In her biology class, Heidy Contreras explains the excretory system and how it is different from the digestive system.
At the end of the slideshow she shows a picture of a dog sitting in a puddle of green urine to add a humor that keeps the attention of her students while keeping the class interesting.
Contreras currently teaches freshman Biology 101 courses at the University of La Verne. She became assistant professor of biology in January.
“My biggest accomplishment was being hired here,” Contreras said.
Contreras earned her Ph.D at UC Irvine and her bachelor’s and master’s of science degrees at Cal State San Bernardino.
Contreras explained that at CSUSB she received hands on training in science while at UCI and learned the theories behind biology.
While at CSUSB she became a teacher’s assistant and discovered the joy of teaching.
“I really enjoyed sharing my knowledge,” Contreras said.
Contreras came to the United States from Guatemala when she was 7 and lived in East Los Angeles.
Because of the large Hispanic community in Los Angeles, she didn’t find the need to learn English until her mother put her in a private school.
“It was important to my mom for me to learn the language,” Contreras said.
Growing up, Contreras was interested in animals and wanted to be an animal physical therapist.
“It was a ridiculous dream,” Contreras said.
Her interest in animals continued and realized biology had all the answers she wanted to know.
“I was always interested in knowing why things happened,” Contreras said.
This year, Contreras received the American Physiological Society’s Research Recognition Award which is given to up incoming scientists who have shown good research in the field of comparative and evolutionary physiology.
“I wasn’t prepared for it,” Contreras said. “It made me feel proud.”
One of the focuses in Contreras’ research is how animals adapt to their environments and how they cope with the changes.
“That’s how I want to enhance conservation biology,” Contreras said.
Contreras also received the National Science Foundation’s Research Opportunity Award which gives faculty from smaller institutions, such as ULV, the opportunity to do research at bigger schools with more funding.
Contreras, along with two other students, went to the University of Arizona and did research on the way animals store their energy.
“I’m focusing on how energy is allocated between activity and digestion,” Contreras said.
Contreras said that their job was to come up with models to explain two different hypotheses.
One was that animals, like the butterfly, who are active while digesting, store energy for both activities equally and the second was that sedentary animals, like the cockroach, do not store their energy equally.
Contreras said she tries to make biology entertaining and show her students the role of biology in their daily lives.
Her teaching technique is inspired by her past physiology teacher from CSUSB Contreras said.
“He asked us questions about how we relate science to our personal lives,” Contreras said.
“Dr. Contreras genuinely loves the subject,” Alyssa Carroll, freshman biology major, said.
“She wants to share her passion,” Carroll said.
Freshman movement and sports science major Sahar Shahidi said Contreras constantly asks questions and has review sessions, making it easier for her to understand biology.
“She doesn’t give us a choice but to learn,” Shahidi said.
La Verne’s small community made Contreras feel like she could get to know her students, she said.
“I felt I could really make a big impact,” Contreras said.
In the future, Contreras wants to also teach environmental biology.
Contreras is also looking into starting a chapter of Society for Advancement of Hispanics Chicanos and Native Americans in Science.
Contreras shares the same vision as SACNAS, which is to develop the next generation of minority scientists.
Mariela Patron can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.