Yale People: Junior’s passion for science leads to seven patents — the first at age 12
When she was in eighth grade, Samantha Marquez ’18 got third place at a science fair because one of the judges thought she had plagiarized her project from her mother, a chemical engineer.
“[The judge] wrote something like ‘plagiarism is really bad and you shouldn’t do it’ on my evaluation,” Marquez said with a chuckle. The judge had seen “S.M. Marquez” listed as an author on a previous publication of the youngster’s research and assumed it referred to Marquez’ mother. “But I was just so happy to be competing that I didn’t really care what the judge said — I didn’t take it personally.”
Marquez didn’t give up on that eighth grade science fair project. Six years, seven patents (the first at age 12), countless victories at local, national, and international science fairs, dozens of mentors and laboratories, and half a Yale education later, Marquez has proven herself to be a savvy scientist, both in and out of the lab. Recently, the Huffington Post named her one of its “20 Under 20,” in which they honor students aged 20 or younger who have made strides in one of the STEAM fields: science, technology, engineering, arts, or mathematics.
Marquez’s eighth-grade project, today called a Cellodoisome®, is a “smart unit” composed of a core and living cells that encapsulate the core. The core is “basically a template for building cells on top,” Marquez explained, and can be made of a variety of substances, like gases, liquids, or gels. The cells that cover the core can come from a variety of sources, and they determine the function of that particular Cellodoisome®. A Cellodoisome® covered in a patient’s stem cells, for instance, could be used to deliver drugs to specific points in the body without triggering an attack from the patient’s immune system.
Marquez was inspired by David Weitz, a Harvard biophysicist who worked on a similar structure using nanoparticles, called a colloidosome.
“I was into nanoparticles at that point. So when my science teacher gave us the assignment to find a research article, write a summary, and create ideas for future research, I found Weitz’s article about the colloidosome,” Marquez said. “They were figuring out how to make it grow and shrink — basically make it ‘smarter’ — and I thought it’d be cool to try that with cells because then it’ll change and adapt on its own.”
Marquez’s dad, a chemist who had previously worked with Weitz, put her in touch.
“I asked him if it was possible to build this thing with cells, and he said he was not sure and why didn’t I try it myself,” she said.
Marquez started making the 20-minute journey from her house to Virginia Commonwealth University to explore her idea. From there, she made contacts at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, and Arizona State University in Phoenix, Arizona.
“It was a little weird at first,” she said of starting research at age 12. “One time, I walked into a lab and a grad student said, ‘Oh honey, are you lost?’ and pointed me toward the bathroom.”
During high school, Marquez spent most free weekends and vacations traveling to do research — planning and scheduling the week before to maximize her time in the labs.
“This was my extracurricular activity in high school,” she said. “A lot of weekends I wasn’t able to just chill or sleep in. But I never felt bad about it because it was my passion — this project was my baby.”
While she already knew more about chemistry than the average 12-year-old — both her parents received their master’s degrees and a Ph.D. from Yale in chemistry and chemical engineering — much of Marquez’s knowledge of science and research came from the day-to-day experience of working in a lab.
“I remember at one point I wanted the core to be 100% oxygen, and the professor said, ‘You’re going to kill all the cells if you do that, so let’s not,’” Marquez said. “It was always like that — I’d suggest things, and they’d let me know if it would work and suggest other things.”
During her freshman and junior year of high school, she won first place and best in category at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, the world’s largest pre-college scientific research event in the world. She also won first place during her sophomore year and has applied for and received patents for the Cellodoisome’s basic structure and a few of its specific iterations. While she loved competing and advancing her project, she said, her favorite part of the whole journey was the ability it gave her to give back.
Marquez, whose parents both hail from Venezuela, said she is acutely aware of the stigma Latina women face in the sciences. Since her parents instilled a passion for giving back in her and her sister from a young age, Marquez looked forward to doing the same for future women and people of color in science.
“Sometimes it felt like I couldn’t do it because of who I am, but anyone can — it’s about finding the resources and mentorship,” Marquez said. She has given speeches and worked with students through organizations like the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers. “I loved working with other students and telling them, ‘Hey, listen. I know it looks like there aren’t many people who represent you in science right now, which is why you need to do it.’”
Though she had many college options, she chose Yale after visiting the campus because “it felt like the students weren’t negatively competitive. It’s difficult but people still seem to find time to relax and have fun,” she said.
Since coming to Yale, Marquez has become interested in the field of neuroscience. She declared a psychology major on the neuroscience track and spent spring 2016 working in the lab of neuropsychology researcher Arielle Baskin-Sommers. She knows she wants to continue her education after college, though what form that will take is unclear, she said.
“I’m thinking of combining the neuroscience and psychology part with the law, which sounds weird, but I’m taking a class right now called ‘Law and Cognition’ and it’s been a really great learning experience,” she said.
For now, she is happy to plan her classes for next semester (“I really want to work in a lab again!”), work as a communication and consent educator (“I love doing the freshmen orientation workshops”), and dance with the undergraduate Latin dance group Sabrosura (“Try dancing bachata when you’re as clumsy as I am”), she said.