When Laura Puentes was in high school, this smart daughter of working-class immigrant parents set her sights on a college major that would help her find a good-paying secure job.
So she decided to major in computer science.
As a freshman at Rollins College in Winter Park, Laura liked most of her classes – except computer science. “Once I was in the major, I realized I was trying to take everything but computer science courses. That was an indicator that it wasn’t what I wanted to do,” she said.
It was time, she thought, to take a step back and figure out what she wanted to do. So Laura visited Valencia’s nearby Winter Park campus, took a tour and spoke to the staff there about transferring from Rollins to Valencia.
At Valencia, she dabbled – and loved a film class. Looking for advice, she turned to her parents. “My mom said, ‘You always excelled in the sciences; you even read science books as a kid.’ And even though I did love film, I started looking at science majors at UCF before I finished my AA. I found this field of biotechnology — and I was interested in the prospect of doing biomedical research.”
With the AP classes she’d taken at Mt. Dora High School and dual-enrollment classes she also took in high school, Laura needed only one semester at Valencia to graduate with her A.A.
But even after transferring to the University of Central Florida, Laura returned to Valencia regularly – and took most of her required math classes, as well as physics, biology and chemistry classes, as a transient student. The reason? “At Rollins, I was so used to smaller classes, and I felt that I received the same kind of feeling at Valencia,” says Laura. “When I moved to UCF, I experienced an adjustment, trying to get used to the bigger classes.”
The small classes at Valencia and Rollins were comfortable for Laura, whose family moved to the United States from Colombia when she was eight years old. Her dad, an auto mechanic, eventually opened his own paint and body shop in Mt. Dora – the small, quaint town that Puentes now calls her hometown.
And even though her parents never went to college, they urged Laura to go.
“Honestly, it’s one of those things I never thought about; I knew I wanted to go to college,” she says. “I’ve always been academically driven. I never had to be told to do my homework. And my parents, even though they didn’t go to college, they knew the importance of going to college.”
One of the reasons Laura attended Rollins, then Valencia and UCF, was to stay close to her family. But at UCF, she began to spread her wings.
Eager to try her hand at research, Laura attended UCF’s Summer Research Academy and learned about the chance to become a McNair Scholar. Through the McNair program, she applied for summer research opportunities, many of them held at prestigious Ivy League colleges.
After her junior year at UCF, she was selected to participate in the Leadership Alliance internship at Brown University. There, she focused on cardiovascular research, working with live animals and conducting typical biomedical experiments.
When she returned to UCF, she began working in a lab focusing on Alzheimer’s disease, under the tutelage of Dr. Suren Tatulian. That research, done in a biophysics lab, was completely different from her previous experience and exposed her to another field.
As a result of her academic achievements, Laura was selected for the National Science Foundation’s Young Entrepreneur and Scholar program at UCF, which provided her with funding to conduct research. And, with only one summer semester to go before graduation, Laura has received another opportunity – she was one of only 10 students selected for a Frost Scholarship – a program that allows Florida students to enter one-year master’s programs at the University of Oxford in England.
After she completes that program, she’ll enter the University of Pennsylvania to earn a doctorate in pharmacology. She wants to work in the field of “targeted drug delivery” – in which scientists can use a delivery vehicle – such as nanoparticles – to send drugs directly to a tumor, without affecting healthy organs or tissue. “To me , that’s a very, very interesting concept,” Laura says.
Her advice for other students?
“Even though I had a plan, I did not have aspirations as big as this,” says Laura, now 23. “I remember thinking, ‘I’m not good enough; how can I think that big, knowing my background?’ But I was able to overcome this when I was at Brown. I applied to Brown, thinking, ‘I don’t know why I’m applying, I’m not going to get in.’ Once I got in, it changed the way I felt about myself.”