Dr. Nilsa Graciani is an organic chemist and science educator born and raised in Puerto Rico. After getting her bachelor’s degree in chemistry at the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras, she pursued a PhD in organic chemistry at Texas A&M University, studying peptide structures and interactions. As a pharmaceutical chemist, Dr. Graciani worked in numerous therapeutic fields, such as cancer treatment. (See some of her research publications here and here.)
Dr. Graciani now works in science education, teaching and training future scientists. She is a professor at Esperanza College in Philadelphia, where she serves as Director of STEM and Medical Assisting. Passionate about supporting the students and young people in her community, Dr. Graciani is also on the board of the Greater Philadelphia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Young Professionals Network.
I spoke to Dr. Graciani about her work and faith, pursuing meaning in different science careers, and encouraging the next generation of scientists.
Can you tell me about your background and your path in science to where you are today?
I’m originally from Puerto Rico, born and raised there. As a child, I was curious and always leaned towards the sciences—I liked doing experiments and took all the science classes I could in high school. I originally wanted to study biochemistry, but that wasn’t available in any Puerto Rican universities, and my mother couldn’t afford an education for me in the United States, so I decided to go into chemistry—which I loved. Then, for my PhD, I actually focused on peptides, which is sort of “bio-organic chemistry”. So, God moves in mysterious ways, and I ended up getting to do what I had originally been interested in with my work as a graduate student.
What were some of the most interesting questions you got to pursue as an organic chemist?
I worked for 10 years in the pharmaceutical industry as a medicinal chemist in different therapeutic areas. One of the projects that I felt most passionate about was an oncology project, trying to find a drug for treatment of cancer…As a chemist in pharmaceuticals, usually you’re working so early in the [drug discovery] process that the chances of something you synthesize becoming a drug are super slim. You’re creating an insane number of compounds to then put through pre-clinical research to determine their efficacy and potential toxicity. But still, you always think that maybe if you don’t find the compound that’s going to make it to humans, you may find something interesting that helps the project move forward. So I think that you always contribute one way or another. Often, students come to me and say, “I want to be a nurse because I want to help people”; but I think that no matter what you do, in all professions, you can find a way to help others.
How did you get into science education, and what are you passionate about as a science educator?
I took a break from science to spend time with my family, and after that I had the opportunity to start teaching part-time at Esperanza College. After a couple of years, I was offered a full-time position as director of STEM programs. It was a switch from actually being a scientist and doing the bench work in the lab to encouraging and directing others towards those fields.
[As director of STEM programs], I’m the academic advisor for students in the STEM and medical assisting programs here, so I give them career and academic advice. Since a lot of the students here are considered at-risk, we work with them very closely and give them a lot of encouragement. I believe that they really need the chance to see all the opportunities that are out there. I’ve been blessed with a lot of great collaborators at other schools and corporations in the area, hospitals that allow us to bring the students in for site visits, and a summer program here [in Philadelphia] for the students to learn how to do research. I think that opening their eyes to everything out there is key, especially for the population we serve here at Esperanza.
I think it’s especially important to have faith in students who may seem weaker or who have more challenges in their lives. We pray with them and for them, and we have to have faith that God will be with them and that they will accept that in their lives to become stronger and better people and grow not only academically but also eventually professionally.
Can you tell me about your education outreach and the impact of that work?
I am on the advisory board for a group called the Young Professionals Network, and part of what we do is mentoring young professionals and also giving back to the Hispanic youth here in Philadelphia. It’s important to me, as someone who has more experience, to be able to help younger professionals or even high school and college students. The YPN has a yearly youth summit where we have students come to meet with and hear from professionals in different fields, and I led the panel for this year’s STEM-focused summit. We also had a conference for young professionals to learn how to promote themselves at work, how to network, etc.
I believe that all of these support groups and mentoring groups are very important. I grew up in Puerto Rico, not knowing about all the opportunities that existed outside of where I was, so I think that now helping others see those opportunities is very important.
Do you think your personal faith is related to your study of science?
I grew up in the Lutheran church, going to Sunday school every week, so like science that’s also always been a component of my life. I think faith and science do encourage each other. I’m the kind of person that when I see a beautiful sunrise or sunset, I think, how could people not believe? And when you learn about things as complicated as how our body works in such a perfect way; or, as a chemist, when you think about the atoms and the subatomic particles, they’re all so perfect that, to me at least, there has to be someone bigger out there that really puts all of this into place and organizes everything so that it works the way that it does.
Have you ever felt your faith challenged while studying or working in a scientific environment?
Actually, no one has ever challenged me in that sense. Right now, I work in a Christian institution, but that’s only since the last five or six years. Before that, I worked at completely secular institutions, and I’m not the kind of person to shy away from talking about my faith or hide what I believe, but I never really had someone ask me why I would believe this or start any kind of debate.
Many people talk about times when they’ve questioned whether there’s really a God out there, but I’ve never really felt that maybe God doesn’t exist. It’s not that I haven’t had challenges in my life or that everything’s been perfect—I’ve lost loved ones, I’ve gone through financial struggles, I’ve moved from my home to a new place where I wasn’t fluent in the language—but I’ve never had a time in my life or my career where I’ve felt like maybe someone is making all of this up.
What is it like to now be in a professional environment where faith is an explicit part of the mission?
I’ve been in both situations now, and it is nice when you see someone struggling and can offer to pray for them. But on the other hand, you can always pray for someone even if they don’t know you’re doing that for them. Even here in the school, some students may ask for prayer, but others are not as comfortable with that. I think that’s the kind of thing where it’s important to meet people where they are at. If you try to impose your beliefs on someone, you may actually push them away.