The Power of Mentorship: Spotlight on Dr. Carla Bonilla
Dr. Carla Bonilla believes that when you find a sense of community and mentors that will support you, you feel like you can do anything. "Find communion with others that share your struggle and support each other. Find good mentors," she said. Throughout Bonilla’s academic journey, mentorship played a critical role. Her mentors reminded Bonilla of her capabilities and encouraged her to pursue her ambitions. Bonilla, an assistant professor of biology at the University of San Diego, now a mentor and faculty member herself, hopes to do the same for her students. "Your science advisor should believe in you unconditionally. That is what has kept me going, people who believe I can do anything I want and are always there to cheer me on."
When she was 13 years old, Bonilla and her family emigrated from El Salvador and moved to San Francisco. Today, Bonilla said her identities as a Latina scientist, educator and woman of color have both positively and negatively shaped her experiences. For Bonilla, being a Salvadoran immigrant means that she has "strong roots to her Latino culture." Her experiences also impacted her political views, education and community values. Still, her experiences growing up were negatively impacted when others made assumptions about her based on her identities, and she was denied educational opportunities because she was an undocumented immigrant.
"Lack of diversity had a huge impact on me when I was younger. I was very lucky to go to an ethnically diverse high school, so I was used to people from different backgrounds, but not for those brown folks to be in science," Bonilla said. "I didn’t know I could be a scientist because I didn’t know it was a profession, just subjects you take in high school. I had come to believe that Latinos could not hold professions other than the jobs I saw my family holding, like hotel cleaning, restaurant and construction jobs."
After high school, Bonilla planned on attending University of California (UC) Santa Barbara for the school's chemistry program. But as an undocumented immigrant, she was unable to apply for federal financial aid, and her parents could not afford the cost without financial assistance. Due to these financial constraints, Bonilla enrolled in community college after high school. As a chemistry major, Bonilla had the opportunity to take biology courses, like genetics. It didn’t take long before Bonilla discovered a hidden passion for all things biology. "I wanted to be like Gregor Mendel," she said. "I wanted to do genetics for a living—I thought, ‘you get to think about these puzzles for a living and get paid for it?’ I wanted to do that." When Bonilla eventually became a permanent U.S. resident, she transferred to UC Berkley, where she graduated with a degree in molecular and cell biology with a minor in education in 2000.
Bonilla went on to receive her master’s degree in biology, with a molecular and cell biology emphasis, from San Francisco State University (SFSU). At SFSU, Dr. Leticia Márquez-Magaña, a professor of cell and molecular biology and an important mentor for Bonilla, offered Bonilla a position working in her lab as a master’s student. It was through this experience—having Márquez-Magaña as a mentor who championed her work—that Bonilla said she gained the confidence she needed to stop hiding her ambitions and dreams as a scientist. "I doubt myself a lot. But my identity as a Latina means I have a strong sense of community and draw strength from knowing that my progress and success is not just for me. That when I do well, my family does well, my community does well, my students do well. And that is inspiring and the push I need when I struggle," Bonilla said. In Márquez-Magaña’s lab, Bonilla investigated the biochemical properties of Bacillus subtilis, SigY, a newly discovered transcription factor. She published her research on the topic as her thesis in 2002.
While she considered applying for Ph.D. programs, Bonilla felt unsure of how competitive an applicant she was. But Márquez-Magaña reminded Bonilla that she was more than qualified and would certainly stand out among other candidates. "She told me, ‘let them tell you no, let them make the decision,’" Bonilla said. In this moment, Bonilla reminded herself not to dismiss exciting opportunities. "I always have to remember that when I think, ‘I can’t do this.’" Eventually, Bonilla applied for and was accepted into a Ph.D. program at the University of California, San Francisco where her research would focus on cell biology.
As a new Ph.D. candidate, Bonilla remembered being 1 of 3 women of color in the program of about 35 students. Many of her classmates were not from San Francisco and had not previously lived in a diverse community. "I was very proud of the city, and I was taken aback by every joke they had to make about people of color and LGBTQIA+ people—it created a lot of conflict for my classmates and me," she said. Though she initially felt disconnected among her peers, Bonilla said she tried to "find solace in the science." Bonilla found a mentor in Dr. David Toczyski, who helped her practice giving talks about her research and prepare for her qualifying exam. Her doctoral research, published in 2008, focused on using cell biological and genetic approaches to confirm the DNA damage checkpoint activation recruitment model in Saccharomyces cerevisiae.
Bonilla’s mentorship from both Márquez-Magaña and Toczyski inspired her, in part, to pursue a career in higher education. "I thought, ‘I want to be a faculty member like them,’" she said. "Helping students, like they helped me shape my scientific understanding and my motivation."
From 2012-2022, Bonilla worked as a faculty member at Gonzaga University, first as a lecturer, then as an assistant professor, and later, as an associate professor in the biology department. Bonilla received the university’s Diversity Leadership Faculty Award in 2022 for her collaborative work with colleagues in supporting students through the application, formation and establishment of a Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics & Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) chapter, an organization that works to foster diversity, equity and inclusion in STEM. Bonilla also received the Gonzaga/HHMI Summer Research Award, Murdock Natural Science Research Award and Keck Foundation Grant to conduct research with undergraduate students.
"Something I am very proud of is that I am able to publish scientific work with undergraduate students," Bonilla said. "Any scientist who has worked with undergrads knows how slow progress can be when balancing teaching and training, yet with patience and perseverance, you can do good science that is publishable. My work with undergraduates published in 2019 was one of the most downloaded articles in the journal for that year."
Presently, as an assistant professor at University of San Diego, Bonilla continues to mentor undergraduate students, and she asserts that mentorship and finding community are key for early-career scientists to flourish. "Believing in students, believing that students can continue to learn, believing there’s potential in folks—that makes all the difference," she said.