FabFem Interview: A career journey with advice for young women pursuing STEM

Maria ArtunduagaContributed by Maria Alexandra Artunduaga

Maria Alexandra Artunduaga is a multiple award-winning physician-scientist and inventor based in Mountain View, California. Maria has been a FabFem role model since 2016 and loves hosting field trips, providing job shadow opportunities, and inspiring young women to pursue STEM careers. We recently spoke to Maria to find out more about her fascinating journey to her current career and her advice for young women pursuing their own STEM careers.

Q1: Can you describe your job? What's your favorite part?
A1: I’m a physician-entrepreneur, I try to solve real painful problems in healthcare and medicine with innovation. I lead a team of scientists, engineers and designers at a StartUp called Respira Labs. We’re creating a technology to improve the lives of those living with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), which affects nearly 25 million Americans and costs patients $50 billion annually. My job involves customer discovery, developing prototypes, writing grant applications, patents and business plans, designing pre-clinical pilots and clinical experiments, and a lot of face-to-face meetings with experts and consultants in healthcare business. 
The favorite part of my job, without question, is customer discovery. Customer discovery is a methodology based on the scientific method that tests hypotheses about the problem you’re trying to solve and how you build a business case around it. You design qualitative experiments, go and talk to people in the ecosystem you’re targeting and come back with information. Similarly to qualitative research, you’re trying to understand the underlying reasons, opinions, and motivations. You take the data and derive insights to either validate or invalidate your initial hypothesis or modify them to find the truth.
Q2: Tell us about your STEM career path.
A2: I became interested in science at a very young age. It was 6th grade, when we started to learn about DNA in our biology class. The level of evolutionary bioengineering resulting in every living thing fascinated me. My parents are physicians, and my mother in particular, always encouraged me to find answers to my questions. By age 10, I had already devoured our home library, back then there was no Internet and we lived in a small city in rural Colombia, where I was born and raised. She will find ways to get me new books for me to ready and learn. I was pretty ahead of my class because she showed me there were no limits to a little girl’s appetite in understanding the world around her. Chemistry class was my second big discovery, by then, I had already decided to go into STEM, I was 15. 
My parents have been the cornerstones of my academic development. They were first generation college graduates and appreciate the importance of getting an education. They started from zero; building a medical practice in a city they had no ties or connections. My mother was the first female ENT surgeon to arrive, along with my father an anesthesiologist; they created the first high-complexity level medical hospital in my hometown. Their drive and passion to serving others, to push themselves to create an organization that would enhance clinical care in a region that needed it with urgency, was a great inspiration to my siblings and me. My sister also became a physician; she’s a practicing pediatric radiologist with two extra fellowships in Texas.
Q3: Tell us about your education and what you studied.
A3: I started medical school right after I finished high school, I was 16. I was fortunate to gain preferential admission thanks to my SAT scores; I was a presidential scholar. I studied at Pontificia Universidad Javeriana, in Bogotá, the capital of my home country. I chose that university because of their high academic standards and international recognition, along with their social commitment to helping the vulnerable populations. The most challenging part was trying to adjust to a big city at a very young age. I had never left home and was living there all by myself. I remember calling my parents every night telling them I wasn’t happy, wanting to quit and go back. Luckily they didn’t pay attention. It was around my fourth month in that I made new friends and moved in with a classmate. Studying together for exams was my favorite thing! I am very social, and enjoy being around people; working in teams is one of the things I truly enjoy.
Q4: What kind of volunteer or role model work have you done? Why is it important for young women to have role models?
A4: Besides my work, my main interests are women's empowerment, diversity and inclusion. Since 2014, I serve as a role model for Women of Color for the National Science Foundation, and serve as a mentor with the American Association of University Women, FabFems and the National Girls’ Collaborative Project where I do school visits and provide job shadowing with my startup. I also do international visits to Colombia where I teach junior and high school students how to engage in science and technology early in their lives.
I do it because I recognize the importance of having role models, research has shown the role models positively impact young women’s perceptions of STEM subjects, once your see it is possible it’s easier for them to imagine a future career in STEM. By having exposure to real-world examples girls can interact with, passion and interest will inherently follow. Besides my mother, I didn’t have many female role models in STEM when growing up, if it weren’t for that early exposure, I don’t think I’d have been capable to be get where I am now. I want more girls to have the opportunity I had, it was truly a life changer for me.
Q5: What has one of your greatest challenges been in work/education and how did you overcome it?
A5: Being an immigrant woman of color has being my greatest challenge ever since I arrive to the US. I’ve experienced a fair share of subtle and not-so-subtle aggressions; six years ago, I was ready to go back during the turmoil of my surgical residency training. Fortunately, I was able to overcome that difficult chapter of my life, that experience taught me how to developed tactics to overcome bias and just as importantly, to avoid feeling demoralized. If it weren’t for that difficult patch in my life, I wouldn’t become the inventor and entrepreneur that I am now, I know more about how to have grit and resilience. The hardest difficult things in life make you more powerful.
Q6: What advice do you have for young women who want to follow in your footsteps?
A6: Be fearless. Preconceived notions about what women should do for work should have no significance on aspirations. If you want to become a mother, and astronaut and a ballet dancer, work hard to make it happen. Ask questions; surround yourself with people who encourage your intellectual curiosity. Find a role model, a mentor and a sponsor. Women are capable of whatever we set your mind to, believe me, not even the sky is the limit!

To learn more about Maria Alexandra Artunduaga visit her FabFems profile.

FabFems logoFabFems are women from a broad range of professions in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). They are passionate, collaborative, and work to make the world a better place. Many girls have similar interests but aren't connected to adults who exemplify the STEM career pathway. This is where you come in. Create a FabFems profile to expand girls' career options, dispel stereotypes and spark their interests - just by being you. How you choose to be a role model is completely up to you. When creating your profile, you choose whether you want to just have an online profile and no contact, all the way to offering job shadowing opportunities. It's up to you!