Inclusive Mentoring: Spotlight on Brendaliz Santiago-Narvaez

Sept. 25, 2023

Brendaliz Santiago-Narvaez, Ph.D.
Brendaliz Santiago-Narvaez, Ph.D.
Source: Scott Cook
Brendaliz Santiago-Narvaez, Ph.D.'s, journey from a childhood captivation with microbiology to her current role as a tenured microbiologist at Rollins College is a testament to her unwavering dedication and the guidance of influential mentors. Her passion for science forged a path that combines her love for teaching and cutting-edge research. Now, as a faculty leader driving DEI initiatives in STEM education, she champions the importance of representation and encourages aspiring scientists to embrace imperfection and seize as many opportunities as they can. 

Santiago-Narvaez's fascination with microbiology was ignited at the age of 7 when she received a microscope as a birthday gift from her father. The spark was kindled further when she started reading National Geographic magazines and was particularly enthralled by an article about extremophilic bacteria in Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Prismatic Spring.

“Whenever the magazine would come into the house, I was always very interested to see what thing about science was highlighted,” she said. This early interest sowed the seeds of Santiago-Narvaez’s lifelong enthusiasm for microbiology. "That was the moment I got this passion for microbiology and was grasped by the topic of unique microorganisms that live in these unique places.” 

Her interest in science never wavered, and at the University of Puerto Rico, Santiago-Narvaez pursued a degree in biology. As an undergraduate student, she took every possible microbiology-related elective. Her journey was bolstered by dedicated professors, many of whom were women in science and inspired her to explore her scientific interests beyond the classroom. 

A first-generation college student, Santiago-Narvaez remembers struggling with the decision to stay in college or drop out to get a job to help support her family. “Those needs that, as a family, we had were constantly a challenge that I struggled with: ‘Should I be doing this? Is this selfish of me to want to go to college when my family could use my help?’” she said. She also recalled not having anyone in her immediate family to help her navigate the college experience.  

“I was lucky to have a cousin that was older than I, and I really relied on her to figure out the whole thing,” she said. “But honestly, if she hadn’t been there, it would have made it 10 times more difficult navigating the process and the expectations—how to do well in classes, how to prepare—all of those things were completely new to me at the same time that I was starting undergrad.” Along with the support from her cousin, mentors became a critical part of helping Santiago-Narvaez explore career possibilities in the microbial sciences. 

One pivotal moment came when Sandra Maldonado Ramírez, Ph.D., a mycology professor at the University of Puerto Rico, encouraged her to seek research opportunities outside Puerto Rico, pushing her out of her comfort zone. It was this recommendation that led her to join the GEBS Summer Scholars Program (now called the Summer Scholars Program) at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry, which gave her the opportunity to delve into Mycobacterium tuberculosis research in the lab of Martin Pavelka, Ph.D. Stephen Dewhurst, Ph.D., who was Director of the Post-Baccalaureate Research Education Program (PREP) at the University of Rochester at the time, recognized her potential and suggested she consider a post-baccalaureate training position at the institution. This mentor's nudge pushed her toward gaining more experience before pursuing a graduate degree in microbiology. 

Santiago-Narvaez remembers her transition from Puerto Rico's tropical climate to upstate New York's glacial winter as a period of immense growth. “The PREP program was really pivotal for me, because it allowed me to gain confidence and independence as a researcher—I was running a research program and completing a project entirely on my own,” she said. After successfully completing the PREP program, Santiago-Narvaez applied and was admitted to the Ph.D. program at the University of Rochester, commencing her doctoral research in the lab of Robert Glenn Quivey, Ph.D., renowned for his work on Streptococcus mutans, a bacterium responsible for dental cavities. 

In Quivey's lab, Santiago-Narvaez’s research took off as she probed into the physiology of S. mutans and its mechanisms for adapting to acidic environments, a key factor in cavity formation. Her dedication and talent led to several publications and recognition, including the prestigious William H. Bolin Award for outstanding postdoctoral research. 

After completing her Ph.D., she continued her journey as a postdoctoral researcher in Quivey's lab, not only conducting research, but also mentoring students. This phase brought her full circle, from being a trainee herself to mentoring students who were part of the PREP program. 

Throughout her academic journey, Santiago-Narvaez harbored a strong desire to become a college professor. As early as high school, she remembers enjoying explaining challenging scientific concepts to her peers. “For science classes, most of my close friends would come over to my house because I knew how to explain complex concepts that were discussed in class in a way that made sense to them. And it was so natural for me to just stand in front of a group of people and be like, 'Oh, you want to study photosynthesis? Let's talk about it.’ I had my own little whiteboard and everything in my room,” she said. “I really enjoy talking about science, but not just discussing science—making science accessible. Being able to break something down in a way that allows someone to appreciate it is something that I really love. And to this day, it's still one of my favorite things within the classroom setting.”  

