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Advocating for Academic Excellence

January 11, 2016

Dr. Lillian Cruz-Orengo on Capitol Hill (second from left).

Dr. Lillian Cruz-Orengo on Capitol Hill (second from left).

After growing up in Puerto Rico with limited access to scientific training during her high school years, Dr. Lillian Cruz-Orengo knows the importance of scholarship support and access to advanced professional training in following her career path as a neuroscientist. Now she shares her experiences to enhance resources for other women in science, especially Latinas.

As one of 13 faculty scholars with the Center for the Advancement of Multicultural Perspectives on Science (CAMPOS) Initiative, Cruz-Orengo traveled with a small group of other CAMPOS representatives to Washington D.C. last fall to meet with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, a non-partisan initiative dedicated to voicing and advancing issues affecting Hispanics and Latinos in the U.S. President Barack Obama served as the keynote speaker during the final gala where Hillary Clinton was in attendance.

On Capitol Hill the CAMPOS committee met with Congressman John Garamendi and Representatives Doris Matsui and Grace Napolitano among others. By sharing their success stories with members of Congress, Cruz-Orengo said the group highlighted the importance of funding for academic progress.

“I was impressed with the reception of the politicians we met with. They truly care and are invested in helping. Unfortunately we often don’t see that in politics,” Cruz-Orengo said. “I came back with a different view of our politicians in service—it was a really positive experience.”

The CAMPOS program is one initiative of UC Davis ADVANCE, supported by the National Science Foundation’s ADVANCE Program, which aims to increase the participation and advancement of women in academic science and engineering careers. The continued financial support of NSF and NIH is critical not only for the overall advancement of science but also to ensure the academic and career success of underrepresented women in the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and math), Cruz-Orengo said. And that’s why sharing their success stories reminds Congressional leaders of the value of their support.

“I was lucky to have access to a scholarship (supported by the National Institutes of Health) that enabled me to travel to the U.S. to learn new techniques and implement them in our lab at the University of Puerto Rico where I was working on my Ph.D. in physiology and neuroscience,” Cruz-Orengo said. “As an undergrad, I had serious doubts about being successful in science. But it was precisely that training (and scholarship support) that made me competitive in applying for a post doc at Washington University in Missouri where I trained in neuroimmunology. That put me on a path to where I am today.”

Since joining the faculty at the veterinary school in September of 2014, Cruz-Orengo has continued her research in multiple sclerosis (MS). She points out that until the 1990s, in biomedical research there were no requirements to focus on female physiology in biomedical research. Animal models of disease were all male, creating a vacuum in the knowledge of sex differences in health and disease. Cruz-Orengo wants to contribute in changing that mindset. She is now looking for sexual dimorphism that explains the predisposition of women to MS, a disease that impacts 3.5 females to every male. She’s also thrilled to be teaching.

“Being at UC Davis is a great opportunity and teaching students is awesome! I love to educate and motivate them to learn, and continue to be surprised and impressed by the quality of students here,” she said.

Cruz-Orengo mentors pre-veterinary and DVM students while working on a variety of diversity initiatives as a CAMPOS faculty scholar. She’s a part of branding UC Davis as the university of choice for Hispanics in California, where many Hispanic students are the first in their families to attend college.