BUILDing Future Researchers

Spotlight on UTEP BUILDing SCHOLARS alum Rebekah Hightower, Class of 2022

By Melissa Simon

Watch Rebekah Hightower's interview on YouTube (click above).

Hightower's is the second in our "BUILDing Future Researchers" series highlighting BUILD scholars who graduated in the Class of 2022.

A microscope was all it took to make Rebekah Hightower’s career path clear to her—she was going to be a scientist. 

“When I was 8 years old I got my first microscope and . . . I'd run around everywhere trying to collect anything I could get my hands on to look at,” said Hightower, who recently graduated from the University of Texas at El Paso with a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences. 

Her innate curiosity to explore and her desire to to help people continued throughout her youth, and she even told her seventh grade science teacher that she was going to change the world. 

Rebekah Hightower stands in front of her research poster with her mentor Anahis Tena-Martinetti

Growing up in El Paso, Texas, Hightower experienced a rich blend of the Mexican and American cultures, whether it was the wide array of food, the close-knit community she called home or the recreation center down the street from her grandmother’s home that she and her brother often visited. 

But she also saw the health disparities that plagued her grandmother’s home country when making trips to the Anapra neighborhood in Juarez, Mexico, which is one of the poorest regions near the Mexican-U.S. border, to hand out food and clothes to the people living there.

“I learned very early on that there were people that really needed help [and] there were cultural disparities in the healthcare field. That’s something I would like to target [in my research],” she said. 

While at UTEP, Hightower participated in the BUILDing SCHOLARS research training program, where she gained valuable experience preparing for a research career. Hightower began her master’s in clinical nutrition at UT Southwestern this fall and plans to pursue a PhD in neuroscience, with a focus on how nutrition plays a role in the development of neurodegenerative diseases. 

Throughout her time in the BUILD program, Hightower said some major moments of growth for her occurred while she was working in the research lab of Charles Spencer, PhD, and was put in charge of part of the main project that focused on the bacteria Francisella tularensis.

She also participated in UTEP’s summer research program, where she virtually attended Baylor College of Medicine due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Since graduating, Hightower has completed her thesis titled, “Characterized Brain Dysfunction Resulting from Francisella Tularensis Infection,” with Spencer, her research mentor and a Principal Investigator at UTEP. Her specific focus was observing the presence of F. tularensis in the brains of mice to see if there were any impacts of structure, behavior or memory.

“[Before] I started in the lab, I wasn’t as confident as I am now,” Hightower said.

The UTEP alumna credits this confidence boost to her mentors: Spencer, the associate chair of UTEP’s biological sciences department; Anahis Tena-Martinetti, a doctoral student at UTEP; and Michelle Sanchez, a lab tech who also worked in Spencer’s lab.

Their guidance also encouraged Hightower to become a mentor to younger students who joined the lab—a role she never imagined taking on.

“When it actually happened, I was very excited to . . . train them,” she said. “It’s like . . . passing the torch down.”

Rebekah and her mentor Charles Spencer, PhD pose together for a photo at graduation. Rebekah is holding flowers.

While she enjoyed mentoring the next generation, Hightower said believing she belonged in the scientific community wasn’t always easy for her because others seemed like they knew so much more than her. 

But over time, Hightower said she came to realize that one doesn’t have to know everything because you end up learning as you go, whether it’s reading through research articles, doing hands-on experiments in the lab or even just talking to other scientists. 

And she said making mistakes along the way actually helped her settle into her identity as a scientist and recognize that those mistakes are learning moments. 

“You know, you get better and [then you] feel like, ‘Yes, I belong here . . . what I’m doing matters and I actually feel like a scientist,” she said.

Looking back on her time at UTEP, Hightower said that it was the BUILD program that really opened the doors for her to go into research and she has made lasting connections with mentors and fellow student researchers because of it.

“We felt like a little family all going through it together. It was a great experience,” she said.

Asked what advice she would give to up-and-coming scientists or students interested in research, Hightower said the most important thing is to keep your options open.

“[To] any future researchers . . . keep curious. Look for opportunities everywhere because there’s a lot of different things you can do, even in high school,” she said. 

And if something seems difficult or just out of reach, stay optimistic and keep trying. 

“Don’t let yourself be intimidated by failure,” Hightower said.

Rebekah Hightower celebrating in her graduation cap and gown holding up her diploma. She is standing in front of a UTEP banner.

Note: Rebekah Hightower’s story is the second in a series called “BUILDing Future Researchers: 2022 Graduates Share Their Stories,” about recent BUILD graduates. Read all the stories in this series here in the DPC Newsletter Volume 7, Issue 3.

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The Diversity Program Consortium Coordination and Evaluation Center at UCLA is supported by Office of the Director of the National Institutes of Health / National Institutes of General Medical Sciences under award number U54GM119024.

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