Meeting Angelica Cibrian, even virtually, was inspiring. She tells her middle school stories of transitioning from Mexico, to the U.S. and back again with lots of energy — hands gesticulating and animating every thought. Read on to learn how she became a biologist at the last minute after following her gut, her very old school math teacher, and that time she got in trouble at school and never told her parents.
Lea: Where were you when you went to middle school?
Angelica: I had dual middle school stages because my dad went back to school when I was nine. He already had his undergrad and Master’s degrees but he went back to do a Ph.D. later in life. We lived in Mexico until I was nine and then we moved to Gainesville, Florida, so my dad could go back to graduate school. My first year of middle school was in the U.S. – which you could imagine was the typical middle school experience, with the cool gang and the not-so-cool gang. I think I was kind of in between. We lived in Florida until I was twelve and then we moved back to Mexico. The last part of middle school I was in Mexico, which was a big transition for me. I had major culture shock because I was transitioning into a teenager. American and Mexican teenage years are very different; when I came back to Mexico, I was behaving like a much older kid. It was a very interesting culture shock. I was ahead of my peers by two or three years in mentality and behavior.
When I came back to Mexico, I was behaving like a much older kid. It was a very interesting culture shock.
Can you speak to a specific experience that you remember that was a shock to you?
In the U.S. language was a shock, but I learned that quickly. The closeness to nature in the U.S. was much more obvious in that earlier stage, and I would play in lakes and see alligators. Coming back to Mexico it was actually hard to interact with nature. One of the biologically relevant shocks that I had was that I couldn’t really go outside very often. Even though we lived close to the mountains, which I later went to when I was older with various camps, it wasn’t very accessible for kids my age. I used to read a lot; I was reading all the time and that wasn’t very common.
What were some of your favorite books to read?
When I was in the U.S. I would go to a mobile library — it was a truck that came to my little apartment complex. I used to read all of the mystery books. I was reading every mystery book you could imagine: Agatha Christie, Sherlock Holmes – anything that had to do with discovery and mystery. In Mexico I continued reading mystery but I also liked fantasy, especially Tolkien.
Do you have any memorable classroom moments that stick out to you?
I was a math geek. I loved my math class, both in the U.S. and Mexico. I really loved math. In the U.S. I had a very sweet, friendly math teacher. In Mexico I had a very old school teacher. He was very old school – like the ones that hit you with a ruler. They don’t exist anymore in Mexico, but somehow he was trapped in time. He was a very strict math teacher and if you didn’t know the answer to what he was asking he would make you stand up and do exercises with your arms
What was it about math that you liked?
I liked problem solving. I actually used to write on the walls of my room (my mom allowed me to do that). I was doing trigonometry and all the little equations early on. I loved it – I really liked the idea that I had to solve something.
I loved [math] – I really liked the idea that I had to solve something.
What was your biggest worry in middle school?
Oh my gosh, fitting in with the kids in Mexico. I was worried I wasn’t fitting in at all. I really did behave very differently than everyone else. I think I didn’t have very many friends until late in the last year of middle school.
Did you participate in any sports?
I was part of the local basketball and running teams.
Did you ever feel like you were the only person like yourself at your school?
Oh yeah. Definitely in the second stage of middle school in Mexico, for sure. I was clearly very different from everyone else.
What did your parents want you to be when you grew up and what did they do?
I come from a family of biologists. I have nine uncles and aunts on one side and eight aunts and uncles on the other. So I have a huge old school Mexican family. On the paternal side, all of my uncles and aunts are biologists, including my dad. So I was very familiar with biology from the beginning. I used to play in my dad’s experimental crayfish tanks at his university in Mexico City. He’s an entomologist, so I was always with his insects and always surrounded by experimental biology, but especially insects… which is probably why my husband is an entomologist! [laughs] I was never going to go into biology — I always said I was going to do arts and social sciences. Biology was a very late choice — literally when I was filling out the application for college, I changed my mind. I had already completed the track in social sciences in high school. So when I said I was going into biology my mom and my dad were like “OOOH!!” It was funny — all my friends were like, “WHAT?! You were going to go into the economy of sustainable development or arts and social sciences.” But I filled out biology at the very last minute. My parents were happy, but they thought I was going to go for something else. They always said to do whatever I wanted.
I was never going to go into biology — I always said I was going to do arts and social sciences.
