From the high school biology teacher who was her first mentor, to the
undergraduate opportunities that allowed her to spend quality time in
research labs, Barbara Romero Dueñas says that science has always
captured her interest, motivating her to overcome challenges and
inspiring her to succeed.
Now a doctoral student in biological sciences at the University of
Delaware, Romero Dueñas’ perseverance and talent have been recognized by
the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), which has named her one of
39 students nationwide to receive this year’s Gilliam Fellowships for Advanced Study.
“I was so amazed and honored to be one of the awardees,” said Romero
Dueñas, who immigrated to the United States from Peru as a teenager.
Despite a troubled family situation that caused her to move away from
her mother and siblings at age 18, she said, “I’ve been blessed with a
lot of support from a lot of wonderful people.” On her own financially
ever since high school, she worked her way through the University of
Maryland Eastern Shore and continued on to graduate school at UD.
The Gilliam Fellowships are awarded to exceptional doctoral students
who are pursuing careers in academic science. The program aims to
prepare a diverse group of researchers who will help develop the next
generation of scientists.
“The Gilliam fellows are outstanding students who have the potential
to be real leaders in science,” said David Asai, HHMI’s senior director
for science education.
Recipients receive support for up to three years, including a stipend
and a training allowance. The fellowship program also is an award for
the students’ advisers, who participate in a year of mentoring
development training and workshops, with a special emphasis on mentoring
diverse students in science, Asai said.
“The mentor’s job is to figure out how to help their student develop into an even better scientist,” he said.
Romero Dueñas’ adviser is Ramona Neunuebel, an assistant professor of
biological sciences who joined the UD faculty in 2014. That was the
same year Romero Dueñas arrived on campus as a master’s degree student.
During her second year of graduate study, the biology
department—noting her success both academically and in the research lab
under Neunuebel’s guidance—encouraged her to move into the Ph.D.
Today, Romero Dueñas conducts research on the molecular underpinnings
of Legionnaires’ disease, a potentially fatal bacterial lung infection
caused by inhaling contaminated water droplets.
Working in Neunuebel’s microbiology lab, she is investigating how the
bacteria operate inside cells in the lungs, seeking to characterize one
particular protein that’s involved in the process. She’s one of two
first authors on a paper published in September in the journal Frontiers
in Cellular and Infection Microbiology.
The publication was exciting for Romero Dueñas, who says that making
progress in her research is always her priority, but it’s not the only
professional passion in her life. After attending a scientific
conference and hearing about other institutions that had associations
specifically for Latino graduate students, she decided that UD could
benefit from the same type of organization.
“When I returned to campus, I began looking into what it would take
to start something like that at UD,” she said. “It seemed like a huge
responsibility to take on while I was doing so much else, but I couldn’t
stop thinking about how great it would be to have this type of
With advice from UD’s Black Graduate Student Association, she emailed
every department on campus looking for students to come to an interest
meeting. She knew that she needed at least six initial members to
establish the organization.
“As soon as I saw six people at the meeting, I felt inspired and
optimistic,” she said. In April 2016, the Hispanic/Latino Graduate
Student Association became an official organization, with Neunuebel and
Jean-Philippe Laurenceau, the Unidel A. Gilchrist Sparks III Chair in
the Social Sciences, as its faculty advisers.
Since then, the group has grown to 64 active members and holds
regular meetings, networking and professional development programs and
“We want to build cultural and professional networks and also tell
the community that we’re here and we have contributions to make,” Romero
Dueñas said. “Every time we have a meeting, I see more and more people
that I didn’t know before, and it’s really exciting.
“Every meeting gives me a sense of belonging, and I’m incredibly excited that we’re building a community here.”
Meanwhile, she hasn’t forgotten her other passion, advocacy for
science. In addition to leading the new Hispanic/Latino association,
she’s now president of the more established Biology Graduate Student
The combination of leadership roles, in addition to her academic and
research accomplishments, was probably key to her selection as a Gilliam
fellow, Romero Dueñas said. But she’d be taking on those roles anyway
because they’re part of who she is, she said.
“I’m working to advance diversity, and I’m working to advance STEM at
UD, and it has been an amazing experience so far,” she said. “I feel
that I’m growing as a person and a scientist—with the support of those
around me—and I feel happy to see that my work is making a difference.”
Louis L. Redding Scholar Award
In October, Romero Dueñas was presented this year's Louis L. Redding Scholar Award by Carol Henderson, UD's vice provost for diversity, at the annual Redding Lecture.
The award recognizes a student or student group, graduate or undergraduate,
that is a member of a historically underrepresented population at UD
whose academic work and effort have promoted the betterment of the
campus through racial and cultural awareness about issues of diversity
and social justice.
The award and the lecture honor the late Louis L. Redding, a civil rights pioneer and a prominent lawyer in Wilmington, Delaware.
His work led to educational opportunities for African American students
in the state and the nation.
Article by Ann Manser; photo by Evan Krape