Meet the Women of Cincy Team: Yashira M. Afanador
I first met Yashira at the Women’s March, when I was a young, nervous intern dealing with the stress of interrupting random people chanting in our city streets. Yashira was the experienced photographer to balance out my sketchy interviewing skills, and together, we bonded over our first Women’s March experience and contemplated which people to interview. Now, as I walk across the University of Cincinnati’s campus to meet Yashira for a second time, I wonder what else we’ll bond over.
Over the next hour and a half, we bond over Yashira’s favorite Grey’s Anatomy character (Christina Yang), her love for cats (especially her own two), diving into our ancestral histories, and our shared goal to overcome the fear of not being “good enough.”
What's the greatest quality you look for in your friends?
What's your most shining characteristic?
I think I am funny. [Laughs.]
What's your favorite food?
Oh my god, my favorite food... my favorite food would be pasta.
Your biggest fear?
My biggest fear would be...for people to see me as a failure.
Scientist. I'm a scientist so that's my favorite occupation.
So what do you do as a scientist?
I am a geneticist, so I have a master’s degree in biology and human genetics. I study diseases from a genetic standpoint. So I study the genome and try to figure out what in the genome makes people sick, basically. Especially with what are called complex diseases, which are diseases like asthma, kidney disease, allergies in general, cancer. All these diseases are complex because there's not one thing that causes them. So, what I do, or what I would like to work on more, is figuring out what in your genes is causing the disease and how we will eventually be able to repair it or just have the knowledge that it's there and can prevent some other things.
Dang, that's amazing.
Yeah, so that's basically what I do. And I also work with ancestry, which is another thing that I did in my master’s. I loved everything that had to do with history, and how populations came together, and how you can just look at your genes and know, “Oh yeah, this person came from Africa, or from Europe, or specifically from this village in France.” All of these things are written in your genomes and in your DNA, and for me to be able to study them and understand them, it's always amazing.
So with that, how did you end up getting into molecular biology? Was it a lifelong dream, or did you stumble upon it?
So, this is funny. When I was in high school, I knew that I wanted to study biology, and before that I was either into biology or computers. And I always said that I wanted to be a marine biologist because I loved marine animals even though I'm super scared of the sea and the ocean in general. Like, I can't get into the water. So when I realized that I can't get into the water, I was like, “Hmm, maybe I should [change] careers or my dream.” So when I was in high school – I remember I was in 10th grade – and we were taking biology. And biology in high school is very general, they teach you ecology, and physiology, and all of these things. And there were two classes that were about genetics, and when I saw what genetics was, I was like, “Wait, this is amazing, like this is super interesting.” And when I went to college, I always tried to get into the genetics classes, or the molecular biology classes, things that I knew I [needed] to be able to eventually become a geneticist, or a microbiologist, or a professor in genetics.
What brought you to Cincinnati?
That's a funny story. Actually, when I was about to finish my master’s degree, I had been doing it for a long time. For longer than it's usually permitted because I had gotten involved with a lot of projects because I love what I do. So every time my boss would come to the lab and say, “Oh, I have a new project, can you work on it?” I'd be like – “Yeah, sure thing! Let's investigate the parrots! Let's investigate the solenodon!” – which is like this animal that only exists in Cuba and the Dominican Republic, so "of course, let's go, let's do it!"
I want to stay, and I want to give, and I want to push myself.
The years passed, and I was already five years into my master’s, and I was like, "I have to stop. I can't keep working here anymore because it's been five years and I have to leave." So while I was writing my thesis (finally), I started looking for a new job, and I started looking for jobs in the U.S. and in Puerto Rico. But coincidentally, I went to a [web] page and there was this job posting from a professor here at the University of Cincinnati in anthropology. And to be honest, I didn't even know what anthropology was, I feel ashamed. But I was like, "Hmmm, anthropology, that's interesting." They study cultures, and they study history, populations, so I should have known. [Laughs.] I just didn't know the word.
Anyway, she was looking for someone who had a background in genetics, who had a background in ancestry (in terms of genetics), and who also would speak Spanish – that would have been a plus. So I was like, "I think that I comply with all these things." I sent my resume and I sent her an email saying, "Hi, I'm interested in working with you, I think I qualify for your job, here's my things." She wrote me back like two hours after, "Yes, I think you're a great candidate, I want to interview you." So that's how I got here.
