Meet Samantha Marquez, an amazing 16 year old scientist, innovator, Latino community activist and high school student! When she was only 12 years old, Samantha developed a hollow structure of cells that she named Celloidosomes®, which has “applications in Tissue Engineering, Bioengineering, Environmental Science, Genetic Engineering, and cell/drug delivery as well as many other fields of science.” Since discovering Celloidosomes, Samantha has published several peer-reviewed papers and presented her research work around the US, China, Spain, Mexico, Costa Rica, and most recently, Russia, where she won first place in the International Space Olympics. Samantha, who is now working on her 8th patent, is also a tireless advocate for the Latino community, encouraging Latino youth and women to develop a passion for STEM fields.
What has been your favorite contribution to science, so far? What do you like the most about what you’ve done? I feel that my biggest contribution to science has been developing Celloidosomes® and being able to compare them to other clusters of cells that are available right now. A Celloidosome is a core-shell structure that is unique compared to islets. Islets are clusters of cells that have been used for years in trying to repair tissue. The problem with islets is that you have cells on the inside of these clusters that don’t get enough oxygen and so they die. And when they die, they actually end up triggering some of the cells around them to also die. So you have this domino effect and end up with dead cell tissue. My new developed process for creating the solution is a step in the right direction and can be used in a variety of different applications, including cell delivery and drug delivery.
You’ve been working on developing Celloidosomes for four years now. Do you have any new developments or projects in the works? Yes. There are two that I’ve been focusing on for the last year and a half. One of them is working with micro-liver tissues to create Celloidosomes that can be used for liver reconstruction. I call them Hepato-Celloidosomes. Hepato-Celloidosomes can be used in addition to—or along with—bio-printing. Bio-printing is a new technology that uses something very similar to a computer’s ink jet printer, in that it prints encapsulated clusters of cells into different structures, and from that you’re very successfully able to create something like cartilage, for example. The problem is that when they try to create more 3D complex structures, it doesn’t work as well. Having a 3D organized cell structures, like the Hepatic Celloidosome that I’ve been able to create, makes it possible to mimic the cells and tissues of the liver. This is a huge step in liver reconstruction. Being able to make a smart bio-ink is definitely a step in the right direction for 3D tissue engineering. The other side of the research I have been conducting is the Neuro-Celloidosome. This is a unit that would be used for repairing and replacing neural-networks in the brain. In using these cortical brain cells, I’ve created a very unique way of establishing and repairing synapses that can be broken in the brain. The applications for the Neuro-Celloidosome focus on treatment for neural-degenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. These are the two main applications that I’ve been looking at working with. One of the experiments I think I’d like to try in the future is taking these two structures—the Neuro-Celloidosomes and the Hepato-Celloidosomes — into a microgravity environment to improve the efficiency of the Celloidosome tissues and their specific functionalities (protein secretion, synapses formation, etc.) for use in the body.
Do you have any big, non-science related dreams for your future? I feel like I often get asked, “What would you like to be remembered as?” I like to say that I’d like to be remembered as an activist. I feel like being a responsible member of the community is so much more important than going out and watching a movie or doing anything that is for your own purposes. I think that if you can do something that you have a passion for and while helping others, it’s even better. Something that I’d like to continue to do is talk about the role that we as Hispanics in the community have in providing good role models for the youth of today and the youth of tomorrow. I don’t think it’s right that Hispanics are always represented in the movies as drug dealers and bad guys. That’s not what we are.
How have you been able to engage in social advocacy, so far? I’ve been working with a variety of organizations to mentor youth. I think some of my most memorable experiences have occurred when I was able to talk to the youth of different communities. A couple of years back, I was able to give a lecture to the Society of Professional Engineers, in front of a group of 300 high school students. I talked a little about my science, but the main message was about who we are as a Hispanic community and what we have the power to do for the future. I remember a couple of the kids coming up to me and telling me that I inspired them to go after their passion. Some of them said that they didn’t think that they would like science—or were supposed to like science— because they were girls or because they were Hispanic. I felt completely honored and touched to be able to go out and talk to people like that.
How do you think STEM fields can become more attractive and accessible to young people, especially Latinos? I think the first barrier we have to get past is the fact that young people see STEM fields as sort of “nerd fields”. They’re don’t see the fields as something that they can connect with or develop a passion for. I think we need to get our academic system past focusing solely on grades and instead focus on developing more thought-provoking ways of teaching, so that we can stimulate kids and help them to really have that passion for a scientific field. I think that one of the main things that we can do today is promote real role models in STEM fields. For instance, for youth today, it’s a lot easier to identify with a super model than it is to identify with a noble laureate. We need to make these role models more accessible to the youth of today.
Who do you consider as your personal role model? I think my main role models for how I think and how I feel have been my parents. They are the people who established in me that curiosity and told me that there is nothing that could hold me back. For me, one of my main role models is Ellen Ochoa, the first Latina astronaut. She was a great inspiration for me, especially when I decided to apply for the International Space Olympics. And also Supreme Court judge Sonia Sotomayor is a role model for me. She is not only a Latina lawyer, but she is someone who has influence in politics. I also admire and respect strong women like governor Susana Martinez and secretary Hillary Clinton. I have a huge interest in politics.
What are your interests outside of science? I like to do normal teenager things like going to the movies, going out with my friends and having sleepovers. I try to do normal things when I can. But I LOVE reading—I’m a book junkie! Actually, one of the books that I read recently was a mix of politics, family and biography—it’s a book by Loretta Sanchez . Also, my school has provided me with opportunities to study things that I don’t think I would have been able to study at another school. For example, I’m taking world religion this year, and I absolutely love the fact that I can make connections between that [world religion], science and literature.
Speaking of school, have you decided which colleges you’d like to apply to? I’m still kind of trying to see not only where I feel most comfortable, but where I feel I have the most opportunities to keep on exploring. I think that’s really important. College is a way to further explore your passion and explore ways to take leadership in a field. I don’t really have one[school] picked out where I’m like, “Oh, I really want to go there.” I’m still looking. My top three are Harvard, Princeton and Yale. I’m also looking at Cambridge University in the U.K, but my mother doesn’t want me to go so far away.
Do you have a motto or credo that you live by? What I like to say to people is, you have to maintain an open mind no matter what you do. One of my favorite quotes is from Sandra Carey, and it’s something like, “Never mistake knowledge for wisdom. One helps you make a living; the other helps you make a life.” I think that’s something that defines how I’ve been able to move forward, because being so young and starting off as early as I did, I didn’t know everything and that was okay with me. I wasn’t afraid of not knowing. You need to have a balance between what you know and what you can learn from others.
Samantha’s extraordinary journey has only just begun. The young scientist, innovator and activist is dedicated to gaining and sharing knowledge with her peers, her colleagues and her community, and wants to encourage others to do the same.