WINS Professor Biography: Dr. Vanya Quinones-Jenab

By Andrea Cumpelik



Vanya Quinones-Jenab

Ph.D., Rutgers University, Professor and Acting Associate Provost for Student Success and Retention at Hunter College
Research on sex differences in responses to stressors

Can you talk about your background, education, and career trajectory?
Sure, I did my undergrad at the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras. Actually, I was an art major! I love painting, watercolors, and stuff like that. However, I started to working in a lab sophomore year to support myself while doing art, and junior and senior year I got a Mark fellowship, a training grant for minority students doing basic science research, just like the BP-ENDURE program at Hunter and NYU. I was also a triple major with physics and cell biology, which as you can imagine was a new field, because this was 36 years ago. Then when I graduated from undergrad, I didn't know what I wanted to do, so I applied to law school, dental school, medical school, Master's programs… and I think I am one of the few people you will meet that was accepted to all of them, but I still didn't know what I wanted to do. I wanted to be an artist, I didn't want to do any of these things. So I decided to do a Master's in Cell Biology from the University of Puerto Rico, just to get time to see what I wanted to do. As an undergrad, I already had one or two papers, and in my Master's I got another paper.

So you did a triple major in art, cell biology and physics?
I know, I'm very nerdy. I try to hide it. I think I do a pretty good job! [laughs] I really love physics and calculus. So my Master’s work was on was unicellular organisms called paramecia, which secrete catecholamines such as norepinepherine and serotonin to communicate. Even though you may think that they're a colony and they don't care about each other, they secrete catecholamines to direct others to food sources. I was studying how serotonin receptors are expressed in paramecia, and how they open calcium channels to increase motility.

Then I decided that I wanted to work at a more neuronal level, and find out how cells communicate with each other. So I applied to Rutgers University, and that was the only place I applied to—so I'm an example of how when you only apply to one place, you're still going to have a good life.
I worked with different mentors, because the mentor I started working with didn't get tenure so he left, and then I had some issues with the second mentor and had to change labs, and then finally I found my third mentor. I was working on how to immortalize a neuron, because at the time people didn't think that neurogenesis occurred. I inserted vectors that allowed neurons to transcribe faster, and did my PhD in physiology and neuroscience. This was 32 years ago, when neuroscience was a budding field, and Rutgers was one of the few places that offered a PhD in neuroscience.
Then I thought, I really want to see how neurons communicate with each other to control behavior. I applied to a postdoc at Rockefeller with Donald Pfaff, because I really wanted to study how sexual behaviors are controlled. So I worked with him for two years and a half, and I got tons of papers, I also had tons of kids. [laughs] So I guess I had two papers per kid; I had three kids and seven papers as a postdoc. I worked on how estrogen controls the endorphin system, which is important for sexual modulation. At that time, the kappa receptors and all the opioid receptors were discovered; people knew we had endorphins, but we didn't know the receptors they corresponded to. When they were first cloned, this allowed us to map them in the brain. I was working on how estrogen modulates this system. It was a very novel field. Somebody has to do the "dirty work"; like the geography work which current research is built on.

You may be too young for this, but do you remember the phenomenon of crack babies? There was this whole thing in the 90s when people were taking crack, and the babies were being born addicted to crack. However, there was very little understanding of the sex differences in drug abuse, almost nobody was working on that, and that's what I became interested in. For my second postdoc at Rockefeller—again, I only applied to one place—I worked with Mary Jeanne Kreek on gender differences in drug abuse at the cellular level.

I worked with her for two years, and after being at Rockefeller, I felt that I wanted to work in a place that was more diverse, where besides studying my research passion I could also work with minority students and be a role model. I think that we should always give back and inspire people, that's just a personal belief. So I applied only to Hunter, and I got a job here, and I've been here for 20 years. I find that as much as I love my research—I have over 75 papers and I have brought in over $20 million dollars in research funding, so I'm very research active—I actually adore more my training aspect, and I sincerely want to help people and be sure that I can help diversify the workforce. It's kind of a ripple effect, like when you throw a rock in the river: just by helping one or two students I can help a community. Maybe it's the first person in their family to go to college, maybe it's the first person in their building, or their whole neighborhood, and just by helping that kid to graduate, other people will say, "Hey, they did it, and I want to do it too." My students are already assistant professors, so it's happening. They go to a university, and they make a difference. So I value the training aspect of my career as much as I value the research aspect.

