Omar A. Quintero-Carmona Named Winner of 2021 Prize for Excellence in Inclusivity

Omar A. Quintero-Carmona, associate professor of biology at the University of Richmond, has been named the recipient of the 2021 ASCB Prize for Excellence in Inclusivity. The prize is an annual award recognizing a scientist who has a strong track record in research or serves a critical role in fostering cell biology research and has demonstrated the importance of inclusion and diversity in science through mentoring, cultural change, outreach, or community service. It is made possible by a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Quintero will receive a cash award of $5,000 to be used at the awardee’s discretion to further inclusion activities; be featured in a video at the Cell Bio Virtual 2021 Keynote; be featured in an article in the ASCB Newsletter, and contribute an essay in Molecular Biology of the Cell.

Quintero joined the faculty at the University of Richmond in 2012. He earned a BS in Biochemistry in 1996 at The Pennsylvania State University, received his PhD in Cell Biology at Duke University in 2002 with Jo Rae Wright, and completed his postdoctoral work as a SPIRE Fellow at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with Richard Cheney. He was previously on the faculty of Franklin and Marshall College, Mount Holyoke College, and the College of Medicine at Penn State.

Quintero continuously seeks opportunities to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion. Most recently he launched the George M. Langford Scientists of Color Speaker Series at Richmond to feature notable as well as up-and-coming Black scientists. Langford is a long-time ASCB member, Council member, and ASCB Fellow.

“It is a one-of-its-kind series not only for the College of Arts and Sciences but in the history of the institution,” said one of Quintero’s mentees, Hijab Fatima. “I hope it motivates the University of Richmond’s other colleges to organize something similar.”

But Quintero’s efforts to improve equity and inclusion reach back many years.

“In some ways, it is hard to know where to begin with considering Dr. Quintero’s commitment to Inclusivity. This is part of his soul!” wrote Tama Hasson, assistant dean of undergraduate research at the University of California, Los Angeles, in her nomination letter. “Dr. Quintero was selected as one of the most inspiring Hispanic/Latinx scientists in America, one of only a handful who are faculty at [primarily undergraduate institutions]. He has served on the University of Richmond’s President’s Advisory Committee for Making Excellence Inclusive, and on the Faculty Learning Community for Inclusive Pedagogy in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. He also was instrumental in rewriting the policies regarding faculty hires at the University of Richmond to ensure that selections were inclusive and equitable.”

Hasson continues, saying that at the time of her letter, “Dr. Quintero has mentored over 75 undergraduates, which is extraordinary given how long he has been a research mentor. As a result, nearly every publication from Dr. Quintero’s group has undergraduate authors. These include students of color, women, and international students. Indeed, in every position he has held as an academic, Dr. Quintero has thought outside the box to expose everyone (undergraduates, graduate students, technicians, medical school students, even elementary school students) to the magic that is research.”

Quintero’s research focuses on the mechanisms of mitochondrial transport and organization inside cells and utilizes modern quantitative microscopy approaches. His lab is made up almost exclusively of undergraduate scientists, and he often incorporates components of his research into his classroom teaching. He recently received the Distinguished Educator Award in 2019 and the Outstanding Faculty Mentor Award in 2021 from the University of Richmond. He has served in leadership roles for ASCB on both the Education Committee and as a member of Council.

“Broadly speaking, I’m interested in cellular dynamics, whether dynamics of whole cells like motility, or dynamics of cellular components like organelle traffic,” Quintero said. “My research focuses on the connections between the cytoskeleton and mitochondria. Mostly I am focusing on the role of MYO19 and actin in mitochondrial dynamics.”

Quintero has offered research opportunities to undergraduates with no prior laboratory experience whatsoever.

“Dr. Quintero has been a mentor to me for five years now,” said Jennifer L. Bocanegra, now a PhD candidate at the University of Washington. “We met when he was recruiting a post-baccalaureate position for his lab. At the time, I was living in Puerto Rico and had absolutely no bench research experience but was very much interested in trying. He gave me an opportunity, understanding what it would take to train someone from scratch. I worked in his lab for two years, and I blossomed there. When I began in his lab I wasn’t convinced that I could be an ideal candidate for graduate school, even though I was interested. Dr. Quintero helped me hone my research skills while providing an environment that made me feel welcomed and included. Through his mentoring and guidance, I was able to publish my first first-author publication, as well as a review chapter on Myosin XIX, and eventually enter graduate school.”

Having a positive impact on inclusion and equity in the support of sustainable diversity is “no easy task,” Quintero said but is possible if faculty take an intentional approach. 

“As individuals, we can be purposeful in how we mentor our students and how we build classroom and research lab experiences,” Quintero said. “One of my aims is to provide opportunities for individual students that build from who they are in a way that aids their development in who they want to become. That aspect of supporting inclusion came more easily because I could recognize what the most impactful mentors in my life had done for me, and I put those opportunities to work for my students.”

Quintero added that improved inclusion and equity should not fall on the shoulders of just one or a few people but needs to be a community-wide, sustained, and concerted effort.

“Now, as part of a community (like a department, a university, or a professional society), the challenge is different,” he said. “Although communities are built by individuals, no one individual is responsible for persistent community structures. Improving a community’s ability to support meaningful diversity through equitable and inclusive practice requires networking, consensus-building, and learning from each other’s experiences. Together we have to improve the path for all those who come along after us. My accomplices and I will continue to actively encourage the rest of our community to share the burden of such a glorious purpose as making a better world, and so that we can all share the benefits as well.”

Quintero says he plans to use the $5,000 cash award to support opportunities for students to participate in summer research, including attending meetings such as ASCB and/or the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science. And he says he hopes to limit some of his professional involvements to reconnect with his family.

“I’m proud of what I’ve been able to do, but it has come at a cost in other ways. I haven’t had sufficient free time lately. I’m trying to step back and reevaluate how much of my energy goes towards career stuff,” he said. “My two children are now teenagers. My wife and I want to be as much a part of their lives as they’ll allow us to be as they really grow up and move on with their own independent lives. I’m also willing to admit that I am not an avid reader—instead, I watch ridiculous amounts of movies and television spanning a pretty wide range of genres.”

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Mary Spiro is ASCB's Science Writer and Social Media Manager.