University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill alumna Maria Pia Rodriguez Salazar is the recipient of the Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans.
Each year the Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans grant up to $90,000 to 30 people for tuition, fees, and stipend support over two years of graduate study in any field and in any advanced degree-granting program in the U.S. for immigrants and children of immigrants. Awardees gain membership in an active community of current and past fellows that includes U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy. This merit-based competition seeks applicants with demonstrated creativity, originality, initiative and sustained accomplishment.
Born in Bolivia to Peruvian parents, Pia was 10 years old when she immigrated to the United States, where unforeseen events rendered her undocumented. Pia quickly learned that many undocumented students in the U.S. dropout of high school and only a small percentage pursue higher education due to overwhelming financial and professional barriers. Refusing to accept the statistics she faced, Pia excelled in high school and was awarded the Thomas Hickerson Scholarship, which fully funded her bachelor’s degree in biology at Carolina.
During her time at Carolina, Pia became a leader in undocumented student advocacy and policy reform as co-chair of Students United for Immigrant Equality. She organized several grassroots efforts, such as “Undocumented and Unafraid” rallies, and hosted accomplished undocumented immigrants, such as Pulitzer Prize winner Jose Antonio Vargas, to share their stories with students. Pia collaborated with local immigrant youth groups to advocate for tuition equality for undocumented students and has remained committed to mentoring minority students in and out of the university setting.
“My time at UNC was fundamental in nurturing my growth as a new American,” Pia said. “It was there where I first found a community of fellow undocumented students and allies that inspired and emboldened me to believe in myself both as a person and as a budding scientist.”
After graduating from UNC-Chapel Hill, Pia joined the Regenerative Medicine Lab at United Therapeutics after receiving DACA, which finally allowed her to pursue a career as a scientist. She was one of the lead researchers to help develop a stem-cell-based therapy currently in phase one clinical trials to treat chronic lung disease, and co-first authored a publication with the findings in “AJP-Lung.” Currently, Pia is a Department of Cell Biology doctoral candidate in the laboratory of Cagla Eroglu at Duke University, where she is investigating the roles of astrocyte mitochondria in regulating proper brain development.
Pia hopes to understand how mitochondrial defects contribute to the pathology of neurodevelopmental disease while connecting academia and the pharmaceutical industry to more efficiently drive collaborative therapy development.
“At a time when all forms of immigration are under attack, it’s more important than ever to be celebrating the achievements and contributions of immigrants and refugees from across the world,” said Craig Harwood, who directs the fellowship program. “Our country and universities are enriched by the ingenuity that comes from abroad. When we honor and invest in new Americans, our nation is stronger — the Paul and Daisy Soros Fellows are a perfect demonstration of that.”