Jonilee Polanco has a passion for understanding what makes us intrinsically connected to all other living things

Undergraduate student Jonilee Polanco talks about her opportunities and experiences (including an internship at NASA) while attending at UAF.

Jonilee Polanco

Name: Jonilee Avia Polanco

Hometown: (Military); Spent most my life in North Pole, AK (& Fairbanks); before then Yuma, Arizona. Before then San Diego, CA; before then Texas.

Future study or career plans: I plan on pursuing a doctorate in either Ethnobotany or Plant Neurobiology (or something else entirely, depends on how my career and life goals progress)!

Tell us about a recent project you worked on: I'm currently collaborating with Dr. Leigh's lab to create a guidance document for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation on phytoremediation as an alternative technique for the clean-up of contaminated soils in Alaska.

What is the best selling point about your major that you would likeothers to know? I think a basic understanding of the biological sciences in general is a good foundation for anyone pursuing any kind of higher-education. It provides insight into this amazing world we live in and all the wonderful creatures that live alongside us. Cell and molecular biology specifically can seem very challenging to some; however, if you have passion for understanding what makes us intrinsically connected and similar to all other living things? Then Cell and Molecular Biology is the place for you! The difficult course-work pales in comparison to the depth of colorful knowledge, appreciation, and gratitude you'll have for all living organisms after completing this concentration.

Who or what inspired your interest in your major? I've always been very interested in STEM as a whole, and account much of my passion to my upbringing, and especially to my parents for supporting that interest in various ways (buying me a telescope when I was quite young, zoology cards/pamphlets, trips to the zoo, hiking out in nature, etc.). I've always been inspired two-fold: by my paternal grandmother, who was a nurse, and by the lack of representation of Latinx Womxn in STEM Fields (to this day, we only make up 2% of the STEM workforce, and on average in all career-fields still only get paid $0.54 on the white man's $1.00). 

What has been your best experience with working in your major or 
conducting research? My best experiences in my undergraduate career have by far been related to the internships I'd been granted, and the time I've spent in the BLaST program. Summer of 2018 I had the amazing opportunity to intern at NASA Headquarters in Kennedy Space Center, FL working on a seed microbiome project. Immediately following that internship, I was granted an equally amazing Bio-Cultural Conservation internship at the "end-of-the-world," in Puerto Williams, Chile through the University of Northern Texas International Research Experience for Students (IRES) program in December 2018 into January of 2019. 

What is your favorite animal?  My favorite animal is the staple animal of one of my ancestral island homes in the Greater Antilles: the Coquí frog, endemic to Borikén (commonly known as Puerto Rico). 

What is your favorite thing about UAF?  Honestly, my favorite thing about UAF has been the place I've felt most at peace, heard, and understood: the BLaST office.

Do you have advice for anyone who may have an interest in pursuing your major? If you are in this major simply to make "good money," in the future? I suggest you switch majors, and pursue what you are truly passionate about--your life is far more important and worthy of spending on things that bring you true joy. If you are on this path because you are passionate about it? Welcome, enjoy it as much as I have--but take care of yourself along the way. Recognize that mental illnesses (including BPD, PTSD, and Major Depression) are recognized by the ADA, and the faculty at UAF are required to provide you accommodations if you need them (this is something I wish I had been told at the start of my undergraduate career--not while I was struggling to complete my degrees at the end of it). That said, apply for internships, and consider stopping by the BLaST office! It is an amazing place to go if you're a student from a diverse background in STEM, even just for a chat with the staff and students there, in my experience they are the epitome of student support at UAF.