Within genetics, is there any specific issue that's controversial that you're passionate about?
I think the one thing that stands out more for me is the concept of race and how people see themselves as being different from one another. I can't understand how you look at a person and they physically look different from you but in reality, I probably share more of genetic makeup with you than I do even with my brother. We share so much of our genetic makeup that it's ridiculous. But there are these small things that makes us unique.
When people usually do clinical trials, they do not take too much into consideration – the fact that people from different populations will react different to medicines. This is why a lot of medicines work on a 60 percent, a 40 percent [scale], because the genetic makeup of other people is not necessarily the same as the people they did the study on. And so, maybe, that medicine is not going to work on them. I'm now changing my career a little bit to work with asthma, which is what I do at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. My boss is actually working with admixed relations, which actually means people like me who come from different backgrounds (Hispanics, African Americans) – and we are trying to see what makes people – if there is a difference in terms of the prevalence, and there is a difference in the prevalence – but what makes that prevalence different in terms of the genetic makeup of the people. And if there is a way that we can find specific genes for specific populations and that way, we can have more targeted medicine for them. These are things that people are very afraid to discuss in the scientific community because it comes to the debate of race and the debate of what makes us different versus what makes us the same, right?
So when you joined Women of Cincy, what was that like? What were you expecting, and was it what you expected?
Well to be honest, it was right in my comfort zone, and maybe it was something I wanted to deviate from, being in my comfort zone. I would get a message from Kiersten saying like, "Oh we have this interview, can you do it?" and then the only thing that was out of my comfort zone was actually getting to the place, and meeting the person I was going to be working with, and then, you know, starting to take pictures. At the beginning, I was very scared about everything. My first interview was actually with Kiersten and that helped me so much because it was in the Play Library – amazing place, I feel like all my interviews have been in amazing places – and so she made me feel very comfortable. After that I was like, "Okay, so I can do this."
But I am very shy, and it comes off as if I'm not interested in things, but the reality is that I am afraid to go to things. I'm sure that this community will be everything I would have expected of it if I put the effort into going to places and if I don't feel like, "Oh, maybe I'm not part of this." And that's my line. But I want to stay, and I want to give, and I want to push myself into joining other teams, like the events team or the other activities that they have, because they're all awesome. It is what I was hoping for; I am not there yet. I think to myself, "Maybe there's someone better for doing this." Like every time they ask for someone to help do something, I'm like, "I could help, but I don't know if I'm going to be the perfect person that they need." And I think it's that fear of not being good enough at something that just like restrains me from actually saying, "Oh yeah, I'll go, I'll do it." So I'm trying to work on that, actually.
So do you think that's something that a lot of women have?
This is very interesting because not long ago, I was sitting at my house or somewhere, and I was listening to NPR because I'm an old person and I listen to NPR [laughs]. So I was listening to this podcast, and they were interviewing this lady. She was actually talking about how girls are raised to be perfect, and boys are raised to make mistakes. So, I am 32, and I never in my life thought about this being a thing. I thought that every time I thought, "Oh I'm scared about doing this," or "I'm not good enough," I thought I was the only person that was going through that. It turns out that's how we were raised. She was talking about how women would not apply to a job unless they fit all the criteria, and men, if they see that they qualify for like 60 percent, they'll go for it. And we are not – we have to be this perfect thing.
I feel like as a woman, I have to explain myself all the time, and I think that should not be.
This is why there are so few women in STEM science: because we were not encouraged to make mistakes, we were encouraged to be perfect as children. This was not something that was done on purpose, this was just what society makes of us. Especially because we have to fight all the time – I feel like as a woman, I have to explain myself all the time, and I think that should not be. I should not have to explain myself all the time about the decisions that I make or why I'm doing one thing this way instead of doing it this other way, when men don't have to do that.
So I think it's something that comes embedded on us, and after I heard that podcast, I don't want to say, "Oh, I'm this person, I hear something and I'm going to change right away," but after I heard it, I am more conscious about the things that I do, especially in my new job now.
