Cuban-American scientist Cristina Fernández-Valle has devoted her life to the study of neurovegetative diseases that mainly affect young people as well as to being a mentor for minority students who want to become scientists.
Dr. Fernández-Valle is the first minority scientist to join the faculty of the University of Central Florida's Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences, where she has spent 15 years guiding the careers of hundreds of aspiring physicians and researchers.
"I studied for my doctorate at the University of Miami, where for many years I enjoyed the support of (distinguished neuroscientists) Richard and Mary Bunge with whom I worked and learned how to manage a laboratory and how to help other students," Fernández-Valle told Efe.
The Hispanic researcher has received the National Role Model award from Minority Access, an organization that seeks to improve diversity in education, employment and research nationwide.
"When I told my parents that, instead of taking care of patients and writing prescriptions every day what I wanted was to devote myself to neuroscientific research, they didn't understand and called me a quasi-doctor," Fernández-Valle, now 50, remembered.
"I like to understand how the body works and how diseases develop and to try to correct it," she said.
She is currently trying to discover the causes of Neurofibromatosis Type Two.
It is a disease, she said, "that attacks the peripheral nerves and grows very slowly and then becomes evident when the young people are between 15 and 19, when they begin to lose their hearing and their balance, something terrible for a child who is in the prime of life, running, studying for a career."
"I like to help and I think that understanding how diseases develop is an important step for curing them," she added.
"I received opportunities from my mentors in the past and they always opened doors for me, and now it's my job to be a positive influence in the lives of my non-traditional students and help them be successful," she said.
"Here we call students non-traditional (when they) are minorities, who perhaps have put their career to one side to raise their children and have returned to the university, as is the case with one of my students, Alejandra Petrelli. She is a triple minority - a woman, Hispanic and older - and a great example for her dedication to scientific work," Fernández-Valle said.
The professor said Petrelli graduated from medical school in Argentina and returned to college here to devote herself to biomedical sciences after having raised her children. "I like to be a mentor for students like her," she added.