Celebrating National Hispanic Heritage Month: Meet Rebecca Cuellar

This week, we hear from Rebecca Cuellar, College of Pharmacy safety officer, research projects specialist, and SCoPE administrative director. Rebecca explains how her roots have led her to a career in the sciences and how important it is to be a role model for the next generation of scientists. Many thanks to her for sharing her story.

Rebecca Cuellar at work featured in Sci Girls Stories: Latinas at Work

My mom spent her 49-year career as a Mayo  Clinic researcher, so it wasn’t until I was in AP Chemistry that I truly realized how unusual it was for me to be not just a woman in the sciences but a Mexican-American woman in the sciences. While chemistry gender parity has come a long way since I was born, Hispanic chemists still only make up ~7% of the workforce despite comprising north of ~18% of the U.S. population.

Rebecca Cuellar

I was lucky to have such a strong role model growing up and believe it’s incredibly important to now serve as scientific inspiration for other kids, especially those from groups underrepresented in the sciences. I’ve served as a role model for the PBS show SciGirls, and one of my favorite classroom activities is to play 20 Questions while the students try to guess my career. In all of my visits, even with a white coat present as a prop, the students have never once landed on “chemist” let alone “medicinal chemist.”

Rebecca's children are pictured with nine of their family's monarchs

For young kids, the best thing we can do to help foster tomorrow’s pharmaceutical scientists is just getting them excited to talk about the science behind the things that are all around us -- it's in the food we eat, the way our bodies provide us with energy, the medicines we take & vaccines we use, and everything in between. Several years ago, I started a monarch butterfly conservation program for my community. My kids, husband (also a CoP Mexican-American chemist!), and I carefully collect the pin-head sized eggs from our milkweed garden and distribute the baby caterpillars to area kids. While monarch conservation is the outward goal, our bigger mission is getting kids excited about science. The smile that spreads across a kid’s face as I call them a scientist is wonderful, and I love being a part of that. Moreover, I now see many families combing the parks’ milkweed fields for eggs on their own. To know that I’m leaving a lasting positive impression on kids is as gratifying as it is humbling.

I believe the pharmaceutical sciences need chemists of all backgrounds who should feel welcomed and valued in our ranks. I subscribe to the mantra “if they can see it, they can be it,” so you better believe when it comes to mentoring, I fly my nerd flag unabashedly high for all to see.

Rebecca Ann Dueñes Cuellar, PhD
College of Pharmacy Research Office