I started a new job, and I'm doing a task that's not 100 percent what I was trained on, so it's taking me a very long time to get the rest of it and have the complete, finished product. At the beginning, I was having a lot of trouble with my boss because we would meet and I wouldn't have anything. And it was because I would write things and I would say, "This is not good, I'm not gonna show him this." And I would rather go to him without anything than show him something that I think is not perfect. Listening to that podcast and the TED Talk afterwards opened my eyes to the fact that I can make a mistake, that I can go to my boss and say, "This is what I have, what can I change?" So I'm trying to be more open about it. And I think the same thing with everything, you know? This fear, I think all of us women have it, and we should all be more conscious about this and try to change it little by little. I mean, it's something that takes time and work, but I'm trying to deal with my fears, and this is why I want to be more involved with Women of Cincy, because it's dealing with the same fear of like, "Maybe I might not be the perfect person for the task, but I can help." And I think just helping is enough, even if it's just something little.
Going off of that, you were talking about being a woman in STEM. Have you noticed discrepancies between your male counterparts and the female?
Yeah, I mean, ever since I started in STEM, I've always felt, like, when you have a male boss – and I did not notice this until I had a female boss – they treat you like you are a child. Like you are this thing that you have to treat with caution because, you know, I'm going to burst out crying at some point. And that's how I feel.
Maybe up to one point, I was probably using that as a defense mechanism, like, "Yeah, I know he can't be too mean to me because you know, I'm a woman, he can't." But at the same time, I did notice that when I was in Puerto Rico, my old boss – which, he is amazing, he taught me so many things and it was the greatest learning experience that I've had – but he would treat my male counterparts different than us. I would get more hands-on benchwork that's very repetitive and organized. My male counterparts would have the more analytical jobs on the computer and they were thinking about ideas or writing. I didn't have that. And I noticed that to be true with a lot of other women peers that I have. They would also say like, "Oh yeah, this guy is doing all the computer analytical stuff and I'm just doing the experiments." That was one thing that I always noticed.
When I came here, I was the only employee for my boss, but she was all in, giving me everything. She was like, "I need you to run this experiment and analyze this data and then write it down and show it to me." So these things, she knew I could do them because she's a woman too. But right now, I don't feel like that. I feel like my boss [at Cincinnati Children’s] is treating me exactly how he treats all the guys. [Laughs.] Maybe this is why I'm struggling a little bit with it, because he knows what he wants and is just like, "You're not doing your job." [Laughs.] I'm like, "Okay, yeah, I know, I'm not gonna cry."
I don't know, maybe when you're inside it, you can see it better, but from the outside, people don't really realize that I feel like I have to work double as hard as my male peers to demonstrate that I am good enough. And it's funny because sometimes I judge other women in STEM who have really strong characters. And I judge them and then I sit back and think, "I mean, I wonder what she has been through to have this really strong character to be able to shine in this type of environment." So I stopped judging other women, and I embrace them now and encourage them because it's always going to be hard regardless of what we try and work on. We’re always going to be seen as the weak gender, even though we are not. People are always going to think, "Yeah, well, she's just a woman."
Well, you took the dive into photography with Women of Cincy, so was that something that you knew about before?
I've always seen photography as a hobby, and when I realized I was was good at it – which is stupid; how do you realize that? But anyways, I don't even know how I got into photography. I know it was very early on, when I was probably 13 years old. I remember my mom bought me my first camera, which had like five megapixels, and it was like, "OMG, this is amazing,” ‘cause it was my first digital one. It would make this noise like, "Beep! Beep! Beep!" when it took the picture and I was very embarrassed but at the same time, I was excited.
So, I started taking pictures and I realized that I could take good pictures. But, who can't? Everyone can take good pictures. But I felt a passion for it, and when I was in college I actually did it in a professional way in Puerto Rico; I would go to weddings or do baby bellies, or do family photo shoots. I did that for awhile, but when I was doing my master’s, it just got harder. And when I came to Cincy, my camera was just collecting dust at my apartment, and I wouldn't use it for anything. And I was actually thinking about selling it, until I got the post for Women of Cincy and I was like, "Okay, so this is my chance to get back in the game." Because photography for me is really relaxing, just fixing a picture, looking at it, making it better, it gives me serenity or something [laughs].
For photography, what was your favorite thing to take pictures of?
