Women @ Energy: Deborah Keszenman Pereyra

In March 2013, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) launched a new series, "Women @ Energy," to highlight women who are improving the world through their careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) across the DOE complex. To date, seven Brookhaven scientists have been featured.

Deborah J. Keszenman Pereyra

Deborah J. Keszenman Pereyra

Deborah J. Keszenman Pereyra is a Biologist Associate at Brookhaven National Laboratory, working in the Biosciences Department, and a Beam Line Scientist of the NASA Space Radiation Laboratory. Deborah has worked at Brookhaven since 2005, when she started as a Postdoctoral Research Associate. She earned her PhD and Master of Science in Biophysics from the Universidad de la Republica in Uruguay-PEDECIBA, and her MD from the Universidad de la Republica's School of Medicine. Before joining Brookhaven National Laboratory, Deborah worked at the Universidad de la Republica School of Medicine as a Professor for 30 years, beginning there as an honorary lecturer. She also worked as an Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Sciences, a research member of the Project for Development of Basic Sciences PEDECIBA, Uruguay, and as a General Physician in Clinical Practice in Uruguay. She has been an invited speaker at events worldwide, and has numerous publications.

What inspired you to work in STEM?

My work in STEM was as the result of a dream come true of a girl. As a little kid, I used to play the role of the doctor all the time trying to relieve the pain and cure the wounds and scratches of every day's life of everybody that was close to me, from my teddy bear to my friends and family. I was the girl that was always carrying her First Aid Kit ready to be used if necessary. Also, my brother and I used to watch a TV show called Star Trek, dreaming to be members of a Starship crew one day. We used to go on "missions" to get samples of rocks and plants to be analyzed for the presence of unusual components with our Chemistry game. My favorite episodes were those when Dr. McCoy, the Chief Medical Officer of the Starship USS Enterprise had to use his cool devices that would promptly diagnose and cure the injured or sick without any bloody interventions, needles or major pains.

Fascinated by Natural Sciences and in particular by the medical field I went to Medical School in my home country Uruguay where I became Doctor in Medicine. Following my curiosity and desire of exploration of new areas, at an early stage of my medical studies I became interest in a branch of knowledge that applies the principles of physics and chemistry and the methods of mathematical analysis and modeling to understand how biological systems work. So I joined the Biophysics Department at the Medical School of the Universidad de la Republica in Uruguay and started to do research in the area of DNA damage and repair.

While working as a Medical Doctor and teaching Biophysics at the Medical School I finished my PhD studies in the area of Radiation Biology. After a few years I moved with my family to the United States where I have continued my scientific career at Brookhaven National Laboratory. At present my scientific activities comprise my research on the biological effects of ionizing radiation at the Biosciences Department and, as a Beam Line Scientist at the NASA Space Radiation Laboratory providing experimental support to other scientists from the United States and other countries.

What excites you about your work at the Energy Department?

One of things that excite me most about my work at the Energy Department is the possibility to have a multidisciplinary approach to my research interests in the field of Radiation Biology. The excellent science produced at Brookhaven National Laboratory and accessibility to innovative technology creates an optimal environment to develop research in complex areas of knowledge such as the biological effects of the different qualities of radiation present in space. The NASA Space Radiation Laboratory where I work as a Beam Line Scientist is one of the few labs in the world where cosmic space radiation can be simulated and biological studies can be performed. These studies may be applied to understand mechanisms both underlying their greater biological effectiveness as well as the short and long term risks of health effects such as carcinogenesis, degenerative diseases and premature aging.

In relation with this multidisciplinary environment, I am amazed at the opportunities to interact with senior as well as young scientists of the international scientific community. This opens the doors to collaborating with talented people and thus enlarging the possibilities of future research. Also, through different educational programs I have had the fantastic opportunity to teach undergraduate college students and high school students different topics related with my current research. They have been able to learn and gain experience hands-on in a real science lab through developing their own projects.

In addition to the scientific environment, the excellent team present at the work place motivates me to continue my investigations thinking that great discoveries are there to come and that I will be part of them.

How can our country engage more women, girls, and other underrepresented groups in STEM?

The most important to engage more women, and other underrepresented groups in STEM is to let them know that any person, no matter the gender, age or where she or he comes from, is interested and motivated to pursue a career in STEM, all what this person has to do is to study and work for it. It can be done.

The scientific career can coexist with a family. I am an example. I have both degrees MD and PhD and a beautiful family with two kids and a dog. I have been able to balance the demands of caring for my family with my studies and work through dedication and flexible work hours. There are plenty of examples like me in the scientific community.

Another important way of engagement in STEM is through science education. Efforts are currently being made in this matter in the United States and should increase in the future. The notion that the scientific method is applicable to everyday life, that the scientific reasoning and ideas can be achieved by any person with appropriate education and training and the inclusion of these concepts at early stages in children's education would most likely motivate more individuals to pursue a scientific career independently of gender, age or social background. In addition, the connection with mentors that may serve as models and guidance may strengthen the idea of a successful career in STEM.        

Do you have tips you'd recommend for someone looking to enter your field of work?

In general I would recommend, first of all, pursuing your interests and dreams. The most important in any field of research is to be motivated with the topic selected. Other important tips that I suggest to take into account are:

  • Networking – It is very important to get connected with other scientists in the field and to update your knowledge.
  • Collaborate – As of today advancement of science, no scientist is able to possess all the knowledge about a specific problem. Therefore, it is the best to collaborate with other scientific groups to enrich your work.
  • Team work – Complementing the above statement, a team working together to solve a problem is more productive.

When you have free time, what are your hobbies?

My main hobbies are: travel and cooking. Each time I travel I feel that I am exploring new frontiers. There are always new places and different people to discover at every corner of the planet. When I am cooking I feel that I am in the lab testing a new technique. I would try to follow the recipe in terms of ingredients and the technique but at the end I will try to innovate in order to get different flavors or textures. Of course, following my scientific education I would take notes of every change I have made to the original recipe and write the conclusions of the outcome. 

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