Fast-forward to the present, and Santiago-Narvaez is just as passionate about helping students understand difficult ideas in science. “Another thing that I love about being a professor is not knowing the answer to something. I think students mostly expect you to know everything because you have a Ph.D.,” she said. “But I love their reaction when I say, ‘You know what, I don't know. But let's figure it out together.’ And you can see how happy they are. Because, first of all, they know their professor isn't perfect—of course we're not. Second of all, you acknowledged their inquiry; you made them feel welcome. You made them feel like their questions are important. And in the end, everybody leaves the class satisfied because the professor took the time to acknowledge their question and answer it.” 

Santiago-Narvaez aimed to teach at the undergraduate level while conducting research and providing students with mentorship and research opportunities that she herself found so valuable as an early career scientist. Crucially, she preferred smaller institutions that allowed for more one-on-one interaction with students. “I had great mentors, and I want to be a great mentor for my students,” she emphasized. Her determination led her to Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., where she currently holds a tenured position as a resident microbiologist. 

At Rollins College, Santiago-Narvaez wears multiple hats. She teaches a range of courses, from general biology to specialized microbiology classes, providing students with a comprehensive understanding of the subject. Simultaneously, she heads her research lab, where her focus has shifted toward studying antimicrobial compounds and their impact on biofilm formation in S. mutans, with potential applications in dentistry. 

One unique aspect of her research at Rollins is the interdisciplinary collaboration with colleagues, which enhances the scope and impact of her work. “We’re looking at chemicals and compounds that potentially have applications in dentistry—we would like to see if they could be used in a clinical setting,” she explained. “I really love getting to work with people in other disciplines.” Santiago-Narvaez is currently working alongside Laurel Goj Habgood, Ph.D., a professor of chemistry, who synthesizes compounds so that Santiago-Narvaez can test them in the lab with her students. 

At Rollins College, she frequently reflects on her past mentors and the impact they had on her while studying microbiology. “From my mentors, I remember a sense of determination to pursue whatever is it that I wanted to do. They would say, ‘you can definitely do it,' and 'consider the steps that you have to take to achieve those goals.’”

From her own experiences, Santiago-Narvaez recalls how a strong sense of community was both grounding and affirming. "Many of my professors [during undergrad] were also Puerto Rican, and many of them were women, which was incredible. So having people that looked like me, and that were relatable in the sense of their experience and what they had gone through to get to where they are was really important,” she explained. “That is something that as a mentor, I take very seriously. I know that perhaps not all students will be able to take a class with me. But I definitely see the importance of representation in the sense that I'm here, you can see that I am Hispanic, you can see that I'm a woman in science. And simply occupying the space that I am in now is important to me because I want them to see someone like them. Whether it is simply seeing me down the hall or hearing about me.” 

Rollins College was recently the recipient of a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which focuses on DEI initiatives. This grant supports the Rollins Inclusive Excellence Program—an initiative that involves revamping and overhauling introductory courses in chemistry, biology and physics, with the purpose of making the college’s STEM courses more equitable and inclusive. The program also aims to improve retention of students from historically underrepresented groups in STEM courses.  

As a part of this grant, Santiago-Narvaez is currently leading the STEM HUB initiative, which includes managing the launch and redesign of shared spaces within the campus’ science buildings. “This is space solely dedicated for STEM students, so that they can study and hang out with each other, and so they can get tutoring in-house,” she explained. “It’s a project I’m really proud of. [I have the opportunity to] not just be a faculty and a mentor, but also contribute to changes made within our curriculum and within our culture here at Rollins, to make sure that we are more inclusive and supportive of students from underrepresented groups.” 

Faculty have also been participating in a series of trainings and workshops to ensure they are aware of the challenges their students face, while moving away from deficit thinking and toward an asset-based approach. “We want to move toward an environment where we really celebrate our students for what they bring to the table, acknowledging that everyone has something to contribute, especially in the sciences, that is not necessarily related to research,” Santiago-Narvaez said. 

As Santiago-Narvaez thinks about how she hopes the culture of STEM will shift in the coming years, she offers this piece of advice to students: remember that no one is perfect. 

“That's important for us to think about when we are advancing our careers, when we are making choices and we are developing ourselves as early career scientists,” she continued. “Not being perfect does not disqualify you from being excellent and from being successful. The first time you acknowledge that, ‘I can't be perfect, but I can definitely be excellent, and I can definitely be successful,’ that will change the way you view and overcome your challenges.” 

Author: Leah Potter, M.S.

Leah Potter, M.S.
Leah Potter joined ASM in 2022 as the Communications Specialist.