Yelixza Avila: From First-Gen to Postdoc

Yelixza Avila
Friday, May 17, 2024

Growing up in the small West Texas border town of Tornillo, Yelixza Avila viewed military service as her only way to experience life beyond her hometown.

But the first-generation college student persevered in pursuit of higher education, enrolling at nearby Sul Ross State, where she studied biology and chemistry.

“Ten weeks in the summer in West Texas collecting bugs was the best of times and the worst times,” Avila recalled about her research experience in entomology.

She was selected to attend a National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates at the University of North Texas where she discovered her passion, nano-chemistry.

“Nanotechnology is taking small chemical compounds and combining them to build a particle. Nanoparticles are smaller than the width of your hair. Imagine an ant inside of a football stadium — that’s the scale at which we’re working,” said Avila.

Avila (left) at the First-Gen student celebration.


Excited about nanoscale science, Avila googled the topic, finding UNC Charlotte’s NanoSURE program. She read about chemistry professor Kirill Afonin’s work with nucleic acids and nanoparticles. UNC Charlotte’s summer research program deadline had just closed, but Avila emailed Professor Tom Schmedeke, then chair of the program, and explained her desire to contribute to the science. He invited her to apply, and she was accepted and spent summer 2018 at UNC Charlotte before returning to Sul Ross State to complete her undergraduate studies.

At the conclusion of the summer program, Juan Vivero-Escoto, Charlotte professor of chemistry, encouraged Avila to consider graduate school.

Moving away from her family for more than just a summer would be difficult, but she said, “I realized incredible work was taking place at Charlotte, and I wanted to be a part of it. I flew back home to Texas, and I had to ask myself ‘Did that really happen? Was I really a scientist?’ It felt like a dream — the best kind of dream — it was so fun.” 

Pursuing a Ph.D.

Avila marveled not only at the notion of being the first in her family to attend college, but of becoming a doctor.

When she learned she had been accepted to Charlotte’s Ph.D. program, Avila knew she would have to sit down with her family to explain why she was making the move. Avila’s family understood her unbridled excitement and offered their loving support.

Avila wears protective gear and works in the lab.
Avila working in the Afonin lab.

Expecting to begin doctoral studies in fall 2019, Avila thought she would have months to relocate. Charlotte’s Afonin had other ideas; he invited her to join his lab for the summer, spending time learning from other Ph.D. candidates.

She accepted the offer and absorbed all she could to acclimate herself to this new world. In fall, she started her Ph.D. coursework and taught General Chemistry I and II classes, which Avila credits with strengthening her communication skills.

 “In Dr. Afonin’s lab, I worked with DNA and RNA to make nucleic acid nanoparticles, or NANPs. My main research goal was how do we get these NANPs into cells and observe what happens,” said Avila.

Her research became her dissertation proposal, and she was awarded a National Institute of Health predoctoral fellowship in spring 2022. It came at an opportune time, as Avila had another two years of the Ph.D. program and was juggling becoming a first-time mother.

“Getting a Ph.D. is hard, as is being away from family and having a baby during Covid. The only thing that kept me here was this funding. I know external validations shouldn’t count for everything, but a panel of scientists decided to fund me over the next two years,” said Avila. 

Avila thrived in Afonin’s lab and is grateful for the opportunity to teach and mentor the next generation of scientists. 

Obtaining a postdoctoral fellowship

In March 2024, Avila was selected as an iCURE scholar for a postdoctoral fellowship with the National Cancer Institute. iCURE is an extension of the NCI Center to Reduce Cancer Health Disparities highly competitive and successful extramural Continuing Umbrella of Research Experiences training program. CURE supports the career progression of scholars working toward research independence and fosters diversity in the biomedical research pipeline.

It also offers three-year awards for postdoctoral fellows and provides opportunities to work closely with world-class researchers at the National Cancer Institute. Awardees receive support from NCI program staff, access to resources on intramural and extramural funding opportunities, opportunities for professional and career development activities, and connections to an extensive mentoring network. Avila also will receive a stipend as a first-year iCURE postdoc scholar.

Afonin said, “This is a fantastic achievement for Yelixza and a testament to her dedication and capabilities.”

Yelixza Avila wears a shirt with an image of a 1941 pickup truck, under her graduation stole, hood and cord.
Avila wears the t-shirt with the pickup truck honoring her grandfather.

Graduation and the future

Avila’s grandfather died before she defended her Ph.D. dissertation. Her close-knit family was rocked by this event, and Avila went home to grieve and support her family. Avila’s mother made T-shirts in his honor with an image of his truck on the front.

“It’s a ’41 Chevy that he loved to drive us around town. I wanted to bring him along for the ride and honor him in one of the only ways I knew how. So, even though he won’t be in the graduation photos with me and the rest of my family, he’ll still be a part of the memories from this time,” said Avila. 

On Saturday May 11, Avila will be hooded in recognition of completing a Ph.D. in nanoscale science; her family will be in attendance.

She is interviewing with research labs that she will join for her postdoc fellowship, but she will carry her family in her heart as she moves to Bethesda, Maryland, with her partner, their son, and three dogs.  

“I want to make everything worth it. Every moment away is for them, for my family now,” said Avila. “I’ve been so fortunate, I look into the past, and I was surrounded by amazing mentors who believed in me, until I started to believe in myself.”  


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