UNC-CH alumnae Maria Pia Rodriguez Salazar is recipient of the Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill alumnae Maria Pia Rodriguez Salazar is recipient of the Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans

Each year The Paul & 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, Maria Pia Rodriguez Salazar immigrated to the United States when she was 10 years old, where unforeseen events rendered her undocumented. Pia quickly learned that many undocumented students in the US 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 the UNC-CH despite her undocumented status.

During her time at UNC, Pia became a leader in undocumented student advocacy and policy reform as cochair of Students United for Immigrant Equality (SUIE). She organized several grassroots efforts, such as “Undocumented and Unafraid” rallies, and hosted accomplished undocumented immigrants, like 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.

Pia says, “[Her] time at UNC was fundamental in nurturing [her] growth as a New American. It was there where [she] first found a community of fellow undocumented students and allies that inspired and emboldened [her] to believe in [herself] both as a person and as a buddying scientist.”

After graduating from UNC, 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 PhD candidate in the laboratory of Dr. 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 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 & Daisy Soros Fellows are a perfect demonstration of that.”