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Spotlight on Commerce: Connie Africano Remoroza, Research Chemist, Mass Spectrometry Data Center, Biomolecular Measurement Division, National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)

Blog post by Connie Africano Remoroza, Research Chemist, Mass Spectrometry Data Center, Biomolecular Measurement Division, National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)

I was born in Manila, Philippines, and raised in a middle-class family where I was the eldest of seven children. My parents worked hard to send my six siblings and me to college. Through them, I learned to value education, humility and hard work, and the importance of integrity. But it was my Filipina high school chemistry teacher, Mrs. Rosario Martin, who convinced me to pursue a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering.

Once I completed my bachelor’s degree, I taught general chemistry and biochemistry courses in the Philippines. That experience made me realize I desired novelty in my career; however, my education was not enough for me to meet the standard qualifications for the jobs I wanted. It became apparent that I needed to pursue a graduate degree. I received a scholarship to study abroad and pursued my graduate studies — an M.S. in biotechnology and a Ph.D. in biotechnology/biochemistry — at Wageningen University and Research Center in the Netherlands, where professors Henk Schols and Harry Gruppen provided further mentorship.

It was at that point where the pursuit of my dream led me down a different career path. Through a European Union Seventh Framework Ph.D. project on the characterization of complex carbohydrates from plants, I got the chance to work and collaborate with top scientists and professors at Lund University in Sweden, DuPont in Denmark, INRA and Sanofi in France, and Munster University in Germany. The dedication and innovative spirit of the research staff at those organizations inspired me. Though we spoke in our native tongues, English was our common language.

Studying abroad in the Netherlands had a profound effect not only on my career, but on me as well. Dutch people are known for their punctuality, and being a Filipina who lived in the Netherlands for 10 years made me a time-conscious person. It also fostered independence, and critical thinking skills.

Later on, I briefly worked at the DuPont biotechnology company in the Netherlands as a junior scientist and became a professor at the University of the Philippines. While I treasure these experiences, I was still itching for the chance to do more innovative work, so I came to the United States to work at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), whose reputation for impactful scientific research and innovation is unmatched.

It was at NIST where I met my current mentor, Dr. Stephen Stein, who created the first mass spectral reference databases (mass spectra are like chemical fingerprints) of glycans, or chained sugar molecules that serve as, among other things, the building blocks of carbohydrates. My current project involves the development of a mass spectral library of glycan and glycoconjugates, including various mammalian milks, plants, vaccines, human serum and viral proteins.

Once I began to work at NIST’s Mass Spectrometry Data Center, I realized that not only was this a welcoming research environment, but there was also great diversity among my colleagues.

Being a Pacific Islander, I saw many opportunities for building a network with such a diverse group of people. It has been thrilling to help form partnerships and collaborations between my connections in the U.S. and the Philippines.

Contributing distinct insights and ideas based on publications and ongoing research conducted in my home country was particularly rewarding for me. The coalition I helped develop between organizations and laboratory companies in both countries allowed for access to resources that were not readily available in the archives or stocks of both countries; some were only native to the Philippines.

But mostly, it is the mélange of Pacific Islander culture with other distinct cultures in the Mass Spectrometry Data Center that has amazed me.

Aside from my professional affiliations, I am also a member of Pathways Baptist Church in Gaithersburg, Maryland, where I actively participate in their various community programs in the U.S. and the Philippines.

Formal education is the first step toward developing smart individuals in the field of science, but my career has shown me that mentorship is crucial. The skills and wisdom I have gained from attending numerous scientific symposiums and training has inspired me to want to impart my years of experience in science to younger generations. So far, I have mentored several M.S. students working in food science, biology and biochemistry in the Netherlands and in the Philippines. A number of these students have finished their doctorate degrees, and now they work in universities in Spain and Germany and in companies in the Netherlands. And most recently, I mentored my daughter, encouraging her to pursue a STEM-related discipline in college and perhaps even look for a job in a national laboratory in the future.

Recognizing people of my heritage is what Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month is all about. I am proud to embrace my heritage and culture. It is the uniqueness, values and perspectives we each bring from our backgrounds that strengthens our ties. It is why I so enjoy working with my colleagues, who represent many cultures, including Asian, Russian, Chinese American, Indian-American, Canadian American and American.

Ed. note: This post is part of the Spotlight on Commerce series showcasing the vast and diverse work of Department of Commerce AAPI employees during Asian-American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month.