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There are the “typical” scientists who follow well-trodden career paths. But more often and interesting are the atypical, who find their passion for science through an odyssey of chance meetings, unexpected events and changes in personal circumstances.

Paula Garavito, a post-baccalaureate student at the Institute for Protein Innovation, tells one such story. In Bogota, Colombia, she was born to a 16-year old mother, and then, at the age of 15, brought to Houston, Texas, “to find a better life.” The transition brought significant challenges. Garavito, entering high school and speaking no English, immediately confronted stereotypes.

“A lot of students didn’t know where Colombia was,” she explains. People thought, “I was just ‘from Mexico,’ and I wasn’t sure if that was a bad thing or a good thing. I felt like I didn’t have an identity anymore.”

But she overcame the hurdles of language, racism and American teen culture. She broke past financial obstacles by working as a waitress and dishwasher. She entertained dreams of becoming a sommelier and starting her own wine business.

“I believed that success was having stability, getting married,” she says. “I didn’t know that college was even an option.”

That all changed in 2017 when Garavito became a US citizen. Eligible for higher education funding, she won a full ride to Texas Tech University in Lubbock. Leaving a large gulf-coast city for a rural college 500 miles away, Garavito pursued a dream of getting into medical school. She volunteered at a hospital and a free clinic. She tried research, “because it’s the thing you need on your (med school) resume,” she admits.

Eventually, she joined a synthetic biology group, one of a very few in Texas. Mentored by graduate student Brandon Palomo, Garavito discovered that she liked research. She led a team that made their way into the annual international genetically engineered machine (IGEM) competition in Boston. At the event in 2019, Palomo coaxed her to introduce herself to IPI’s Chris Bahl. He had just given an inspirational talk about how researchers could bring engineering principles into science to impact society. She sought him out.

“I was immediately struck by Paula’s insightful questions and clear enthusiasm, “Bahl says. “She asked me about how she could learn computational protein design.”

As a member of RosettaCommons, the academic consortium which develops computational protein modeling and design software, Bahl was involved in a new post-baccalaureate program. It aimed to help underrepresented minority or disadvantaged students to succeed in PhD programs. Bahl and Garavito chatted about the Institute for Protein Innovation, where Bahl’s group focused on computational protein design. “It was a life-changing experience,” Garavito says. “I was like, IPI, that’s where I want to go.”

She applied to the Rosetta program. Bahl, who sat on the admissions committee recalls that her application was so strong, the only debate was who’s lab she would join. The Institute for Protein Innovation won out. Garavito traveled to Boston to spend a year learning everything she could about protein design, boot camp style.

Somewhere in that year of intense training and mentorship, Garavito realized she had learned more than computational biology or protein engineering. “I found my passion,” she says.

Indeed. After a year, Garavito applied to graduate schools: Yale, Dartmouth, Johns Hopkins, Harvard. She got into each one, and in fact, was offered two fellowships to attend Harvard. Professors telephoned to recruit her, asking if she needed more money or what she wanted. “That is such a great feeling, right? Because three years ago, I was working at a restaurant, thinking I was gonna go into wine.”

In the end, she chose Harvard, doing her research in the Bahl lab. And now, she says, she feels proud: of her roots and her journey. Of being different. Of finally finding “her place.”

“Every time I said, I wanted to go to med school or Harvard,” she says. “Even my mentors were like, ‘oh, that’s cute…but you probably won’t make it.’ The main thing that I always kind of carry in the back of my head is that I can make it no matter what happened in my life.”

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