Press "Enter" to skip to content

The Way of the PhD: Liliana de la Paz, PhD, Research Scientist from Gilead Life Sciences

Everyday 1 billion people take at least one pill that was manufactured by Gilead Sciences. A company devoted to manufacture antiviral drugs that treat HIV, Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C and influenza. 
One of the many researchers at Gilead Sciences is Liliana de la Paz, PhD. A Bay Area native with Mexican roots. She has the unique distinction of being the first ever Latina to graduate from Stanford University with a PhD in Chemical Engineering. 
Liliana is used to being one of the few women in the room and sometimes the only Latina. From her undergrad days at Berkeley where she majored in Chemical Engineering to her Stanford lab where she spent 6 years researching protein engineering, all the way to her current role developing the next generation of antiviral drugs. 
We talked about her experience going to school at Berkeley as a first generation student attending college and the first in her family to become an engineer. We went deep into understanding what imposter syndrome is, how it manifests itself and how she deals with it. Full disclaimer: You never fully overcome it, you just learn to manage it better. 

Join the Newsletter to get networking strategies, accelerated learning techniques and other tools to help you build a career in Tech

Key Takeaways:

  • On being the only Latina in the room:
  • “My attitude is that if I am here, I am here to play.”
  • It’s important to stay positive and to avoid falling trap of the victim mentality. If you are called into a meeting is because your opinion is valued
  • To overcome imposter syndrome, keep a record of all your KUDOS and achievements handy in your email or notes app. I keep all my presentation review notes and thank you emails I’ve received from others to remind me that I am good at what I do
  • It’s OK to feel nervous before doing a presentation, you feel nervous because you want it to come out well
  • Imposter syndrome is the feeling that you are not the right person for a job or a project and that other people are going to “find out” that you are not qualified for it. 
  • “Go to your TA’s office hours. They are probably more scared from you than you from them”
  • You never really “overcome” imposter syndrome. You learn to manage it better
  • The more you grow into an organization and take bigger projects, the more important is to be self- aware of your imposter syndrome
  • Ignorance is bliss! Since Liliana was a first generation student, her parents didn’t put pressure on her to attend college or had a 12 year plan for her career. Her parents supported her and told her she could transfer to a less demanding school than Berkeley anytime. 
  • Motivation is BS. You have to show up and do the work whether you feel motivated to do it or not. 
  • Art Tatum story- as a young blind kid, Art was obsessed with playing the piano and would learn how to play songs by ear. He would often listen to the radio and piano roll recordings to discover new tunes. In one occasion he heard a tune that was originally recorded by 2 pianists playing the piano at the same time. A piece that was supposed to be performed with 4 hands. Young Art did not know that and he managed to perform the piece by himself using only 2 hands. Nobody told him he couldn’t, so he did it.

Show notes:

  • 01:13 – Welcoming Liliana de la Paz
  • 01:46 – About Liliana and expectations
  • 08:38 – Liliana’s road map to a PhD
A ROAD MAP WITH PROGRAMS TO REACH A PhD Liliana participated in many programs that coloured her path for a PhD. She took part of STEM programs that were for undergraduates who were first in the families to go to college and created a community that fostered all students with a similar background, and programs for undergraduate research experiences that gave her the acquaintance to apply in graduate school. She made many friends during the journey that have given her support and have gone through the same struggles to pass physics. During the whole program process, she had a troop of mentors helping her shape her track, which enabled her to have an application with research experience ready, either for applying for a PhD or for a job. At graduate school, Liliana discovered that then the trajectory was becoming a professor and in 4th year students could score different options and opportunities such as finance and consulting amongst others, so, being part of programs really inform you about what you decide to do.
  • 10:22 – Many opportunities; why chemical engineering?
CHEMICAL ENGINEERING “GO BIG OR GO HOME” At High school, Liliana liked very much maths as well as chemistry. Chemical engineering combined both and she knew it was hard at Berkeley, but considering herself a “Go Big or Go Home” person, she decided to go for it. It was not until she did the undergraduate course that she knew what it was really all about. It was broad and hard, but she wanted to do it, committed to it, and it was worth it. Her initial thought at Berkeley was to be part of a college of engineering because that would be probably harder to get into, and if she didn’t like it, could switch into another college. Chemical engineering is the only engineering discipline that isn’t at a college of engineering, but at a college of its own and is called just Chemistry, which is only chemistry, chemical engineering and chemical biology. Chemical engineering is the hardest major on the campus and Cal Chemistry is the number 1 in the world. 
  • 12:46 – Many options for doing a PhD in Bay Area. Why Stanford?
STANFORD, THE BEST OPTION FOR A PhD  As an undergraduate doing research programs, Liliana took advantage learning and doing all she could about what was needed to get at graduate school. She wasn’t sure if she wanted a PhD, but she was certain about having something more than a bachelor’s degree. She went for a difficult game. Chances of getting a PhD were far more lower than getting a masters. PhDs are hard to get into and have to be paid for, but if one is accepted, they pay you. Finally she decided for a PhD. The worst possible scenario was, if she did not like it, she would leave with a masters that she hadn’t paid for. She saw lots of possible schools where to do it and her best option was Stanford, not moving from California so she could be close to her family and stay true to chemical engineering.
  • 14:37 –People helping Liliana through program process as an undergraduate
  • 27:29 – Impostor syndrome according to Liliana. How it affects her and how she copes with it.
IMPOSTOR SYNDROME AND HOW TO COPE WITH IT Impostor Syndrome is just about believing in your ability to perform; you think that everyone else will exceed the expectation but you can’t measure up or are inadequate. The further Liliana has traveled in her career, the more it has faded away, but she has recognized that if she wants to pivot in her career it will come back because she has always has wanted to prove herself and demonstrate any kind of competence. Back at high school, Liliana had a perfect record, and her kingdom fell abruptly when she started at Berkeley. She remembers how the syndrome affected her moving into a new environment she had never been exposed to before, full of the most talented students. The syndrome would never affect her if she was asked for anything technical about something she had designed and knew into detail. Anyone who suffers impostor syndrome has their own way to cope with it. Liliana has coped with it setting goals and meeting them in order to feel good about her performance. Hugo recommends Kudos.
  • 35.56 – Latina working in a lab setting. People treating her differently?
  • 38:57 – How Liliana brings her own authenticity to work
  • 40:24 – Last words and advice to young professionals

Mentioned resources:

  • Cal NERDS – program New experiences for Research and Diversity in Science, a program that helps students weave their academic and professional development together through high-impact learning practices

Connect with her via linkedin:

Want to help us grow? You can:

Who is Hugo Castellanos? 

Find out about him on linkedinThanks so much for listening to the show! If you want to know more about this or comment on the show, please join us on LatinosWhoTech or go to Conexiones

Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.