'Why I was put on earth'

Cecilia Hinojosa shares her journey as a researcher

By Hansook Oh

September 12, 2023

Cecilia Hinojosa’s passion for psychology was sparked by an unlikely interest as a teen—a fascination with why people become serial killers. But it was her desire to learn more about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in veterans that ultimately led her to become a researcher. 

In the latest episodes of Enhance Science’s “Become A Researcher” series, Hinojosa, PhD, shares what shaped her as a scientist, how she persisted through feelings of self-doubt as a doctoral student and what she currently does as a postdoctoral researcher with the Grady Trauma Project.

A young Cecilia Hinojosa sitting on an inflatable Barbie chair.

Cecilia Hinojosa grew up near El Paso, Texas.

“It is exciting to see my story,” she said. “But it also places me in a very vulnerable spot that I am learning to embrace. As long as my story helps inspire one person, it is all worth it.”

Hinojosa grew up in a small town near El Paso, Texas, in a working-class family with four brothers. After graduating high school, she considered joining the military like her father, grandfather and cousin.

But her father didn’t want her to make the same sacrifices that he’d made and encouraged her to consider other ways to serve her country.

In Episode 4, “Serving My Country Through Science,” Hinojosa shares how her cousin came back as a different man after two tours in Afghanistan and wondered what caused his struggle. She decided she could best serve her country by pursuing her interest in psychology and studying PTSD to help veterans. 

Hinojosa attended the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP), where she gained psychology research experience through the BUILDing SCHOLARS undergraduate research training program, which is funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). 

“Without all of those experiences [in BUILDing SCHOLARS], I would not be the scientist I am today, I would not be a PhD,” Hinojosa said in Episode 5, “Freedom to Focus on Research.”

In Episode 6, “Overcoming Self-Doubt,” Hinojosa opened up about how she struggled feeling confident in her scientist identity during her third year of her doctoral program. 

“I think that's a huge thing that I really have a hard time dealing with, comparing myself to others, especially in science,” Hinojosa said. “But, you know, I should be happy with where I'm at and not compare myself to others. And so that was a really huge lesson I had to learn.”

Hinojosa now works as a postdoctoral researcher at the Grady Trauma Project, based at Grady Memorial Hospital and Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia. The project studies individuals who come to the hospital through the emergency department and have experienced traumatic events. 

As a researcher, she said she’s excited to work with a largely Black population because it’s a group that’s often overlooked in research.

For her role in the project, Hinojosa collects important data to determine who is most at risk to develop PTSD, as well as any resilience factors that could help.

Cecilia Hinojosa in front of the Psychology building at Tufts University. She is in her graduation cap and gown proudly holding a Tufts flag.

Hinojosa got her PhD in experimental psychology from Tufts University in 2021.

“When you have a dream and you see it come to fruition, it’s an amazing feeling,” Hinojosa said in “Why I Was Put on Earth,” the final episode of her story. “I am passionate about conducting PTSD research and that's why I was put on Earth — to do that.”

Hinojosa said the series was well-received by her colleagues at the Grady Trauma Project and the Diversity, Inclusion and Social Justice Committee in Emory School of Medicine’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.

A recent photo of Cecilia Hinojosa at UTEP by a large El Paso mural. She is wearing a “Mija yes you can” shirt.

Hinojosa spoke at UTEP about her past, present and future research endeavors.

In September 2023, Hinojosa received notice that her grant application for the NIH Maximizing Opportunities for Scientific and Academic Independent Careers (MOSAIC) Postdoctoral Career Transition Award to Promote Diversity was successfully funded.

In the near future, she hopes to become a tenure-track faculty member. 

Hinojosa hopes her story gives encouragement to those who have self-doubt on their journeys as scientists. 

“I hope what people take away from my story is that you can truly do anything you want in this life as long as you work hard and have determination,” she said. 

Watch all of Hinojosa’s episodes on Enhance Science’s YouTube channel.

What does it take to become a scientific researcher? The Diversity Program Consortium’s (DPC) Enhance Science project explores this question in a new video series called “Become A Researcher.” 

The series features five biomedical researchers who are at different stages of their careers, from starting graduate school to managing multiple grant-funded projects as accomplished senior faculty. Each of the five researchers are affiliated with the DPC, a network of institutions funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to implement training and mentoring interventions, and to enhance individuals' success in biomedical research careers.

Learn more about the Grady Trauma Project and UTEP BUILDing SCHOLARS, which is part of the NIH-funded Diversity Program Consortium.

Read the first story in our Become A Researcher series featuring Juan Castillo, PhD.

Story updated October 13, 2023.

Supported by the National Institutes of Health

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