A Return to Roots
Her love of biology stemmed from the wildlife of Guatemala. Now Assistant Professor of Biology Dr. Heidy Contreras hopes to one day share that inspiration with her students through summer programs in the Central American nation.
May 19, 2016
Word that robbers were nearby spread quickly through the Guatemalan marketplace where Heidy Contreras’ mother worked. It was the 1980s, and the country’s long-standing civil war had caused crime to soar.
When the “ladrones” shot a fellow merchant, Contreras’ mother and aunt left to investigate.
Contreras, then just 4-years-old, found herself alone and frightened in the store.
The University of La Verne Assistant Professor of Biology remembers fear from her childhood. She also remembers inspiration.
“Nature in Guatemala made enough of an impression that it eventually guided me into biology.”
Her love of science brought her home in late 2015 to find learning and research opportunities for herself and her students at Universidad del Valle in Guatemala City.
And during the academic year, she thrives on helping students experiment with Madagascar hissing cockroaches, frogs and moths.
Contreras came to the U.S. at 6 years old. She graduated from Hesperia High School in 1996, took junior college classes and then enrolled at California State University Long Beach as a biology major.
Between the difficult material and splitting her time between Long Beach and her Victorville home, she failed all of her classes.
“It was so overwhelming. I didn’t know where to go for help,” Contreras said.
She claims those struggles toughened her up for the rest of her educational career, which continues today with research collaborations at the University of Arizona – where she completed her postdoctoral work – and other institutions.
Contreras, who has taught at the University since 2012, draws from her experiences to help students.
She contributes to organizations that promote diversity in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields, such as the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native American Scientists and the American Physiological Society’s Porter Development Fellowship.
It is a cause aligning with President Barack Obama’s 2009 “Educate to Innovate” initiative.
“There is so much talent that we haven’t tapped into simply because the STEM field is not very diverse,” she said.
Saloni Gupta ’15, said Contreras mentored her in her pursuit of a career in medicine. She respects Contreras’ willingness to give her students freedom in the lab.
Gupta flourished while researching Madagascar hissing cockroaches because Contreras allowed her to take charge of her project.
“I had the opportunity to really experiment with what worked and what didn’t,” Gupta said.
Presently, Contreras is examining the effects of humidity on the behavior and physiology of sphinx moths.
It is a project she nearly abandoned until National Public Radio interviewed her about a sphinx moth spotted in Victorville in 2015.
She currently collects data in California and Montana and seeks to collaborate with scientists in Mexico and Guatemala.
She hopes to continue finding opportunities for her students to learn through real-world experiences, and wants to connect with scientists across the globe.
But Contreras also finds contentment at the University.
“I love doing science,” she said. “It’s like yoga for me. I love being in the lab.”