to meet Adelaide Tovar (She/her/they/them). Adelaide is a systems geneticist and immunologist earning her PhD at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the USA!

What kind of scientist are you?
I am a systems geneticist and immunologist. The focus of my research is investigating how genetic and environmental factors individually and collectively contribute to population-level phenotypic variation. I love that my research is highly interdisciplinary and I get the opportunity to interface with researchers from all different scientific backgrounds including immunology, genetics, systems and computational biology, and toxicology.

What made you want to become a scientist?
I was a curious child, and my mom recognized this very early on. Any time I had questions, she encouraged me to seek out the answers in encyclopedias or with little experiments in the kitchen or on our apartment patio. I cycled through a number of different career aspirations: Egyptologist, botanist, veterinarian, astrophysicist, linguist, and so many more. Surprisingly, I kind of hated biology until a relatively late stage. I enrolled at MIT for my undergraduate education with the intention of becoming a chemical engineer, but was entirely rerouted during my first year biology course. I learned about so many fascinating things I’d never heard of before — the Human Genome Project, VDJ recombination, transposons, chromatin…and I’ve never been the same!

“I’m a queer Latina who grew up in a low-income household, and I’m the first person in my family to graduate from high school, college, and, eventually, graduate school!”

Adelaide Tovar

What makes you a #UniqueScientist?
I’m a queer Latina who grew up in a low-income household, and I’m the first person in my family to graduate from high school, college, and, eventually, graduate school! I also think that I’m a unique scientist because I consider myself more of a jack of all trades rather than a master of any one. I’ve always been interested in having a broad scope of knowledge, and I think that attitude lends itself to interdisciplinary research.

What’s something cool you do outside of work?
I love to knit! I’ve been knitting for almost 20 years, and it’s a great way to decompress while expressing my creativity in a tangible way.

If you had one wish and could change anything in science, what would it be?
I would encourage scientists (especially senior scientists) to be more constructive (and merciful) with their criticism. Sitting in journal clubs or listening in on conversations at conferences, I’ve always been so surprised by how cruel people can be about others’ work. Even when I worked as a TA [teaching assistant] for a first-year graduate school course, I was disheartened to learn that young trainees had already been conditioned to use really nasty language when we were reviewing papers. Of course we can all stand to improve, and hearing and heeding feedback from our peers is a critical component of good science, but science is a challenging pursuit, and more respect should be paid to people’s efforts. There should be no room for pettiness or empty critiques.

“[My mom] had me at a very young age and made many sacrifices to ensure that I would have more opportunities than she or anyone else in my family did.”

Adelaide Tovar

Who has inspired you the most in your journey to where you are now?
My undergraduate research mentor, Dr. Greg Szeto, has had a tremendous impact on me.

During the first two years of undergrad, I struggled with my classes and had a really hard time understanding why I was even accepted into MIT. I even considered transferring to a different university. Greg hired me to work as one of his undergrad research assistants, even though I’d never worked in a lab and didn’t possess any of the techniques required for his work. From the very beginning, he treated me with respect and trust, and was a patient and engaging mentor. He fostered a safe, but incredibly exciting research environment where we were encouraged to try new things, even at the risk of failure. He treated me both as a trainee and like a colleague, which helped me regain confidence in my abilities and discover my passion for research.

Additionally, my mom has provided constant support and inspiration throughout my life. She had me at a very young age and made many sacrifices to ensure that I would have more opportunities than she or anyone else in my family did. We were quite poor when I was little, but she always had the magical ability to create treasure out of scraps — rock candy with twine and sugar water, papier mâché with newspapers we found on the sidewalk, or silly putty with Borax. She used to handwrite math worksheets for me when I was little so that I could practice arithmetic. When I would ask her what different words meant, she told me she didn’t know only so I would have to look them up in the dictionary myself and read the definitions aloud to her. She is an unconditional source of love and encouragement, and I would never have made it this far without her.

Let’s end on a high note! What’s something you’ve done this week that you’re proud of?
I bottled my first batch of kombucha, and it both tastes good and hasn’t killed me yet!


#WomenInSTEM, #QueerInSTEM, #LatinasInSTEM, #FirstGen

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