• David Evans

Dr. Florentine Rutaganira: Postdoctoral Researcher, Berkeley

"A part of this is remembering where I come from and how rare or how improbable it was for me to leave a country that was going through genocide to now being a scientist."

Florentine Rutaganira is a postdoctoral researcher at UC Berkeley. She earned her Bachelors in biochemistry and molecular biology at UC Davis and earned her PhD in chemistry and chemical biology at UC San Francisco. She now focuses her efforts on understanding the multicellular nature of animals and how cells work together to perform basic functions.

We sat down with Florentine to find out about all things science and the richness of her community.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background.

I was born in Rwanda, and I immigrated with my parents when I was three. I grew up in Davis, California. Since then, I've pretty much stayed in Northern California. The reason why we left was because of the Rwandese genocide. My dad got his PhD at UC Davis, and my family came on a family visa associated with his studies. He was posted in the mathematics department at UC Davis. My mom is a lab manager. She also works with the University in a department called Post Harvest. I had math from my dad’s side and biology from my mom's side.

What set you on this trajectory of being a scientist?

It's an interesting trajectory. My siblings and I were exposed pretty early to the influence of science because of my parents. They didn't necessarily push us in that direction; we just got exposure to it. My mom would take us to work, and she worked in a lab. I grew up around the lab, and I was excited because everybody was excited to be doing what they were doing. I associated it with a positive space. I always had a liking for science, and my dad being a math teacher, I always liked math as well growing up.

My extended family, in general, has gone to college in Africa. Some have done their training additionally in the United States. That was something that they expected of their kids. Thankfully, they have helped us a lot in that they paid for all of us to go to college. I can't express how thankful I am for them, for struggling to get work done and get three kids to college.

What helped you when immigrating to a predominantly white community in a different country?

For me growing up, it was a weird time. My family's African, and a lot of our close friends and family were Black, but that looked very different than what my day to day was like in school. There was always this disconnect between what I saw with family and community as at home, compared to what I saw as at school. It shaped the way that I viewed scientists.

I am thankful to have both my mom and dad, who both have experience in science. Without that I would have viewed science as very white from a very young age.

I had this distinct disconnect between how I was being taught, who was teaching, as compared to my family and extended family. Coming along with immigration is learning a new language. French was actually the first language that I spoke. I took English as a second language growing up.

What are some of your day-to-day responsibilities? What does an average week look like in your profession?

COVID has totally changed everything. But typically, my day-to-day would involve going into the research lab, performing experiments (in the morning typically is when I do them), and then analyzing data and coming up with questions for new experiments towards the end of the day. And that is a process that reoccurs. Sometimes the time of analyzing data takes longer, so maybe I'm doing that over a couple of days before doing the next experiment. It's this process of generating ideas, trying to test those ideas in the lab and assessing whether or not you had the right ideas going into it in the first place, thinking of ways that you can modify your thoughts to come up with new questions.

It's very different, because there are no real answers. I guess it's something that I had to get used to moving out of being an undergraduate taking coursework and learning the history of science to actually physically doing the science. Now there's not really a set manual for things to do.

You have to generate your own ideas and try to figure out if your ideas are right or wrong. And that involves not only doing the research yourselves but also talking to other people and getting their experience and expertise to guide you along in that process.

What is some practical advice you can give to people interested in being scientists?

Three things that I would say are the most important: having that drive and intellectual curiosity for doing science, finding ways to have opportunities to have research experiences, and being in connection with a mentor that's there to support you. With those three things, that's the key to early success. All of them are equally important.

If you're not excited about what you're doing, it is very hard to become a scientist. You should hopefully be excited about the possibility of doing science. A lot of career transitions require research experience. So being able to do that early, even as a high school student, is really critical. And mentorship is also key. It doesn't necessarily need to be the mentor that you interact with every day; it could be a mentor that is not directly affiliated with your research project or even a mentor that's outside of your university. But having someone that can help guide you through the process is really important.

Are there any stumbling blocks or roadblocks you can advise people to avoid?

A big stumbling block that I still struggle with and would say a lot of scientists struggle with is this feeling of imposter syndrome. I feel like science is probably one of those areas where being humbled is something that you experience on a day to day basis. There's never a lack of feeling humbled. It almost comes to be an extreme in that people really do doubt themselves. I feel that has been my major stumbling block at times—really trusting I have the skills. Especially as an underrepresented scientist, it gets to be so much worse because you look all around you and there’s definitely not faces that look like you. You start to question whether you're going to be able to make it or not. It does require me to go out of my comfort zone in order to reach out for help.

Having that community is especially important because this is a common experience for all scientists, pretty much. Knowing that you're not the only one struggling with this feeling of being an imposter is a way to help you get through those struggles. One current group that I'm working with is called the Community of Scholars. We work together on research papers and talk about the struggles of developing community, getting effective mentorship, dealing with imposter syndrome, all common struggles. If you're ever experiencing this as a scientist, know that you're not alone.

Knowing that you're not the only one struggling with this feeling of being an imposter is a way to help you get through those struggles.

Where are your future aspirations?

Within the next five years I hope to have a faculty position at a research institution where I'm also training scientists. Because I'm a person of color, I will specifically gear myself towards making sure that I can help other scientists of color advance as well. I look forward to helping other people pursue their own scientific ideas. I look forward to seeing science become more equitable; that would be an amazing accomplishment.

What is the legacy that you want to leave behind?

Looking back at the end of everything and being happy about how I've improved science and helped others get into science would probably be the biggest thing, probably even more than the scientific ideas themselves. It would be great if I could do both, but as long as I improve the process of becoming a scientist for others, that would be amazing. I hope I could impart a little bit of that legacy at every step in this process. Maybe within the next 10 years if I could train two people. That would be exciting for me.

A part of this is remembering where I come from and how rare or how improbable it was for me to leave a country that was going through genocide to now being a scientist. It's just not something that I would have ever predicted. I guess that's why I'm really open to what the end goal looks like. It already has been so much.

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