When Aaron Rodríguez ’19 took Michael Coronado’s exercise physiology class in spring 2018, he quickly caught on to his professor’s enthusiasm for research.
That summer, Rodríguez made the leap from classroom to lab, assisting Coronado’s studies of mitochondrial biology. He picked up new skills — from learning how to image heart cells under a microscope, to mastering the art of closing a test tube with one hand — and discovered his own passion for biomedicine.
“I really liked the independence that I had in Professor Coronado’s lab,” Rodríguez said. “This was my first research experience, and it opened my eyes.”
Coronado and Rodríguez also bonded over their shared Mexican heritage. Rodríguez, originally from Pomona, California, is active in Whitman’s Club Latinx and was excited to find a role model with a similar background.
“Professor Coronado knows the experience that I’ve gone through being a Latino in STEM,” he said. “I know I can go to him whenever I have problems or whenever I have questions.”
There are few Latinx role models in STEM for students to emulate. According to a report by the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, less than 2 percent of the STEM workforce is Latinx, and only 9 percent of STEM degrees and certificates were earned by Latinx in 2013.
“When I was in grad school, I was the only Hispanic person from the U.S.,” Coronado said. “Now I’m in a position where I can provide mentorship in terms of what to expect, what challenges he’ll face and most importantly, what resources are available to him — that’s a big thing! There are a lot of opportunities for grant funding and enrichment available to underrepresented populations.”
Rodríguez’s current research in Coronado’s lab includes examining how mitochondria behave in cells that have been specially treated to imitate Parkinson’s disease. After commencement, he plans to begin a career that reflects the experience he’s had at Whitman.
“I would love to keep doing research in relation to biomedical sciences and keep working with pathological diseases,” he said. “I’d like to be a professor at a college or a small university similar to Whitman, so I can foster mentor relationships like I’ve had with Professor Coronado.”