What were your favorite subjects in school?
The arts and the social sciences. And math — always math.
Do you still use artistic elements and mathematics in your research?
I haven’t used it as much, but I’m going back to it now. Now that I’ve established a lab and have defined what we’re going to do, I’m definitely trying to inject more math into the equation, literally. [laughs] I especially like graph theory which enables you to visualize connections between things. I do population genetics, so I like thinking about the connections between genetics in populations — and it’s very visual; you get to do a lot of very cool artistic renditions of the genetic connectivity. I’m trying to go back to it, but I kind of abandoned it for some time.
Is there something you learned in middle school that you still use today?
Adjusting to any new situation. I learned how to be very adaptable because I had to adjust to two cultures very quickly in both directions at that stage in life. It made me very independent. Although my mom said I was always very independent since I was a baby — I didn’t want to be carried around or anything — that middle school stage in particular taught me to persevere and adapt to new situations.
It’s all happy memories, though, by the way. It was definitely a happy stage, overall.
That’s rare in these interviews.
I know! A lot of people suffered through middle school. My only suffering was trying to understand both cultures, but once I understood it, I was fine — I was very happy.
Was there any conflict with your family when you came to the U.S.? Were they worried that you were adopting too much American culture?
No, not at all. I think we were very balanced in the family and nothing would override any principle we had either way. I was a very calm middle school teenager. I was very nerdy in many ways. All the scientists… we all have a nerdy side — even though I didn’t want to be a scientist back then!
Did you play any instruments?
No, I don’t, unfortunately. My brother plays the piano, but I never had the patience to sit down. My mom tried to get me to play several instruments and I could not sit still. I loved to dance — so I’d dance all sorts of styles, like classical Mexican traditional dances and Spanish dances: Flamenco and Tango. But I couldn’t sit still for an instrument.
Were you in any clubs in middle school?
I was in the Dance Club. I was just dancing all the time.
You came from a family of biologists, so you might have had some ideas already, but when you imagined a scientist, what did you think they did all day?
I always thought my dad was in the lab the whole time. He was lab-oriented, but he also had a field component. One of my uncles is a forester, so he was always outside. I always thought of a scientist in the lab doing some sort of experiment. But I also thought scientists were very hardworking; I understood very early on that it was a 24-hour kind of thing. My dad worked a lot. My whole family were full-time scientists. My perception was that scientists were always inside a lab but with a small field component and working all the time.
If you could give your middle school self (or just younger self) some advice, what would it be?
Learn an instrument! [she shakes her finger at the camera] Even if you can’t sit still. I think I could have easily learned one if I had just sat down. And I think to not stress too much about adapting when I came back to Mexico City. I was stressed at the beginning, but later I didn’t care too much.
What do you think your middle school self would be most surprised about considering your life?
I guess that I ended up going into science. I never said I wasn’t going to do science, I just said I was going to do something else. I guess I would be surprised that in the end I chose my family path. It was surprising that at the last minute I changed my mind – which was kind of funny because my cousins did the same thing; they changed their minds and went into science, too. I don’t think it was because something else wasn’t attractive or satisfying; I think it was because we really learned to appreciate how nice scientific work is. Everyone is in a very different discipline within science, so that’s kind of cool.
What was the first concert you went to?
I probably went to children’s concerts – you know like a guy with a guitar. The first concert I really remember was Silvio Rodriguez, a leftist Cuban guitarist, a very poetic guitar player. My friends really liked him so we all went to that concert in Mexico. I went to amateur concerts of my friends who had bands – but those don’t count – they were very local. I was a groupie then. I was a goth later, in high school.
I was a groupie then. I was a goth later, in high school.
How much did you play outside and where did you play outside?
In the U.S. I played outside all the time. We lived in an apartment complex with students and post docs — it was very comfortable. It had long stretches of grass and was very close to the lakes. We always went to nearby lakes and played around there near the alligators — we’d go and look at them. In Mexico, not very much, I didn’t get to be out in nature until later. I played basketball outside, but that doesn’t count.
Did you collect anything?
I used to collect Foraminifera, or tiny little shells. They’re tiny microscopic shells with really elaborate shapes, but they’re super tiny. You needed to look at them with a magnifying glass or a microscope.
Where did you keep your collection?
In my closet, the whole collection was like this big [gestures the size of a grapefruit]. I would keep the Foraminifera in little jars. Although I grew up with insect collections, and always looked at those, I didn’t collect them myself.
