Wife, Colleague, Mentor
For the couple, sharing their lives both in and out of the lab is second nature. “Our personal and professional lives are completely intertwined,” says Bryan, 67. “I’m more the lab person, the one who sees the data gets collected, the figures get made, the writing gets polished. Lydia is the people person, the organizer, the politician.”
“We don’t compete,” says Aguilar-Bryan. “I’m more trained as a physician, and he’s more trained as a basic researcher, so we complement each other.”
They even tackled childcare in tandem. When Joanna was born, they simply brought her to the lab. “I was breastfeeding, so I would come down [to Joe’s office] and feed her and then go back up [to the lab],” says Aguilar-Bryan.
While at Baylor, in addition to the demands of research and child rearing, Aguilar-Bryan took on teaching duties, mentoring many of her medical and graduate students.
“She was interested in seeing all students do well, but she was particularly interested in making sure that minority students succeeded,” notes Lynnette Burks, 33, a 2007 Baylor graduate with a doctorate in molecular and human genetics. “Talking to her is like talking to an older sister or a favorite aunt for whom you have a lot of respect. [She] reinforced for me that there must be a balance between career, personal life, health, family, and other interests. That proved to be extremely valuable advice.”
Celina Montemayor, currently pursuing her doctorate in molecular and cellular biology at Baylor, echoes that sentiment. “Dr. Aguilar is a brilliant scientist, an excellent friend,” says the 31-year-old native of Monterrey, Mexico. Montemayor credits Aguilar-Bryan for steering her toward a career in academic research. Montemayor and Aguilar-Bryan also extended a hand to other women in the field, launching a support group for Latina biological researchers in Houston a few years ago. “She was truly an inspiration for all of us,” says Montemayor.
At the Pacific Northwest Diabetes Research Institute, a nonprofit biomedical and clinical research center in Seattle, Lydia and Joe continue their groundbreaking work. Their current project involves studying how changes in the intrauterine environment caused by changes in the mother’s diet affect the baby's risk for developing diabetes later in life.
The focus, the couple says, is on prevention. “It’s a lot easier to take care of a woman during pregnancy than to try to put 10 million diabetics on a diet and to have them exercise when they haven’t moved a finger in the last 10 years,” Aguilar-Bryan explains.
So for now, neither Lydia nor Joe plans to retire. “As long as we have funding, we are going to work,” she says.
Their research has taken them around the world, and they trek down to Mexico at least twice a year. There, Aguilar-Bryan reconnects with her family and loads up on Latin American literature; she is especially fond of the work of women writers like Isabel Allende and Ángeles Mastretta.
Even if funding—a perpetual struggle to attract—does dry up, Aguilar-Bryan doesn’t envision slowing down any time soon. “There are a lot of other things that I can do just working with people,” she says. “I’m interested in so many things that, for me, finding something else to do wouldn’t be a problem.”
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