Education beyond Ciudad Juarez
Paulina Rios, a graduate of the University of Texas at El Paso, talks about her life in Ciudad Juarez and her love for biomedicine.
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Paulina Rios was born in El Paso, Texas, but lived her entire life in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.
Rios, knowledgeable and passionate about math, biology, and chemistry, excelled academically—allowing her to enroll at a highly competitive high school in Ciudad Juarez. She cites this experience as making her “a more determined student.”
As a Mexican-American woman, she believes representation matters and cares deeply about increasing diversity for future generations. Rios completed most of her education, except college in Ciudad Juarez.
According to EL Paso Matters, “homicide deaths in Ciudad Juárez reached a three-year low in January,” adding that “the decreased overall homicide count comes amid increased attention to the deaths of women, with several recent brutal killings prompting outrage and protests in the streets of the northern Mexico city that frequently ranks among the highest for homicides in the world.”
Despite the 2008-2010 recording of heightened violence, Rios has not encountered any dangers. She remembers life under former Mexican President Felipe Calderon, a conservative politician who declared war against the drug cartels.
“I remember being scared when my parents left the house because I was afraid something would happen to them,” she explained, becoming more aware of the femicide situation in Juárez, which resulted in her interest in the feminist movement and attending protests every Women’s day (March 8th).
“I am incredibly proud of the people in my hometown [Ciudad Juárez] because we just come back stronger every time, and the darkness we have faced, does not change our good hearts,” assured Rios, who values her Mexican heritage.
Using her sister as a reference for what path to follow, Rios applied to El Paso Community College. A cheaper and smoother option that allowed her to transition to academia in the U.S.
“I had a hard time adjusting to the American culture and language,” she explained. “I felt insecure about my accent but forced myself to speak English [to] get better at it.”
With the support from her family—her source of inspiration and motivation, she was able to thrive in college, choosing to focus on biomedical engineering; her dedication panned out after a professor suggested she apply for a summer internship at the University of Texas, El Paso (UTEP), which allowed community college students the opportunity to conduct research at the local university. However, Rios almost lost her life in a car accident in 2018.
“Being in the hospital for two weeks, unable to walk or move, the only thing I could do was think,” she explained. “When doctors explained my medical condition, I realized I wanted to speak their language but did not want to be involved in patient care. I only wanted to understand what was happening to my body at the molecular and cellular level to [find] a solution so I could heal faster.”
The car crash experience impacted her career path—choosing to pursue her undergraduate degree in Biology instead of Biomedical Engineering. Rios enjoys studying molecules, spending time in the lab doing experiments, and troubleshooting.
Under the guidance of Dr. Chuan Xiao, Associate Professor of Biochemistry at (UTEP), she was able to work in his lab, Laboratory of Chuan (River) Xiao, for the entire duration of her undergraduate years—obtaining the Academic and Research Excellence in Biomedical Sciences Award last year.
“I was fortunate,” said Rios, who attended the national conferences in Anaheim, CA, and Philadelphia, PA, where she presented her research.
Rios also participated in UC Berkeley Amgen Scholars program, where she worked in Dr. James Nuñez’s laboratory developing new tools for epigenetics, which Rios says was “a super cool technique to turn genes on and off without modifying the underlying DNA sequence,” and learn how to make mRNA, CRISPR, and tissue culture.
What challenges taught Rios?
Although crime is prevalent in Ciudad Juarez, Rios cites commuting from El Paso to Juarez and vice versa as the most challenging experience she had as a UTEP student—without traffic, a 30-minute commute, with traffic, up to two hours long; despite this, she still managed to get her homework done.
Challenges as a UTEP student taught Rios the importance of time management, organization and prioritization, and mental health.
During her junior year, she was the president of the American Society For Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB), a student chapter at UTEP from 2020-21. However, her inability to delegate responsibilities overwhelmed her and eventually caused her to leave.
Disappointed with herself, Rios “discovered how important mental health was to succeed” and started finding hobbies she enjoys.
Rios has applied to seven Ph.D. programs, getting acceptance from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), University of Texas Southwestern, Baylor College of Medicine, and UT Austin—the programs vary from Biology, Molecular and Cell Biology, and Genetics, essentially wanting her research “to have biomedical applications,” she added, revealing she has decided to obtain a Ph.D. in Biology from MIT.
After she completes her Ph.D. program, Rios wants to work in biotechnology doing research.
Rios is optimistic that in the future, she can “conduct biomedical research that can have applications to improve human health” and have a position that allows her to mentor others” and increase diversity in science.