#WhyIScience Q&A: An aspiring clinical microbiologist envisions a future with better representation in the sciences

Alexis Jaramillo Cartagena shares what he’s learned about empowering young scientists from underrepresented communities and being an effective leader in the lab.

Alexis Jaramillo Cartagena
Alexis Jaramillo Cartagena

Alexis Jaramillo Cartagena first became fascinated by science and nature while hiking with his brother near their home in Colombia, where he’d marvel at the strange insects and wildlife they encountered. Jaramillo Cartagena inherited an interest in engineering from his technically minded father who worked as an industrial mechanic. While helping him on weekend projects such as building backyard chicken coops and constructing street adornments for the neighborhood’s Christmas displays, Jaramillo Cartagena realized that a career in the STEM fields might be a great fit for him.

After immigrating to Worcester, Massachusetts, at age 13, Jaramillo Cartagena quickly learned English and transitioned out of his school’s bilingual program after only six months. Following high school, he enrolled at Amherst College, where he studied biochemistry, biophysics, and history, while also completing internships for minority undergraduate students at Yale School of Medicine and at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Jaramillo Cartagena’s interest in chemical biology brought him to New York City, where he completed his PhD at The Rockefeller University, Weill Cornell Medical College, and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

Jaramillo Cartagena is now a senior research fellow in the growing lab of Broad associate member Roby Bhattacharyya, where he and his lab mates explore how bacteria become dangerously resistant to antibiotics — a major threat to public health. He also enjoys finding ways big and small to mentor other aspiring scientists from underrepresented communities, and to learn from them in the process.

We spoke with Jaramillo Cartagena about his academic path, his hopes for increasing diversity in the sciences, and his dream job of running a clinical lab.

Q: You shared that you hope to one day direct a clinical microbiology lab. What inspired that career goal?

As an undergraduate, I fell in love with structural biology, a field that explores the 3-D shapes of molecular machines. During my graduate work in the lab of Seth Darst at Rockefeller, I studied a transcription factor that activates expression of certain genes within bacteria called Salmonella. I didn’t intend to study microbiology or bacteriology, but because we worked with bacterial organisms, I was exposed to those fields and fell for them too. In addition, I was awarded a graduate research fellowship by the American Society for Microbiology, which sent me to its annual conference each year and gave me a lot of exposure to the field.

Something else happened during my PhD work in the mid-2010s that contributed to my interest in microbiology and infectious disease. Global outbreaks of pathogens such as Ebola and Zika viruses showed us all how dangerous these diseases can be, and how there’s a real need for better disease understanding and diagnostics. That’s when I began envisioning how my skills and interests might one day help me to lead a clinical microbiology lab. In this role, I hope to lead a team that can help not only diagnose patients, but also respond to emerging infectious threats like COVID-19, work with public health departments, and incorporate newly developed technologies and methods into the lab’s workflow.

Bhattacharyya lab members Kyra Taylor, Alexis Jaramillo Cartagena, Eleanor Young, and Roby Bhattacharyya. Image courtesy of Kevin Middleton, Broad Communications.


Q: What is one of the biggest challenges in your field of research today?

My work as a postdoctoral researcher in the Bhattacharyya lab has underscored the role that diagnostics can play in human health, while revealing areas for improvement. We study one of the biggest threats to public health — carbapenem-resistant Enterobacterales, which are bacteria that can no longer be killed by an important class of drugs we use to treat severe infections. When bacteria become resistant to these antibiotics, we may have nothing left to give to patients.

Working with our colleagues in the group of [Broad institute scientist] Ashlee Earl, we’ve been able to measure drug resistance in bacteria taken from infected patients and analyze it alongside the genome sequences generated by her lab, which has helped us uncover mechanisms that underlie antimicrobial resistance. But in the clinic, we often aren’t able to recognize when a bacterial infection is resistant to antibiotics, which could result in patients being improperly treated and spreading an infection to others needlessly. So we need better diagnostics and better treatments.

Q: What can scientific organizations do to foster career opportunities for scientists from underrepresented backgrounds?

I’d love to see more representation of minority populations in the sciences. I am one of only two Latino scientists that I’ve seen on my floor at the Broad. It’s rough because I wonder, “Where are we failing? Why aren’t we better at building more diverse teams?” I began to think a lot about this after the summer of 2020 when George Floyd was killed and we all began doing self-reflection and examining our own communities. It’s also on my mind now that I’m in a leadership position as a senior research fellow with some influence in who we hire, who I mentor, and who I empower.

I believe that organizations can be doing more to support minority scientists. One way to do so is by rewarding outstanding students and trainees from diverse backgrounds, and providing guidance for those making the next step in their careers. I volunteer for the Intersections Science Fellows Symposium, which helps postdoctoral researchers from backgrounds historically underrepresented in academia to succeed in their search for a faculty position. Institutes could offer more of this kind of career development and assistance to their minority trainees.

I would like to see more institutions award discretionary funding to research laboratories that are succeeding in creating diverse environments. Many institutions are establishing postdoctoral programs that provide career development and funding support (including salary) with the goal of diversifying the next generation of academic leaders; it would be great if more institutes embraced these types of initiatives. This would remove some of the financial burden for principal investigators who are working hard to make science more inclusive by hiring individuals from underrepresented backgrounds. Lastly, it would be great if institutions committed to setting up goals to hire underrepresented faculty members.

Q: What role has mentorship played in your academic career?

I had several mentors during my undergraduate and graduate years, but as a mentor today, I try to do even more to empower my own mentees. It’s one of the things about my work that brings me the most fulfillment. In 2020, we had a research associate join the lab with little hands-on lab experience, but she brought enthusiasm to the role and was motivated to learn. I wanted her to be the best research associate she could be, so I sought out opportunities for her to share her work at scientific meetings and nominated her for awards. I wanted to show people another underrepresented scientist in the lab like me and that we’re both thriving.

I also helped train a student researcher from the UK and volunteer as a judge for high school science fairs, in addition to my work with the Intersections Science Fellows Symposium. Those experiences helped me learn how to bring out the best in people, which is a skill set I’ll need when managing teams in a clinical lab one day.

I’ve also realized that mentoring is not a one-way street — mentees can also empower their mentors.

Q: What advice do you have for young minority scientists who want to pursue a scientific career?

For undergraduates, summer research programs are great opportunities to truly experience what being a scientist is like, so look out for those and be proactive and just go for it!

I’ll add that you shouldn’t be afraid to reach out to individuals who are doing research that you find really cool. At the end of the day, most of us in science are just normal people. There may be a fear of what you might perceive as an intellectual barrier, but all of us scientists are in the mindset of being educators. We’re always looking for ways to help the next generation.

The Broad is committed to creating a fully inclusive culture and community, broadening our science to fully include underserved communities, and expanding and accelerating the diversity of future scientists. The institute’s Office of Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Allyship is working to increase tenure-track faculty from underrepresented populations, foster support systems for underrepresented trainees at the Broad, and foster STEM career paths to support the diverse interests of trainees.