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Biophysicist in Profile

Patricia Soto

Patricia Soto

May 2020 // 5193

Patricia Soto grew up in Bogotá, Colombia, the daughter of an elementary school teacher and a salesman. The family believed in the importance of education, a value that she took to heart and continues to prioritize as an associate professor in the physics department at Creighton University, a primarily undergraduate institution (PUI).

In her teens, Patricia Soto read about particle physics and the experiments being performed at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, known as CERN. It ignited a passion within her, and informed her decision to study physics in college, at Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá. “In my opinion, CERN represents one of the greatest enterprises of humankind,” she says. “However, after a couple of years in college other insights influenced my decision to move to biophysics: In a long conversation, that 25 years later I still remember, a dear philosophy teacher argued that the ‘next’ century (that is, the 21st century) would be about the human body, what is inside us. I also approached a professor in electrical engineering who introduced me to the world of molecular modeling of ion channels. I immediately fell in love with the power of the technique! It seemed to me the perfect blend of physical modeling, interesting biological questions, and my delight with computer coding.”

She had not encountered a personal computer until her freshman year of college, but once she did, she started tinkering with code writing in her spare time. She also read quite a bit about the unknowns of the human brain, and thought that physics could offer powerful tools to decipher the behavior of neurons. During her undergraduate studies, Soto had the opportunity to work on an educational project with Aldona Gabriunas, a physics faculty member who was implementing active learning techniques in introductory physics courses for engineering students. She was also involved in a project to train high school teachers to bring modern physics to the classroom, under the leadership of Bernardo Gómez.

After she finished college, she tried a few different careers, including scientometrics, human rights activism, and high school teaching. She quickly realized that her calling was to pursue a doctorate, so she began preparations. She worked on her English language skills, and started checking the affiliations of authors who wrote articles she could understand, to narrow down places to apply to graduate school. She received a travel award to attend the IUPAB (International Union for Pure and Applied Biophysics) conference in New Delhi, India, “far from my country and close to my professional goals,” she shares. She earned her PhD at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, where her main focus was figuring out the driving forces of peptide folding in non-aqueous environments.

Soto then undertook postdoctoral work at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in the group of Joan-Emma Shea. “I enjoyed the most being so close to top-notch science, perfect weather, and the Pacific Ocean shoreline!” she says. “My main project focused on identifying the factors that drive and stabilize the aggregation of short sequences derived from the Alzheimer’s Aβ peptide. Under the guidance of my PI, I was able to secure funding from the American Association of University Women.”

During her postdoc, she had the opportunity to attend her first professional conference, an American Chemical Society meeting. She wanted to use the conference as an opportunity to explore career pathways in industry and academia, and as part of that search, she decided to attend a panel called “How to Establish a Research Program at a PUI,” though she did not know what PUI stood for. “I immediately felt a unique connection with the panelists and the attendees: I marveled at the genuine excitement of the panelists on how to combine teaching and research with undergrads. I was also impressed with the attendees who sat nearby me and who were willing to answer my questions,” she shares. “I then decided that getting a faculty position at a PUI would fit what I believe in: the power of education combined with the indescribable intellectual joy of scientific research.”

She was hired for a one-year position in the physics department at Creighton University, a PUI in Omaha, Nebraska, which was then renewed for a couple of years until she began a tenure-track contract. “I earned tenured in the year 2017, after I benefitted from the extension of the tenure clock due to maternity leaves,” she explains.

Following the birth of her second child, Soto decided to reach out to Latinos in her community, putting together a presentation of her research on protein misfolding targeted at Latino professionals, rather than experts in her field. “Nicely enough, two Latino attendees, Maria Christensen and Ronald Shikiya, happened to be experts in the biology of prion protein misfolding who worked in the medical school of my institution. They connected me with Jason Bartz, their PI. Since then, we have established a solid collaboration that inspires my modeling projects,” she shares.

Soto is currently an associate professor in Creighton’s physics department. “The culture, academics, and administration of Creighton University inspire and support research with undergraduates,” she says. “Excellence in research and quality teaching (three courses per semester) are equally weighted for tenure and promotion in the physics department.” This is a great fit for Soto, who describes her passion for scholarly teaching as on par with her dedication to disciplinary research. “I embrace teaching as the one contribution I can have on young minds who would follow a wide range of after-college pathways. I envision my role as a scaffold that my students may use to develop reasoning habits and skills consistent with the scientific method,” she says. “Therefore, I have invested myself in tailoring my teaching to active learning in a student-centered style. To design my curricular material, I use keen observation and interpretation of my students’ behavior and responses, analysis of assessment and metacognition metrics, and my learning of disciplinary-based education research work. As with any enterprise there have been ups and downs, but overall my students and I see a sustainable positive slope!”

Her group has trained 47 undergraduates majoring in neuroscience, biology, biochemistry, chemistry, or physics. While in her lab, the students engage in modular and interconnected subprojects that fit with the main research plan. “Our group provides an authentic interdisciplinary undergraduate research experience at the interface of life and physical sciences. Graduates from the research group are attending — or have attended — medical school, dental school, or graduate school, or have jobs in the knowledge industry,” Soto shares. “Undergraduates often say how much they enjoy using a mix of what they have learned in their standard courses to tackle our research projects. I am thrilled when my students reach the level of connecting data and visual representation with an interpretation they propose themselves that answers the science question we have posed. Every time this happens, I confirm I am in the right place!”

Her research has been funded by state programs, specifically the National Institutes of Health INBRE (IDeA Networks of Biomedical Research Excellence) and the National Science Foundation EPSCoR (Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research) but her challenges in getting federal funding motivated her to work on her scientific writing skills. “Through this path, I became involved with a supportive community that understands and respects my limitations,” she shares. “The members of this community inspire me to refine my thinking and convey my ideas with greater clarity, assertiveness, and purpose.”

Sustaining scholarship at a PUI has had its challenges, but Soto has found key support through inter-institutional professional networks. “I was lucky to be chosen as member of the National Science Foundation ADVANCE ASAP network. The five-year grant helped me to contextualize my professional performance through peer mentoring by women faculty in STEM at PUIs. Being a member of AAPT (American Association of Physics Teachers) opened doors to enrich my educational practice. Recently, I joined the MERCURY consortium (http://mercuryconsortium.org/), a community of faculty at PUIs that pursue excellence in molecular computational research,” she shares, in hopes that these resources will benefit other faculty at PUIs.

At the time of writing, Soto and her family are participating in social distancing in response to the global COVID-19 pandemic. “On the positive side, we have gotten to re-connect with each other, and with friends — thanks internet and social media! We have had a chance to eat a warm lunch every day and to walk our dog. I have been following more closely the schoolwork of my three kids. We have also had a chance to ponder our attitude as responsible citizens and as a part of something larger than us, and to recognize the privileges that we have,” she shares. “Paraphrasing an email I wrote to my students, we see this time as an opportunity to grow and enrich our lives, to pull together through this, and to get creative while we navigate the unexpected.”



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