Did you ever have a professional crisis or think about throwing in the academic towel?
I’ve always loved school and I’ve always loved what I’m doing, but politics can get really dense when you’re a faculty member. That’s inevitable, in every place there’s a little bit of politics, and it’s something we have to deal with in order to try to improve our institution. So I’ve never felt like I needed to stop, but sometimes I feel tired with politics.
How much of your successful discoveries were due to chance?
Maybe 5% or 10%. I’m always very clear in what I want to get, but that doesn’t mean the experiments are always successful. There’s one system that we’re looking into now that’s very interesting and it’s a plant endosymbiont interaction. Originally I was very interested in the plant, but it turned out the symbionts were really really cool. So that was by chance as I just happened to look into the roots and noticed that the symbionts were cooler than the plants. Meeting Rob Dunn was by chance, so that is something I count in one of my chance successes!
But let me say something: that doesn’t mean that science isn’t a certainty, most of the time. I don’t control anything, not at all. In everything we do, there’s always an element of chance. I would say the majority of things that you get, you get by chance. It’s just most of the time I know what I want to do, and hopefully it will work, which is probably mostly driven by chance… I don’t want to sound arrogant, like everything always works, not at all, but for the majority of things I would consider achievements I was looking for it. In science we never know what’s there, otherwise we wouldn’t be curious about it. It strikes me with curiosity — what’s the story? The story always depends on chance. But as far as what types of questions I’d like to answer, those aren’t chance.
In science we never know what’s there, otherwise we wouldn’t be curious about it.
Who were your adult role models and what about them did you or do you attempt to emulate?
I had four role models that were very clear to me, mostly in later stages of my life, like through college and graduate school, but they started forming as role models early on.
One was my mom. She was very disciplined and very kind, and I like that combination, so I’m trying to be more like her in that way.
My two aunts are another. They’re very different, but they’re both very ambitious and very strong women. They both have very nice causes. One actually works for social causes, and the other works for a company. So they have very different lives but both of them are very driven.
The last one is Alicia Ibarra who was my mother-in-law for many years. She’s a U.N. officer. She’s a combination of all the other traits. Driven, kind, disciplined and nice.
So all four of them — I try to be like them in many ways.
Did anyone ever tell you that you were wrong?
In middle school — certainly my peers did. In Mexico, especially the girls, they were just jealous because I spoke English and I looked a little bit different and that caused trouble.
Did you often feel bored as a kid? What did your parents say when you said this?
I don’t think so. I think they would probably say, “Well, use your imagination. You’re bored because you’re not using your imagination.” But I don’t remember being bored, ever. This has to do with the transition between the two countries, but it’s hard to be bored when you’re trying to adjust to a new culture. I read a lot; whenever I would feel bored, I was reading.
…[I]t’s hard to be bored when you’re trying to adjust to a new culture.
Did you ever get into trouble at school?
Yes, just once, but I don’t even know if my parents know about it. In the early stage of middle school when we first came back to Mexico, the girls didn’t like me because I was so different. All the boys were curious what I was like and wanted to hear my story. I think the girls were a little jealous of me. So one time they ganged up on me outside of school and tried to beat me up. It was this one particular girl and her friend gang. That got everyone in trouble because we were fighting outside of the school — although I didn’t fight — I was trying to run away. I don’t remember anything else. That was bad, my whole class gathered to see the fight. But the teachers came out eventually and we all got in trouble.
Why didn’t your parents know about this?
Maybe I mentioned it but I didn’t want to make a big deal out of it, probably because I was embarrassed.
If you could have a superpower what would it be and what would you do with it?
I’ve always dreamed of having an ideal society where the environment and people coexist in a sustainable way. That was my goal very early on. I would see how people cut trees and burned everything; of course we could make use of everything, but I wish we could do it in a more sustainable way. Since I was very young I always dreamed of having a magic wand so everyone would do everything sustainably.
Dr. Angelica Cibrian is an assistant professor in biology at LANGEBIO (Laboratorio Nacional de Genomica para la Biodiversidad) in Mexico. She did her PhD at Columbia University, followed by several post docs at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the New York Botanical Gardens, Harvard University and later at New York University. She is a biologist trained in ecology, evolution and environmental biology specializing in population genetics. In her free time she likes to read, sew and knit.