Bulldog of the Month: María José Gómez Quijano

Photo courtesy María José Gómez Quijano

Photo courtesy María José Gómez Quijano

María José Gómez Quijano fell in love with biology after watching her parents in their field. They are both veterinarians in Colombia.

Maria is an international graduate student from Colombia studying integrative biosciences. She completed her Bachelor of Science and Art with a double major in cellular molecular biology and communication.

“I moved [to Duluth] when I was 16 and started college the day I turned 17, pretty much,” Maria said.

According to Maria, Colombia and the United States are not that different.

“For me, it wasn’t that big of a shock,” Maria said. “I was raised and grew up in kind of an American-ized way.”

The biggest shock was the weather and food, but culturally it was not “that different.”

Maria stated that she has some family that live in the area and when she visited them a year before moving here, she fell in love.

“It was my first time seeing snow,” Maria said. “It was this cool trip to this place I didn’t know. I didn’t actually tour UMD, I just fell in love with the city.”

Maria said people in Minnesota can be really friendly.

Photo courtesy María José Gómez Quijano

Photo courtesy María José Gómez Quijano

“I was really fortunate, and I know that everyone doesn’t have the same experience that I did, but I was very fortunate that when I got here people helped me become a member of the Duluth community,” Maria said. “That’s something that I really wanted.”

Knowing there were more opportunities at UMD, she decided to pursue her academic career in Duluth.

Maria drew inspiration to study cellular molecular biology from her parents, who are both veterinarians. Her father also teaches at a university in Colombia.

“He has his own lab,” Maria said. “I’ve always been in that realm and that world of science and I really liked it.”

In Colombia, Maria wanted to be a doctor and get into medical school, but she decided that she would rather do research. She came to Duluth with the intent to study biology and genetics.

“Once I got here and I started meeting people and getting involved on campus I started to become a part of different clubs and organizations, especially in the Multicultural Center. I was like you know what, I really like people and I really like meeting people and working for people,” Maria said. “I don’t see myself, the whole time, being in a lab, so I decided to try communications.”

The biology and communication side of her education has been “the best choice” of her life because of how well they go together.

As an undergraduate, Maria was involved in a national research project titled “The Clover Project.” According to Maria, it was a project between St. Louis, Michigan, Gainesville, Florida and Duluth, Minnesota.

“I started taking care and recording data of white clover,” Maria said. “White clover is a hydrogen cyanide producing plant and can adapt to the local environment.”

Photo courtesy María José Gómez Quijano

Photo courtesy María José Gómez Quijano

According to Maria, the idea of the project was to measure different traits and better understand the genetic basis of the white clover local adaptation in these three regions.

“Overall it was a great experience because it also made me more interested in research while having the opportunity to work with people and train my peers,” Maria said.

Her work through the project allowed her to complete an undergraduate research opportunity program (UROP). Maria also did her own undergraduate research on the white clover looking at the hydrogen cyanide production and the genetics of the plants in a steep environmental range here in Duluth.

“Briana Gross was my advisor and mentor for that project,” Maria said. “After I was done I got the chance to present it at the UROP showcase at UMD and at the International Botany Conference in Rochester, Minnesota the summer of 2018.”

Presenting undergraduate research at an international conference filled with graduate students, faculty, recognized scientists and botanists opened a lot of doors for her.

“It gave me an introduction to what it’s like to be a scientist,” Maria said.

Now in graduate school, Maria is working with Northern Red Oak through the State of Minnesota.

“We’re trying to see how climate change has affected coastal forests and why some red oak seeds, that are being  produced by the coast of Lake Superior, fail to grow in other areas of the state,” Maria said. “I am looking at the genetics of these trees and also looking how these seeds and acorns grow in a controlled environment.”

Maria is hopeful that this current project will help the state with the conservation of Red Oak and coastal forests.

Maria has been an active member in numerous clubs throughout her academic career cherishing titles like freshman representative for the Latinx Chicanx student association, president of the International Club and a tutor.

Photo courtesy María José Gómez Quijano

Photo courtesy María José Gómez Quijano

“I started getting more and more involved and became more than just a member of the clubs,” Maria said.

Maria worked and interned for the Multicultural Center where she met and welcomed all of UMD’s international students that would come from different parts of the world.

“I could be that first face they see when they come to UMD and it was a really cool experience,” Maria said.

Maria believes that international students, herself included, have a bit more privilege than students of color from the U.S.

“In a way we’re kind of like visitors,” Maria said. “We’re here for a couple of years then we leave, or stay. People see us different than they see people of color in the U.S. and I think that’s unfortunate.”

Maria believes Duluth and UMD are very welcoming, but they still have a lot to work on.

She said the UMD’s Multicultural Center has become a safe haven for people of color and diversity, yet even though it is extremely welcoming, it has become intimidating.

“The fact that its become ‘that space’ has made other people drift away from it,” Maria said. “Especially caucasians.”

Maria believes the space is a place for all to learn about their differences.

“I feel like if people stop being afraid of talking about culture, talking about race, talking about gender, and once people stop being scared of that, they will be able to interact better,” she said.

Maria stated that even with all our differences, we still have things in common.

In a previous version of this story Colombia was spelt incorrectly. The correction was made.

CultureZack Benz