I think people. I like fashion, but not in a conventional way. And I never really had the chance, but I wanted to incorporate fashion into landscapes, and there were always these amazing places in Puerto Rico that were abandoned buildings and they looked very dull and you know, like an abandoned building, and I always wanted to have people with really bright colors just standing there, posing or whatever. They would just stand in those places and then they would have these amazing things on. I never got to do that. I like photographing people, but I like candid pictures, so not posed or anything. This is why most of the pictures you see of me (Women of Cincy), they're all either doing something or talking or if they're posing, I'm like can you look somewhere or laugh, you know, so that it looks like it's more natural.
When you look back, like at all the other things that have happened to you before, you're here. So things are always going to get better.
I also like nudes, but that's another story [laughs]. That's not, like, PG – and I never got to pursue it either. But I used to do a lot of self-portraits as I was starting, and I always loved the human body. Maybe someday. I've always been interested by the woman's body specifically, and I've always wanted to do like these really exquisite nudes of people that don't look sexual or anything, it's just the figure of what the body [looks like]. So I always use myself as a subject. Obviously, I don't do that anymore.
I am so happy that I am back in the game. I wish I could do more interviews. Every time I go to an interview of Women of Cincy, I'm always amazed by all these things that women do, I'm like, "I'm never going to reach the amount the helpfulness they have." How much they help their community, I'm never going to reach that. But it's always cool to be a part of the life of that person for like half an hour.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
[Laughs] I don't know., I see myself with an actual career in science – not that I don't have a career right now – but in five years, I wish to have something more defined careerwise. And hopefully, I'll have a partner, a boyfriend, or a husband. I'm single, so it's like, "In five years, I might want to have someone in my life besides myself and my cats.” But yeah, I want to say that I see myself doing more of what I love, and that reflecting into helping other people.
That's a good goal to have: doing more of what you love. I feel like people don't say that enough.
No, no, and they should. I mean, I see all my friends or people in general struggle with things, and I think that we should just sit back and relax, you know. Things always work out. If they didn't work out, then we wouldn't be here. That's always what I say when you go through a heartbreak, when someone fires you from your job, or you think it's the end of the world. When you look back, like at all the other things that have happened to you before, you're here. So things are always going to get better. You might always have a little bit of trauma, but you will survive. And that's how I see life. So yeah, hopefully in five years, I'm going to be doing more of what I love, because life is going to continue, and might as well continue doing something that you really like.
Tell us about a woman who influences you.
Well, the obvious answer is my mom. She has done so many things for us, for her children. I feel like she didn't live her dreams because of us, and I think that's something that's a really huge sacrifice that I don't know I would be able to do myself. But I've never had children, so I don't know. But besides her, my previous boss, Heather Norton. She's actually been very formative, and I know this may sound a little bit dumb, because I've known her for like three years, but when I met her, I was like, oh my god, there is actually someone I would like to resemble, somebody who made me realize, "Huh, I know I can do this because she's just like this normal woman doing amazing things, and I can be like this normal woman doing amazing things too."
When you were moving to Cincinnati, did you expect to like it?
No. Because I've lived in the states before. I lived in Virginia for a year, I went to Virginia Tech for a post-bac program, and I hated it. I hated it with all my heart. I was depressed. That was one of the times I got my heart broken too, so maybe that might have had something to do with it [laughs]. But it was cold, it was dull, it rained all the time – I felt like it was raining all the time – I don't know if it was my mind, but I had such a bad experience living there.
When I applied for the job here in Cincinnati, I did know people, and that was good, and I had someone I was going to live with who was from Puerto Rico who was an acquaintance and now he's like my best friend. I mean, I knew I was going to come live with someone, and I was not going to be alone as I was in Virginia. But I never expected to like it as much as I did, especially because I had an uncle who used to live in Ohio, but he lived in Ashtabula. Ashtabula is like the north part of Ohio, almost reaching Canada. I don't know, it's like super cold and awful. And that was the image I had of Ohio, that it was this awful place that no one wants to live in. When I came here, I was like, "Oh my god."
This is going to sound stupid, but this is like Chicago and New York, but fun-size. And people here are so nice. I was so mad, I would call my friends and be like, "People here are too nice, I can't deal with this." I'm used to people not being nice and it's scary, it's very scary. But I never thought I was going to like it as much as I do; like I really see myself living here. If someone tells me, "You're going to have to live in Cincinnati the rest of your life," I'll be like, "Oh, well, it is what it is." I wish my family were here, but they can come visit.