National Hispanic Heritage Month with Claudia Benavente

National Hispanic Heritage Month website (4)

The School of Pharmacy & Pharmaceutical Sciences is celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month with highlights of students and faculty of Hispanic and Latin heritage. 

Hispanic Heritage Month is celebrated from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15. Originally started as a heritage celebration week in 1968, the observation was expanded to a full month in 1988. The celebration starts mid-month because Sept. 15 marks the independence anniversary of five countries: Costa Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. It is followed by Mexico’s Independence Day on Sept. 16 and Chile’s on Sept. 18. 

Claudia Benavente, PhD, is an assistant professor in the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences and Developmental & Cell Biology and a member of the Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center. Her research focuses on understanding pediatric solid tumors to identify and develop novel therapeutic opportunities for their treatment.

In this Q&A, Benavente shares her family’s Chilean background and offers advice to other first-generation Latinos in academia.

Q: Tell us where you grew up and a little about your family. Were your parents or any other family members in health care or the sciences?

I was born and raised in Ecuador by immigrant parents from Chile. After graduating from high school, I moved to Chile to pursue my undergraduate studies. Nobody in my family was in healthcare or the sciences. In fact, neither of my parents completed university. I come from a family that recurrently struggled financially. Still, I had the privilege of being raised by a mother who understood the importance of education and engrained the idea that a university degree could provide financial stability and social mobility ⁠— and she was right.

Disparities, in general, have bothered me since a young age and growing up in a developing country made healthcare disparities unmistakably real. So, I grew up wanting to help ease people’s pain and suffering and thought I would become a physician to find new cures. Then I realized that physicians are fantastic at diagnosing and prescribing a known course of treatments, but scientists are at the forefront of developing new therapies. As a scientist, particularly in cancer research, I could see a way to help identify novel therapeutics and help simplify and democratize treatments. That, to me, was a huge motivator to pursue science.

Q: How did your heritage or ethnicity influence your career and research interests?

I grew up in a country with enormous disparities, which greatly influenced my perceived need to pursue higher education and my interest in research in a health-related field. While I always liked the sciences in general, I was particularly good at math and physics and found biology and chemistry far more challenging. If I had grown up in a different environment, I might have been attracted to a career in astronomy rather than cancer biology.

Q: How did you become interested in becoming an educator in pharmaceutical sciences?

The more you know, the more you realize how much more there is to learn in science. I became aware that the reach of my contributions to science during my lifetime would be limited as one person. However, my reach can be expanded by motivating and training the next generation of scientists to have a multiplying ripple effect. The best place to do that is to become an educator in an academic setting.

Q: What advice would you have for young people today who are interested in either pharmacology or pharmacy?

I believe it is crucial to ask yourself the critical question: What are you passionate about? This question needs to be reassessed throughout life as you get exposed to more experiences. All fields of studies, including pharmacology and pharmacy, have various uses and approaches; find the one that best fits you. Talk to people, reach out to professors and use them as a resource to understand what it is like to be a professional in their fields. You will be far more productive and happier doing something that interests you, and investing your time and energy will be far more rewarding.

Q: Do you have any particular advice for Hispanic or Latino/Latinas?

We have a particularly high sense of service/duty to our families, and it can be easy to forget the importance of happiness and mental well-being. When we take care of ourselves and our hopes, dreams, and aspirations, we are better fit to care for our families. When you are seeking an education, the rewards are delayed but are worth the wait.

Q: How can UCI and SPPS continue to develop our diversity, equity, and inclusion practices for Hispanic or Latino/Latina students, staff, and faculty?

We can keep on working on improving our campus climate. Everyone, not just underrepresented minorities, benefits from an environment where everyone feels heard, respected, and valued. We must remember that every single one of us plays a critical role on our campus. From the lowest to the highest-ranking positions, we can all treat everyone with courtesy, consideration, and appreciation.

Q: How would you address impostor syndrome to your students?

First, I think it is important to understand that most of us feel like impostors at some stage of our careers, if not at all of them! I feel like we can make use of it in a positive way. Instead of focusing entirely on the negative aspect, we can use it as an opportunity for personal growth. Identify what shortcoming we are noticing in ourselves and, while we cannot change what we have done until this point, we can use it as a learning tool to identify areas of improvement moving forward. I prefer to view it as a positive sign that we are staying humble. However, if you have difficulty turning the negative feelings around, it is a good sign that you need a mental break or professional help. There is no shame in seeking help when you feel helpless, and our university has outstanding counseling resources available for our students.

Q: What is your favorite Hispanic tradition, dish, or destination and why?

I just came back from a vacation in the Galapagos Islands, a destination I keep revisiting. It is a place where we can preserve the balance of respect and harmony with nature. Animals do not perceive humans as predators, so you do not have to go on an expedition to try to find a rare species; you walk by or swim with them in their natural habitat. It is a great example of what we are trying to re-accomplish as humanity: living in harmony with the diversity around us.

Q: What evokes pride in your culture?

Despite all the technological advances, we have been able to preserve a sense of community. The ideology that “it takes a village to raise a child” is still very much alive among Latinos.

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