From ESL student to Yale researcher: Miami woman’s talent in science has led to success
Miami Herald | by David Brothers | June 8, 2021
Today, Aneysis Gonzalez-Suarez, 28, is an academic superstar: She’s a Ph.D. candidate in neuroscience at Yale, one of the nation’s top universities, and was recently accepted into Stanford Medical School, which she’ll attend after she gets her doctorate. And she has won several prestigious awards along the way.
But Gonzalez-Suarez — Cuban-born, Miami-raised, and a graduate of Florida International University — says she’s had just as much interest in sharing what she knows with her others and inspiring young children to learn about the sciences. Her interest, she says, comes from her own experiences mastering the educational system.
“I grew up with many, many immigrant children … My parents worked 12-hour shifts in blue-collar jobs; we got to a country where we didn’t understand any English, and we didn’t have any other family here,” she said. “So I grew up not necessarily having the richest educational opportunities or resources, and as a very ambitious child, I realize how difficult it is to make it out without having all those resources.”
This has been the path to her academic success so far.
LANGUAGE BARRIERS TO OVERCOME
Her own journey in the United States began when at 6 years old, she was enrolled in Royal Green Elementary School in Kendale Lakes.
Aneysis, an only child whose mother and stepfather, Luisa and Carlos Morciego, still live in Miami, had difficulty adjusting: She wasn’t put into an “English as a Second Language” (ESL) class because of an administrative error, and she struggled every day.
“That was really hard and traumatic for a child,” she said. “I didn’t understand what anybody was telling me or any of the classes or the material.”
Two years later, Aneysis was moved to Wesley Matthews Elementary School in the Tamiami neighborhood — where she was placed in ESL classes in the third grade. There, she began to excel in her classwork.
At John A. Ferguson Senior High School in West Kendall, she quickly advanced through honors, advanced placement, and international baccalaureate courses, where her love affair with the sciences began.
During her IB biology course, Aneysis met Raymond McGuire, who has a Ph.D. in zoology. She says his class was her first introduction to the world of physiology and the human system.
“It was so intuitive to me,” she said. “I think that whatever it may be that was capable of creating this body that was capable of doing these incredibly complicated behaviors at the cellular and sub-cellular level just fascinated me. To this day it just all makes sense.”
“I remember that she took a lot of notes all the time and she was one of the people who I would say ‘slow down’ because she couldn’t write fast enough,” McGuire, who is still teaching at the school, said. “And on the days when we had exams, she would often wait maybe 15 or 20 minutes after the bell ring because she was still working on the exam because she was so thorough with all of her answers. And as a result of all that, she got A’s all the time.”
After Gonzalez-Suarez graduated from Ferguson in the top 10 percent of her class in 2010, she went on to study at FIU. In her first year there, she won the Howard Hughes Research Fellowship. This allowed her to spend a summer in Stanford University conducting two research projects on synapses with Nobel Prize winner Dr. ThomasC.Südhof.
She says that this experience really introduced her to the depth of science.
“When I got to this massive lab at Stanford University and I saw all the super medically relevant research that was being conducted, It blew my mind that this was actually real,” she said. “People are trying to learn about autism, people are trying to learn about Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, and they’re close to it. They’re actually getting results that make sense in a clinical setting.”
Aneysis stayed through her entire undergrad career at FIU and did not apply to other colleges.
“It took a lot of convincing even when I graduated college to let me go up to the National Institute of Health (NIH) in Washington, D.C. So I didn’t really feel moving was an option” during the undergraduate years, she said.
PARENTS SUPPORTED AMBITIONS
She said even though they never fully understood her career, her mother and stepfather always supported her ambitions.
“In Cuba, a career in science looks very different than it does in the United States (it doesn’t require a bachelor’s degree AND a doctoral degree for one, making it a much shorter commitment time),” Aneysis said.
“It took my mom a while to fully understand why I was so committed to science and what a career in science looks like. When I began to express regret for not pursuing a combined M.D./Ph.D. and desiring to have the appropriate credentials to treat patients (i.e, an M.D.), my parents were very supportive despite considering the career excessive in the amount of commitment and time it would take to complete it all.”
