Pharmacy, Natural & Health Sciences

Science Career and Destiny

Paula Avila’s Passion for Research, Training and Mentoring

Paula Avila demonstrates lab skills for 2021 M.S. in PGx graduate,  Emily Miller.

Paula Avila knows firsthand the path through life, though not often straightforward, leads you to where you need to be.

When Avila first joined the Pharmaceutical Sciences Department in 2015, new doors opened in her career. As a laboratory technician specialist at Manchester Pharmacy, she found a rare opportunity to assist and contribute to faculty research.

“It’s exciting that for the first time in my career, I’m doing research,” said Avila. “Before coming to Manchester, my work was mainly in setting up undergraduate laboratories, but nothing that allowed me to collaborate with faculty like I do now.”

Working under the mentorship of Dennis Brown, Ph.D., an associate professor of pharmaceutical sciences, Avila has enjoyed contributing to several of his publications. She also helps train fourth-year pharmacy students in cell culture techniques, biological assays, and instrumentation during their laboratory rotations.

“In the lab, students experience what that side of pharmacy would look like if they should choose a career in research,” Avila said.

Before joining Manchester, Avila worked for more than 15 years in the chemistry department at Fort Wayne’s University of Saint Francis, where she also earned dual bachelor’s degrees in science.

Aside from her work in the lab, Avila has served many years as a community leader with the Hispanic Leadership Coalition of Northeast Indiana (HLCNI), where she helped Latino students figure out how to apply and pay for college. This year Avila completed a term serving as president of the coalition, whose mission is education and leadership development for area Latinx students.

She was drawn to the organization because she knows what it’s like to find yourself in a new country. At age 4, she and her younger sisters had to be left in the care of family while her parents immigrated from Aguascalientes, Mexico to northern Indiana. It was 2,000 miles and nearly as many days until her mother was able to bring Avila and her sisters to their new home near Fort Wayne.

The Immigration Reform and Control Act in 1986 opened a window for her parents to get residency and then identify U.S. citizenship, creating a pathway for Avila and her siblings to also gain citizenship. 

Determined that her children would be educated, Avila’s mother worked multiple jobs to help support their college expenses. The first to navigate college applications, Avila had to figure out student loans and and how to apply for college grants. All five Avila chilren earned college degrees.

“I worried about my accent and speaking English, so science was an easy path for me to take,” said Avila – noting that she almost failed chemistry once. “Then, I decided to major in it because I didn’t want to fail at something,” she added.

Her determination to succeed became apparent when she completed a double major in chemistry and biology at Saint Francis.

Among the HLCNI initiatives, Avila is proud of the “Beca HLCNI” program, which annually awards several $1,500 scholarships to first or second-generation Latinx high school seniors or returning college students from Northeast Indiana.

“There are many deserving students from our region pursuing higher education degrees at accredited colleges and universities in Indiana, including DACA or undocumented students,” Avila said.

She came to realize that a fine line separates her own experience from the immigrant youths she mentors. Under Avila’s leadership, HLCNI developed a presentation to help them through the steps of applying for citizenship, even as they live in fear of a parent’s deportation.

“I could connect with those students because I lived in a time where opportunities existed,” said Avila. “The children under DACA today were not as lucky.”

She also came to understand that it was her parents’ journey to become Americans, and that their dream became her destiny. So, to the youth she mentors, Avila says, “No es tu sueño sino tu destino – It’s not your dream, but your destiny.”

She also affirms, “Yes, I am supposed to be here to help others.”