Your career seems really clear-cut when you say it from your current perspective, but was there anything that made you doubt your decision?
All the way. I still don't know what I want to do. [laughs] It's life. I mean, at any step I could have gone a different way; I could have been a doctor, a lawyer, a dentist, an artist—I mean, I still consider myself an artist. This is a side thing, but I think that art and science is the same thing—we look at nature and we try to analyze it. We say what we see. If you think about it, an artist is looking at something and showing us what s/he sees. What a scientist is doing is looking at something, and wants to understand what it is. It's like a coin with two faces, and the difference is that science gives a "we" perspective, while art gives an “I” perspective.
When I was having kids, I was in this country alone, with my husband, and having three kids while working in Rockefeller, which is kind of cutting edge, so kind of stressful and competitive. So I was doing a postdoc while breastfeeding, raising kids, and changing diapers. When I moved to Hunter as an assistant professor, my kids were small.

How receptive were your supervisors to you having to do motherly duties?
We're talking 36 years ago. When I got pregnant, one of my professors said that I should get an abortion. He didn't say it that way, but he said, "You're a scientist, and you're making the wrong choice." It was a different time. One of my mentors at Rockefeller said to me, "You're a good scientist, but you I spend too much time on the playground." Even though I had more papers than any of his postdocs, I had seven papers and they had five or less. I was like, really? You know, the key thing is, but for me, this is how I pay for my life, but this is not my life. Most scientists think that science is their life; in my case, my kids are my life and my life is my life. And I have a life. I'm a good scientist, I'm a good trainer, and I've been promoted at the university so this has been recognized, but my life is my life.

It's crazy how often people in science just expect you to commit all your time.
And that's why you never hear that from me, I'm actually the opposite. At the end of the day, I close my eyes, and I have a good life. I have a balanced life. It was not always like that; raising kids was hard, commuting, and the struggle, and whatever, but I always have time for my kids and I always make time for myself.

I agree, cause otherwise there's no point in doing this unless it's just one aspect of your life.
You tend to forget. Getting data and writing papers is rewarding. I'm also not saying it's right or wrong to spend all your time on science, and sometimes it was not balanced, but I always try to strive for that.

What do you think is the key issue in science, and really our society in general, not being so good at integrating women and minorities?
When I was at Rockefeller, all the meetings were at 6pm. If you have kids, you cannot have a seminar at that time. When I was chair of the department, our seminars were at 4:30pm on Thursdays, and everybody complained when I changed them to noon. Well, I told them I was sorry, but that it was going to be noon. Suddenly, we had more women participating. Small changes that you do make a big difference.
The perception is for some boy clubs—and it's not like this so much anymore, but when I started 36 years ago—"you know, she's good, but she's going to have kids" or "she's good, but she's a girl". I always say that I'm more discriminated against because I'm a woman than because I'm Puerto Rican. Maybe if I were black it would be different, because your ethnicity can show more, in appearance and behavior. With me, you may not know that I'm a minority until I open my mouth. Being a woman was definitely more harsh for me than being Hispanic. But that's just my personal experience; there's definitely discrimination against both, but in my path I had more issues being a woman. Maybe it's because I had three kids and my priorities were my kids. Sometimes people will say/imply things like, "Oh my god, she's wearing high heels and she's a scientist." or "Oh my god, she does her nails every day." It doesn't matter if you've submitted five papers; I have the second most cited review article on hormones and behavior, but some people don't notice that because they think "how can she be a good scientist if she's a girl and likes designer clothes." If I were a guy it would "of course he has the second most cited paper" or "of course he's changing the field".

Being in the position I'm in now and having to hire people, the reason that I'm hiring someone is not because you're a woman or a man, it's because you're the best scientist. Sometimes women come with an attitude that they don't want to make you feel bad. So when you're negotiating with them, they're thinking "I don't want to ask for too much money, I don't want to make them feel bad, what will they think of me." The way I approach things is, I don't care what you perceive about me, this is what I want, and this is what I'm going to do. Once you start with that state of mind, things start changing around that. Women are more sensitive to what's going around and how people perceive them, so they don't push as much. I'm speaking in general terms; it's not true for everybody. But for women, it's harder to get to that point. So I think that the discrimination and the oppression is there, and a way to go around it is just to push yourself to go through.

Sometimes well-meaning men will tell you not to dress so femininely or diminish your feminine aspects and kind of be more like the in-group, you know? Do you think the way around that is just to be who you are, but learn to present yourself with as much force as men do?
The reason I left my second lab at Rutgers was because my mentor started making approaches on me, asking me out, and then when I went to the chair of the department, he said, "Well, of course he's gonna go after you, because you dress very pretty and you're a pretty girl. Things have changed now, but I was like, what? So I switched out of that lab. That's how it used to be. If you're the only girl in the biochemistry department and you wear miniskirts... It happened all the time. But it didn't change the way I dress. Because I just think that in the end, look at my CV and look at my papers. Be who you are. But be like a man, sometimes, because guys don't care: this is who they are, this is how they dress. They don't worry about that.

