Victoria Deneke, Winner of 2022 SDB Trainee Science Communication Award


By Andrew Montequin

The Society for Developmental Biology recognized Victoria Deneke with the 2022 Trainee Science Communication Award. Deneke is currently a postdoc with Andrea Pauli at the Research Institute of Molecular Pathology (IMP) in Vienna, Austria. She sat down for an interview to discuss her career, scientific outreach efforts, and philosophy on mentoring the next generation of scientists.

Like many developmental biologists, Victoria Deneke’s fascination with the field began at the microscope. Before committing to a lab during her Ph.D. at Duke University, she chose to do a final rotation project in a lab outside of her expertise in cancer biology and venture into development, studying early cell cycle divisions in the Drosophila embryo.

“With a confocal microscope you can see these beautifully synchronous waves of division,” she said. “It’s absolutely mesmerizing, and really that’s what got me.”

What makes her story unique is the path that she took to arrive at that rotation project, and the work she has done since to blaze a trail for those like her.

Born and raised in the capital city of El Salvador, Deneke witnessed the lack of educational opportunities available to many of its citizens. Very few students attend college, even fewer enter science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines, and the population that does pursue STEM is very male-dominated.

“I happen to be a young woman who did go into STEM,” she said. “I feel like I can use that to say, ‘Hey, you shouldn’t be afraid of going into STEM, science is really cool.’”

Deneke had the ability to attend well-funded private schools in El Salvador, and she credits those educational opportunities for much of her academic success. By being in a privileged position with access to a good education, she feels that she was given the tools necessary to give back to others and provide those opportunities within her home country.

Deneke received a scholarship to enroll as an undergraduate at the University of Notre Dame, but after leaving El Salvador she never lost touch with her roots.

“I would stay in touch with my high school teachers, and we would talk about fun science activities we could do with students,” she said.

The next step for Deneke was graduate school at Duke University. While there she met Bob Goldstein at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a professor known for his Do-It-Yourself microscope designs. These light microscopes can be made for as little as ten dollars apiece, and when she heard about this project, she figured it would be the perfect outreach activity to do with students back home. 

“[Goldstein] gave me a little starter package to do around 50 microscopes, and then we set up this workshop with a lot of teachers from across the country to be able to teach the teachers how to make these affordable microscopes,” she said.

Deneke hopes that by training teachers across El Salvador to bring these microscopes into their classrooms, she will be able to spark a spirit of discovery within young students. “A lot of times this initial curiosity for science can be as simple as just showing something really cool to students,” she said.

Deneke recognizes that discrepancies in education access extend well beyond primary schooling. Just as essential as sparking young students’ interest in science, is giving those students the tools to pursue a career in science later in life. Undergraduate research experience is often viewed as a prerequisite for graduate work, but opportunities to work in a lab in El Salvador can be extremely limited. When Deneke moved to Vienna to begin her postdoc at the Research Institute of Molecular Pathology, she took it upon herself to leverage the resources of IMP and her connections back in El Salvador to provide that experience.

During a meeting with her research advisor in January 2021, Deneke broached the idea of bringing an undergraduate student from El Salvador to Vienna over the summer to carry out a research project under her supervision. With a very quick turnaround time before the upcoming summer, she got to work securing funding from IMP, crafting an application for undergraduate students, leveraging her contacts in El Salvador to promote the program, interviewing applicants, all while navigating the logistics of coordinating international travel during a global pandemic.

Deneke knew from her previous experience that there would be unique challenges with mentoring a student from a developing country. She said, “When you’re trying to establish outreach activities, you have to put yourself in the applicant’s shoes and ask yourself, ‘What are the barriers that people are going to face?’”

Deneke understood that a typical summer research stipend would not be sufficient to cover the costs of traveling internationally or commuting to IMP daily, so she crowdsourced additional funds to support the trainee.

After a successful summer of research, Deneke plans to keep the Austria-El Salvador Research Fellowship running for the foreseeable future and potentially leverage IMP’s Vienna BioCenter Summer School program to reserve positions for students from developing countries.

“Being a scientist is not only about discovering something cool, or something fundamental," she said. "The scientists that I look up to are the people that are not only critical thinkers and are discovering the intricacies of the natural world but are also leaving their legacy by training the next generations of scientists.”

Deneke specifically sees professional societies like SDB and the meetings they host as an ideal platform for supporting young scientists. She said, by having candid conversations within the society about why we love academic research and how it can be changed, “we will be evolving and continually improving our academic spaces, making them more inclusive to diverse scientists and leading to better science for society.”

By the end of our interview, it was clear that Deneke has dedicated an enormous amount of time, energy and care towards science communication focused on her home country of El Salvador. However, she still feels like there is a lot she can learn. As we wrapped up near the end of the workday in Vienna, she dropped a hint as to how she would be spending the rest of her day.

“In half an hour, I’m taking part in a workshop to become a better mentor,” she said.

Last Updated 11/18/2022