NMSU biology professor helps students discover their potential


New Mexico State University biology professor Elba Serrano. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)
New Mexico State University biology professor Elba Serrano. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

After 22 years at New Mexico State University, Regents Professor Elba Serrano’s philosophy about student success remains rooted in the beliefs that have nurtured her own career.

“People emphasize a lot the need to encourage, but I think the lack of discouragement may be as important as encouragement,” said Serrano. “Then, the child can follow his or her own interests without being told ‘don’t go there.’”

The daughter of a U.S. Army sergeant, Serrano grew up on military bases all over the world, where her interest in science was allowed to blossom.

“I think when I look back on it, I was the beneficiary of Department of Defense schools,” she said. “These were positive environments for young students. I received a great education and was not discouraged from pursuing my interest in math and science.” 

Serrano, whose biomedical research focuses on neural regeneration, sensory disorders of hearing and balance and nanobiotechnology, was on sabbatical in spring 2014 as a visiting professor at the University of California, San Diego Center for Research in Biological Systems.

During two decades, Serrano’s values and work ethic have impacted the lives of thousands of NMSU students. She identifies with many who, like Serrano, were the first in their family to graduate from college. The NMSU biology professor has taught more than 2,500 students and mentored student research for more than 100 individuals in her lab. Moreover, she has reached out to hundreds more at the university as the principal investigator of programs such as the Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement (RISE) and BP-ENDURE Building Research Achievement in Neuroscience (BRAiN).

“We know there are great inequities in participation,” Serrano said. “So at NMSU, I’ve been very involved since I arrived with programs that broaden participation for students – women, minorities, for everyone. I think to really transform a culture, everyone needs to be part of it. I am excited to use this latest version of the RISE grant to institutionalize and bring many opportunities to all NMSU students.”

Marti Morales, a former student who is now an assistant professor of biology at Adrian College, met Serrano at a conference.

“I had heard about her from other colleagues. She was able to look into me and see there was potential and I had an opportunity to come in and work with her,” Morales said. “Not only did I get to participate in RISE, but also in her neurobiology lab. Without RISE and Dr. Serrano, I would not be where I am now.”

At a recent 20-year reunion of her lab that coincided with the retirement of Casilda Trujillo-Provencio, who managed Serrano’s lab for those years, about 30 former students came together. Serrano was gratified to hear about their accomplishments.

“My students are now faculty, physicians, veterinarians, they’re engineers, they have started businesses,” Serrano said. “I can’t take credit for it. I feel my job as a professor is to inform, to provide some structure, to show some potential paths, but they have to do the walking themselves and they’ve clearly done it very well.”

Serrano has modeled the kind of career many of her students hope to achieve. She has brought in more than $15 million in external research funding to the university, serves on national advisory boards and has received numerous honors and awards. A recipient of the NMSU Roush Award for Teaching Excellence, she was recently elected a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. 

“My advice is not ‘do this’ or ‘do that’; I don’t give that kind of advice. I ask the question you’re not thinking of, and when you answer that question you’ll know for yourself what to do,” she said. “Even decades later they still contact me for advice about a career decision or situation they are in. We’re forging lifelong relationships.”

Watch this video on YouTube at http://youtu.be/SjIY_UKDjgg.

For more information on this, and other NMSU stories, visit the NMSU News Center.

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