Challenging Preconceptions

Growing up as the child of immigrants, Daniela Hercules Alfaro ’22 watched her parents work in low-wage jobs. They encouraged her to maximize her education, to take advantage of opportunities they didn’t have.

“I remember, in the fifth grade, I found out what college was, and from then on I wanted to pursue a college education,” said Daniela, who grew up in Burlington, North Carolina. “Education became the center of my life, because I knew college would help me and help my family.”

She also learned about the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s reputation for high academics paired with affordability. “I heard the term ‘first-generation student’ for the first time,” she said. “It clicked for me that Carolina was the place I wanted to be.”

Now as a first-year student and a Chancellor’s Science Scholar, Daniela has a support network on campus. CSS offers opportunities to participate in cutting-edge research, professional development, leadership training, mentorship and other programming. Students become members of a community committed not only to individual excellence, but also to challenging preconceptions of the scientist archetype and creating a more inclusive culture within the STEM academy.

This support was key for Daniela. “I knew it was important for me to have a community and a support system, because that’s when I perform my best,” she said.

Daniela felt the CSS community’s support during her cohort’s opening summer program.

“During that six weeks, we all got to know each other quickly,” she said. “We took the same classes, had the same homework and assignments, and lived together. I got to see how different people worked. We helped each other out, and we had so much support around us from peer mentors and from faculty.”

Although she has long been fascinated by science, how things work and the natural world, Daniela feels called to study medicine because her mother has diabetes. “My mother can barely afford the medicines that she has to have,” she said. “I want to learn more, and help others not have these barriers.”

Daniela is pursuing biology as her major and participating in a writing group focused on scientific journals. She also works in Prof. Rebecca Fry’s lab in the Gillings School of Global Public Health. Fry researches how environmental exposures to toxic substances are associated with human disease.

Daniela is beginning to explore what she’d like to do after college. “I love children, so I’ve considered working with neonatal medicine or pediatrics,” she said. “I also have that interest in public health and socioeconomic barriers, too. There’s so much that I’d like to do, and my interest is spread among so many areas.”

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