Bryan Dewsbury was a graduate student teaching assistant at FIU who was also involved in curriculum design and mentoring undergraduates, one of whom was Aneysis. He said he mentored her through her transition away from high school and into college level social and academic structures, and saw her grow into an independent scholar.
“At the time, we were in the midst of converting the lab and other aspects of the curriculum to be more inquiry-based and more emblematic of the way science is actually done — not scripted, and full of trial and error,” Dewsbury said.
“Not every student bought into the paradigm, perhaps mostly expecting answers and facts to be handed to them. But Aneysis, from very early on, quickly latched on to the potential excitement of being a scientist, being part of the process, and a future where she could ask and answer her own questions.”
Her time at Stanford inspired her to pursue a career in research. As soon as she returned to FIU, she applied and received a fellowship from MARC U*STAR, an honors research training program that develops its trainees as exceptional applicants and trainees for doctoral (Ph.D.) programs in the behavioral and biomedical sciences. This allowed her to fund her research on neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
“For me, it’s always been very important to be able to leave an impactful contribution to society, whatever I did,” she said. “I wanted to use the research that I did to be able to treat people, but I knew that I didn’t want to just be a doctor. I wanted to be at the forefront of this country in advancement, so I started pursuing a Ph.D.”
‘FIRST TIME I WAS AWAY FROM HOME’
Eventually, she moved to Washington for undergrad-funded research at the NIH, where she continued her work on neuron communication and mental illnesses.
“That was every combination of a culture shock,” she said. “When you move from Cuba to Miami, the change is not that big as opposed to when you move from Miami to D.C. It was the first time I was away from home. I didn’t know anybody, and it was my first experience with snow.”
Following her undergrad completion, she began to work toward a Ph.D. at Yale University, where she used genetic tools to affect the neural circuit in search of helping scientists understand how neural circuits become malignant in diseases like Alzheimer’s.
But while she says she loves science, she thinks her most important work has been bringing opportunities to under-resourced communities like the one she grew up in.
A ROLE MODEL FOR CHILDREN
Aneysis began presenting science expositions to middle-schoolers and after-school care children in public schools in New Haven, Connecticut.
At Yale, she became the director of the Neuroscience Outreach Group, whose purpose is bringing resources to under-resourced communities. The program hosts students from these communities at Yale for two weeks.
“Throughout her time at Yale she has been very active in outreach programs that have encouraged inner-city students to explore the possibilities of science,” said Charles A. Greer, Ph.D., a professor of neuroscience at Yale and Aneysis’ personal mentor. “Similarly she has been a mentor for ninth-grade students in honors biology classes and a teaching assistant for the science summer scholars program for high school students. In all of these settings Annie has generously served as a successful role model.”
“Annie has a great smile and personal warmth that she shares readily with friends and colleagues,” Greer said. “She may be very busy, but never too busy to ask about your interests, work, or well-being.”
Aneysis also started and led a publication with more than 40 editors called DISTILLED, which talks about the social, economic, and political inequalities that exist among underserved communities like Hispanics, African Americans, Native Americans and the LGBTQ+ community.
‘I HAVE TO LOOK BACK’
“I’m particularly interested in education because I think that’s the biggest thing that I struggled with,” Aneysis said. “I was lucky enough that I had good professors that believed and supported me. But had it not been for that, I would have never experienced what I experienced. I want to be able to do that for somebody else.”
“I don’t want to be that person who grows up and never looks back because that’s how you propagate disparities,” she said. “Me knowing what I know, I have to look back.”
Aneysis said completing her training, will pursue a professorship at a medical institute that allows me to start a medical research laboratory, while also seeing and treating patients in her specialty.
“If I were speaking to a student who is currently dealing with the same hurdles I’ve faced, I would tell them that ‘your dreams and aspirations matter; that they are meaningful, and they are worth fighting for,” she said. “Despite the circumstances of your birth, if you put in the effort and seek out the many opportunities that exist for students like us, you can reach your goals.
“It will not be without trials and tribulations, but success is attainable and it is not something that belongs only to the privileged. “You have the right to exceptional education, and with hard work and perseverance, there is nothing you can’t accomplish.”