What qualities do you think are important for a scientist?
The first one is being competitive. At least for me, I always want to win, and it's not win, but I always want to be the best. That gives you a drive to write papers and continue your work. The other one is being persistent, because it's pretty bad—you're gonna get a lot of rejections, experiments that don't work, so persistence is important. Persistence allows you not to feel down because of the rejection, but it makes you feel better. If you come to me and tell me my paper is really bad, I'll say "thanks, in what ways was it bad?" and I learn from the mistakes, and I fix them. Instead of feeling bad because you think my ideas are terrible.
You also have to be able to see the whole perspective; even though you're working on a small thing, be able to see the whole field. Think of your project as a tree, think about its roots, and all parts of the tree when you talk about it, and think of the rest of the forest that the tree is in. That will allow you to be adaptable, which is another thing that you need to be. If I was fixated on working with crack babies, I would not have a science career, because it turned out that it wasn't crack, but it was cigarettes, which were worse for the babies than crack. In other words, you need to be able to have an idea and continue moving it forward. By being able to look at the whole field, and even other fields, you can learn from other fields and adapt it to your project. The ability to be fluid is very important.

Is there anything that you would recommend specifically to women currently? Things have changed from when you were in your early career.
It's almost like with race, before Ferguson, it may have seemed to many people that race was OK in America, but it was never OK. People just don't say it out loud. So even though it's gotten better with discrimination against women and minorities, nobody will tell you to have an abortion because that's not allowed, and when you go to the chair of your department and say that you're being sexually discriminated against he won't tell you that it's your fault. He may think that, but he knows that he can't say it. So I'm not saying that things are better, but people don't open their mouth the way they used to because they know better. But it's still there.
I think the best advice would be just to be yourself. Embrace yourself; know what you want to do, and know that it's OK. I mean, people think I know what I want to do, but I'm still just moving forward. Be el jefe, which means “the boss”, and don't apologize. I hate that women apologize all the time. I think that we have to learn to be more secure, less passive, and more in charge of our destiny. Do what we think we're supposed to do and what we believe that we have to do, and worry less what people think about us, because that's what holds people back. When you start embracing yourself and going forward, in your work and your life, then things will move forward.

Was there anything in your life that made you want to work on sex differences in response to stressors?
Yeah, I know that you guys take for granted that males and females are different, but can you imagine 36 years ago when this was not the rule? Men are men, and women are men with hormones. That always bothered me; I guess I've been a feminist all my life, so I wanted to study females and see why we were different. I started doing research when I was 17, and now I'm 53. I've been kind of on the same track: cells, sex differences, and hormones. So looking back and seeing that you moved the field a little bit is actually really rewarding, and you become really proud of it. That you make a difference with what you're doing.

Can you remember a moment when you felt like it all came together for you, like a highlight of your career?
I think that I'm lucky, because I feel like everything in my life has come together. Every night before I go to sleep, I think about what came together that day or what didn't, and what I'm thankful for, and this may sound crazy, but I go through all these circles of what about my relationships, what about work, what about my family, so I just go through that. So in a way, everything comes together if you just think it through. And I've been doing that for maybe like 20 years. So I think that things come together all the time. Like I said, this is my work. My life is more important.

As a more personal curiosity, you've talked multiple times about how important you thought exercise was? I was wondering if you could talk more about that, because you've mentioned how life-changing it was, and that it was what allowed you to accomplish so much.
Oh my god, that's my center. So I exercise maybe 15 hours a week. I start my day with yoga and I do 1.5 hours at the gym every day. Then I come to work and I work 12 hours a day. Then I go home, and sleep, then start the next day. On the weekends I do 3-4 hours a day.
I go from lifting weights, to spinning, to yoga, to some classes here and there. But if you ever see me running, you better run, because I hate running. I like to start my day with exercise, and I do it for me, and this is what I like to do, and I like starting the day doing what I like to do. I love my work, but this helps me to anchor my day, to anchor myself, to put priority on my life. It's like when in the airplane they tell you to put your own mask on and then help others. I'm doing things for me first, even before anyone is up, because I start the day at 4am. I do yoga, and then I walk the dogs for 20 minutes, and then I go to the gym for an hour and a half. So I'm taking care of myself, and I'm anchoring myself, and it gives me strength, calms me down, and centers me.
But you know, if you don't want to do exercise and you like to cook, start the morning cooking and doing what really puts you first. If you hear me and you don't know me, you may think I'm self-centered, but I'm not. I love myself and I love everybody else, but you need to take care of yourself first. Like with doing the nails, if you lose yourself in your journey, it's not your journey, it's somebody else's. This is my journey and I'm taking care of myself.