Profiles in BME

Marlen Soledad Tagle Rodriguez

Tell us a little about yourself.
Marlen Rodriguez

I am a first year biomedical engineering PhD student in Dr. Leslie Tung’s CardiacBioelectric Systems Laboratory. I began my PhD work in August 2017. My current research focuses on determining the maturity and electrophysiology of decellularized heart slices that contain cardiomyocytes derived from human pluripotent stem cells (hPSC-CMs). The end goal of this project is to engineer a 3-D platform that fully recapitulates the natural tissue environment so that cultured stem cells acquire the complex spatial organization and biochemical signaling found in native heart tissue.

Outside of the lab I am a quirky individual who enjoys running, spending time with friends, and playing League of Legends. As a Mexican immigrant I take pride in my ethnicity and am very passionate about reaching out to fellow minority students.

What does your prior academic background look like?

My academic background deviates a bit from the standard path. Although I was in the top of my high school class, I turned down numerous university acceptance offers because I did not yet qualify for FAFSA, and my family could not afford to send me to college. Rather than exacerbate my family’s financial problems, I decided to attend community college. I spent three years at Fullerton College as a biology major. In those three years I worked part-time, and focused on completing as much coursework as possible so that I could transfer to a four-year university. I obtained four associate degrees and transferred to the University of California, Irvine, where I completed my bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering.

What made you want to pursue graduate research?

I have always been fascinated by science. When I was in high school I read my biology and chemistry textbooks like they were novels. I thought that if I read everything there was to know about science then I would someday understand how everything worked. It wasn’t until my first research experience that I began to understand that reading textbooks was not enough. I remember holding my first culture dish under a light microscope and marveling at the cells inside. I had doused them with toxic levels of chemotherapeutic drugs and yet some invisible culprit inside them was helping them withstand the treatment. What could possibly be doing this? I had read about the cascade of events responsible for cell proliferation, maintenance and programmed cell death, but it wasn’t enough to answer my questions. I had to find out.

Thus began my insatiable curiosity that eventually led me to graduate research. I knew that as a graduate student I would be able to perform cutting-edge research, push the boundaries of scientific knowledge, and educate others about these exciting breakthroughs.

What do you feel makes you unique from the rest of the scientific community?

I think that my variety of interests make me a unique individual. People are taken back when they learn that I also speak French and some Korean, that I have advanced art skills, that I enjoy video games, and that I used to research honey bee nutrition. And, of course, it is not everyday that you see someone from my background pursuing a STEM-related graduate degree. Although uniqueness has its perks, this is an area in which I strongly wish I could say that I wasn’t unique in.

What challenges have you overcome to get to where you are now?

As a female engineer and Mexican immigrant I have faced many obstacles. When I was eight, my family and I left our underdeveloped village on the outskirts of Tijuana, Mexico for the city of Fullerton, CA. The transition was much more difficult than we had foreseen in that first exciting day. Cookie cutter communities replaced the dirt roads and plywood shacks that I was accustomed to. We faced an onslaught of socio-economic struggles; unfortunate realities that we still confront to this day. One of the harshest memories I have from when I first moved here was being repeatedly mocked for my imperfect English and told to return to Mexico where “the trash belonged.” I learned to use memories like these to my advantage. They fueled my ambition to represent my country and to prove to others that stereotypes are wrong. It is thanks to these encounters that I have been shaped into the persistent and passionate person that I am now.

Who do you rely on as your support system? How do they do this?

Marlen Rodriguez

In difficult times I always rely on my family and on my memories of Mexico. Though finances were limited, my family never failed to provide invaluable emotional support and assurance that I could accomplish anything through hard work. Even when I am away from my family, I only have to remind myself of my dad’s story. The story of a man who was once a poor orphan on the streets of Mexico but who rose out of poverty through hard work and education. A man that realized his dreams of becoming an industrial engineer and then gave it his all to get his family to America. Regardless of how tough it gets at times, at the end of the day, I still have opportunities that my father and countless others back home do not.

What is your view on diversity and how do you think the scientific community could better engage with diversity?

Nowadays research studies tackle increasingly complex questions that require collaborative efforts from many individuals. Diversity in the scientific community creates a synergy of different perspectives and strengths that can help us tackle these dilemmas. How, you ask, do we increase diversity? By bringing in people from all backgrounds – people who are brilliant but do not have the means to get the educational opportunities they deserve. There is an overwhelming amount of unmet need and untapped potential all around us. We just have to reach out.

What kinds of outreach programs have you been a part of?

I became involved in outreach programs during my undergrad years at UCI. My PI nominated me to be one of the mentors for UCI’s 2015 CardioStart High School Summer Program. During that summer, I trained a high school student to carry out supervised experiments for my undergraduate research project and provided her with project guidance, goal-setting and constructive criticism. Maintaining a supportive, encouraging, and professional mentor-mentee relationship with a younger pupil proved difficult but rewarding. After that initial experience I felt the need to do more. I had to reach out to more high school students who had similar backgrounds. This desire led me to collaborate with UCI’s Tau Beta Pi Engineering Honors Society to put together a high school outreach program. We organized and facilitated outreach events with Santa Ana Valley high school, a local school that is predominantly Hispanic. We prepared educational class activities that introduced their AP calculus students to the exciting applications that math has in engineering fields.

Now that I am a graduate student here at Hopkins I plan to continue reaching out to local underrepresented youth through programs like Thread, P-TECH and SABES. As a minority who has been able to get this far, I feel that it is my responsibility to show to others that it is possible to transcend socioeconomic barriers.