Semarhy Quiñones-Soto, PhD


Where to find her:


  • University of Puerto Rico, Humacao, Microbiology, 2003
  • University of California, Davis, Microbiology, 2011

Current Job Title: Lecturer in Biological Sciences

What experience first got you interested in science and is that field the same one you went on to pursue?

My interest in science started with my parents. My father loved exploring local marine life and we would go snorkeling. He taught me about the diverse and fragile marine ecology of the Puerto Rican beaches, and I learned about sea urchins, tropical fish and starfish. My father taught me deep respect and appreciation for biodiversity. My mother worked at the University of Puerto Rico, Humacao preparing materials for microbiology lab courses. Every afternoon after high school, I would help her prepare the media (food) to grow bacteria, I would organize the tools the undergraduate students would use in their courses and I would help clean the materials. After much exploration, my experiences led me to pursue a degree in Microbiology. In addition to science, my parents also supported my interests in art. As a kid, I loved to paint-by-numbers, had coloring books and had sketching pads. 

Tell me about some people who helped or inspired you along the way, in your early training and later in your career.

My parents had the biggest influence in my development as a young scientist. During my undergraduate years, I had amazing professors who all served as mentors and guided me to pursue a graduate education. But, my biggest cheerleaders and influencers were my friends. I had an amazing group of peers majoring in microbiology who helped me see my potential. 

Can you tell me about any moments of doubt you had as a student or early in your career and how you dealt with it?

I have had several moments of doubts throughout my career. One moment that stands out is the day I wanted to quit graduate school. I was in a lab meeting in one of my rotation labs during my first year as a graduate student and I was sitting in the back holding in my tears. I did not understand a word of what the speaker (a graduate student member of the lab) was presenting, I did not understand the discussion between the other lab members and I felt very dumb. I felt like I did not belong. So, as soon as the lab meeting ended, I went to my graduate program coordinator’s office (crying) and asked for papers to quit the program. To my surprise, they handed me the form and sent me on my way. But, I did not quit. I did not come all the way to California from Puerto Rico just so I could quit during my first months. From that moment on, I had a daily saying “just give it one more day”.

Can you share two or three surprising twists or turns in your early scientific training and your later career path.

The biggest twist in my career is becoming a professor. Working as a professor was not my career goal. I wanted to work as a scientist in a biotech industry or at a lab in a federal agency. However, I was not successful in getting that job. Out of the need to get a job, I applied to teach part-time as a means to pay my bills. At the end of my first semester, I was in love with teaching undergraduate students and the potential of being a mentor to help guide the next generation of scientists into the science workforce. I have been working as a full-time lecturer for the past five years and I also help run academic programs designed to prepare underrepresented students for their future graduate careers. 

The second (and most surprising) twist I had is becoming a science artist. As a kid, I loved to draw and color. But, I never gave it too much thought. As an adult, I kept a sketch book and I loved to draw fantasy art, like fairies and mermaids. Last year, I had the idea to combine my loves for science and diversity into my art. So, I started to draw women representing different fields in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). My drawings have launched me into the world of arts and I am (hopefully) starting a small business.

Can you give some examples of how you have incorporated your non scientific interests into your work.

My current faculty work centers on my passion for teaching science and mentoring students to increase the number of underrepresented individuals in science. My art allows me a way to visually communicate my desires to see a more diverse STEM workforce. I like to draw women of color in leading roles and in different fields. I have also learned about STEM fields that I was not aware existed. 

Is there some advice you could share from your own experience to help someone with a science degree who is just starting off on their own career path.

We are all different and that is what makes us strong. We all have something to offer even if for one small moment we feel like we don’t belong. Lastly, I wish to say that every experience, like our classes, failed experiments, rejection letters and unlikely job opportunities, may lead to an unforeseen career perfectly fitted for YOU.

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