Persistence, Not Luck: How Latina Scientist Elena Hernandez Ramon’s Resilient Spirit Helped Her Succeed

by Chiara Valentini Cabiglio

Dr. Elena E. Hernandez Ramon is the Director of Pre-Medical Programs in the Office of Intramural Training and Education at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). A graduate of the 2017 Linton-Poodry SACNAS Leadership Institute (LPSLI), it took Dr. Ramon three times to apply for the institute until she was finally accepted. Her persistence and resilience have been critical aspects in her personal and professional development.

Dr. Ramon receiving her LPSLI certificate from facilitator Dr. Joseph Garcia
“I don’t believe in good luck. I always tell my students: this is not a matter of luck. I am very happy in my job now. I think I am making a difference and I don’t think I’m just lucky. I think I have tried many times and found people who believed in me, and I got the position I wanted. Keep going because this is a matter of persistence.”

Chiara: Describe your childhood. Where did you grow up and what was it like?

Dr. Hernandez Ramon: I’m proud of my background. I grew up in a loving family and am the youngest of ten brothers and sisters in Puebla, Mexico. Although we belonged to a low socioeconomic status, I must say I have a lot of happy memories. My sister used to say that we cannot leave our “origins” behind (I’m originally from a small town in the state of Veracruz), and that the cheerful style of the people from the coast will remain in our blood wherever we go. We joked, we celebrated, and we danced cumbia. Everybody helped and took care of each other.

Chiara: Did your parents teach you the value of persistence and were they role models for you? Who else served as role models when you were young?

Dr. Hernandez Ramon: I continue to remember a few things from my father that have made an impact on my life:

  • Sigue aunque tengas las tripas en la mano (You always keep going even with your guts in your hands)
  • El estudio cambiará tu vida (Education will change the direction of your life)
  • Hazlo despacio que estás de prisa (Do it slowly when you are in a hurry).

My father died when I was eight years old, so my older sisters and brothers had to work in all kinds of jobs to sustain the family.

Although my mom didn’t finish elementary school and my dad middle school, they were both very intelligent and had a vision that most of my extended family didn’t have: we needed to receive higher education if we wanted to break the cycle.

My father was brave enough to move his family several times to places he considered better for them with not much clue. He took many different jobs and never said, “I cannot do that.” He was fearless.

My mother is an inspiration. She is perseverance and resilience. A very compassionate and hard-working woman, she was always there for us. Today, my mother is 85 years old and her schedule is as busy as mine! She dances danzon and her group performs from time to time. She also paints and says that it is never too late to learn something new.

All my brothers and sisters have been my role models. They were very intelligent growing up and always guided me and helped me with my homework. They started working very young and taught me that perseverance pays off. Now Maria, Pepe and Edith are dentists, Julian and Leny are lawyers, Carlos, Teresa, and Isabel are teachers, and Norma, my confidant, is a psychologist.

Dr. Ramon being mentored by SACNAS elder and past-president, Dr. JD Garcia

Chiara: Do you remember the moment you realized you wanted to pursue science?

Dr. Hernandez Ramon: One day, my oldest sister Maria made a very important decision for my family. Despite financial restrictions, she considered it a good idea to buy an encyclopedia. The books included four additional books and one was called “Science, Our Ally.” It took me years to know the meaning of “ally,” but I devoured the book immediately. I learned about astronauts and how they walked on the moon. I learned about the digestive system. I remember reading the book on the floor over and over again. I wanted to learn more.

In that moment, I knew that science had to be a part of my life.

Chiara: Can you explain the most difficult setback or failure you’ve had in your career thus far, and how you’ve overcome it? What lesson did you learn from this experience?

Dr. Hernandez Ramon: I remember the time I was looking for a postdoctoral position. My husband and I had been living in Mexico City for two years after coming back from England, where we earned our PhDs. My husband was offered to transfer to the company’s headquarters in Reston, Virginia. At the beginning, I rejected the idea immediately. We had been moving so many times in the last years that I really wanted to settle. By that time, my daughter was nine and my son two years old. However, when I saw the location, I realized Bethesda was close to Reston. I knew that the NIH was in this area, so I immediately thought about a postdoc at the institute. We decided to take the opportunity offered to my husband and move to the US. I was in a position similar to a Staff Scientist in Mexico and decided to resign before starting to look for postdoc positions. That was a mistake.

I sent dozens of emails and CVs a couple of months after we moved, but had no responses for almost a year! It was a very frustrating time. I was not active in the field at that moment and I realized this was playing against me. Although there were moments I felt very discouraged and considered looking for a job at McDonald’s, I recharged my batteries and decided to try again.

At some point, I reached out to a very successful scientist at NIH who happened to be Hispanic. She didn’t have available positions at that time, but knew someone who was looking for a postdoc. Although she didn’t know me, she passed along my CV. After some time, the PI contacted me and asked me to give a presentation of my PhD work. I did, and then she hired me at the end of my presentation!

Chiara: How do you think your leadership in STEM has changed from before LPSLI to after?

Dr. Hernandez Ramon: The LPSLI made me stop and think about what it is that I really want to do. What is the change I want to make? The leadership institute instilled in me the notion that I can make it. Now I have a better idea of the steps I need to take.

A very important lesson I learned is that we need to think big. Only by thinking big will we achieve big things.

Finally, seeing the entire LPSLI community — both at the time of our training and regularly communicating with each other via email afterwards — working towards the same general mission has been invigorating! We are not alone!

Dr. Ramon (back row, fourth from left) with her fellow 2017 LPSLI cohort

Chiara: What has been your biggest accomplishment in your career thus far and why?

Dr. Hernandez Ramon: I started my PhD studies with a four-month old baby! I moved to a very different country where I felt like a stranger, not only with regards to the language (I thought I was able to speak English fluently), but also the culture. My husband was also a graduate student and our scholarships were very limited. All of my “projects:” my daughter, grad school, and being a wife were very important to me, but I know I gave priority to the first two.

My daughter was developing exceptionally and my research was advancing as well. But in the process, I forgot to be a good partner and so did my husband. We decided to divorce when we were in the middle of grad school, and after a month we thought it was worth it to try again. It was not easy but it worked out. We were both able to graduate, raise our daughter the way we wanted, and keep a healthy marriage. Although balancing work and life has always been challenging, we constantly try to give the time and attention to all of the important things in our lives. Now we have two kids. My daughter is 18 and my son is 11. I can say that overall, we have a very happy family.

Chiara: What motivates you to wake up every day? What inspires you the most?

Dr. Hernandez Ramon:

Making a difference inspires me the most.

Seeing students and guiding them to be successful motivates me to come to work every morning. When I receive their emails telling me that they enrolled in the school of their choice, I imagine these future doctors being successful and helping the community.

About the Author: Chiara Valentini Cabiglio

Chiara was the SACNAS Social Media and Communications Coordinator from December 2014–2017. After receiving her BA in Community Studies (Social Justice) from UC Santa Cruz in 2011, Chiara volunteered in Monteverde, Costa Rica at Cloud Forest School where she replanted rainforest with students. Chiara is self-taught in social media and marketing, having learned hands on during her internships with Everyone’s Harvest, Island Conservation, and other nonprofits. Prior to joining SACNAS, Chiara was the Social Media and Marketing Specialist for UC Santa Cruz. Chiara is excited to begin her new journey in a career focused on wellness and the promotion of plant-based lifestyles, with a dream to one day become a professional vegan chef.

Follow Chiara on Twitter: @ChiaraVCabiglio and connect with her on LinkedIn.