Crocheting to Communicate Science: An Interview with Ana Maria Porras

October 05, 2022

Texas BME alum Ana Maria Porras loves microorganisms. You might even recognize her from YouTube and social media where she’s “internet famous” for crocheting adorable microbes, which she says get a bad rap.

“I’m interested in understanding under what context bacteria is good versus bad, or really, what’s going on with the microbiome in a person’s body that would cause a microbe to be harmful or harmless,” says the assistant professor of biomedical engineering at University of Florida.

Porras started crocheting microbes shortly after earning her B.S. in biomedical engineering from UT Austin in 2011, when she was a graduate student at University of Wisconsin-Madision.

“It was the winter, and I was cold,” the Colombian native and first-generation immigrant says. “I have big curly hair, so I had to knit my own hats to fit my head.”

Those hats evolved into microbes about 4 years later, when Porras was a postdoctoral researcher at Cornell University as a way to attract people to a booth at a science and engineering conference. At the time she was studying microbiomes of humans, soil and lakes with other researchers.

“We were going to be beside flashy booths from Discovery, NASA, and National Geographic, and we weren’t sure how to attract people to our program, because by definition, a microbe is something that’s too small to see,” Porras says.

She crocheted a few colorful microbes, and what started as a solution to attract conference attendees to a trade show booth ended up being a wonderful tool to teach microbiology concepts, and for Porras to delve into science communication, an area where her impact is anything but teeny tiny.

She’s been recognized for her contributions to science communication by the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences (AAAS) and their IF/THEN Ambassador program. The program, made possible by Lyda Hill Philanthropies, promotes women in STEM, and selected Porras for her passion for public engagement and her commitment to increasing science opportunities in Spanish.

Can you describe your research?

I create physical models of disease tissue in the lab to study interactions between humans and microorganisms. One area we work in is trying to understand how the microbiome can control human health, specifically how the gut microbiome interacts with the extracellular matrix. And the other area we work in is tropical parasitic infections.

We focus on tissue engineering. Instead of creating tissues to go inside a patient or for regenerative medicine, we use them to recreate what happens when a tissue becomes diseased, so we can study it.

How did you choose Texas Engineering and what was it like to attend UT as a first-generation immigrant?

I grew up in Bucaramanga, Colombia, and my parents both worked as engineering professors. When I arrived at UT, I lived in a dorm with everyone in my first-year interest group (FIG), which I think was crucial to my success that first year and beyond. My FIG was made up of engineering students and everyone in my dorm were also a freshmen. It was a smaller experience at a big school and helped me to feel settled.

Before coming to UT, I knew engineering was appealing, but I wasn’t certain about what to study. My mother brought up the idea of a bioengineering program after she began working at a university that offered that program. It was geared more toward agriculture but it got me to do some research into different programs. One of my high school classmates was studying business at UT and suggested looking at this program, and the curriculum really spoke to my interests, which is how I ended up applying.

I’m glad I attended UT because it’s now officially a Hispanic serving institution, and even when I was there the proportion of Hispanic students was pretty high. The fact that I didn’t have to think a ton about being Latina in the context of what that might mean in terms of STEM was a powerful way to prepare me for what came next.

Who did you do research with and how has that helped your career?

The connections I made at UT have helped me. I did research as an undergraduate in Christine Schmidt’s lab, who is now my department chair at University of Florida. I also took a graduate course with her, and she continued to be one of my mentors. Those experiences were key in me accepting the position I have now.

Professor Krish Roy was also influential in helping me with my postdoctoral researcher position. Another Texas BME alum, Ankur Singh, was at Cornell University, and introduced me to my postdoctoral advisor.

What is the If Then/She Can Program and what activities have you done with it?

The goal of the program is to increase representation of girls and women in STEM, with a particular emphasis on the media and making sure the public sees women in STEM.

The program has given me opportunities to engage with the public I couldn’t have obtained on my own. In 2020, I participated with GoldiBlocks, which provides girls with toys and games designed to get them involved with engineering and problem solving. I did an educational video with them on microbiology.

And, as part of this ambassadorship, myself and all of the other women in the IF/THEN ambassador program were scanned and then had 3D statues of us made and displayed first in Dallas in 2021, which is where Lyda Hill Philanthropies is based, and later on the lawn of the Smithsonian in March 2022 in Washington D.C.

Ana Maria Porras stand alongside her statue, which was part of the largest exhibit of statues of women in STEM ever. The idea for the Smithsonian exhibit came after the Department of Treasury conducted a study to see how many statues in major cities honored women and found the number to be lacking. The statues were printed clear and painted orange to draw people’s eyes and highlight that women are not invisible.

What did you feel when seeing your statue?

Seeing how excited people were, I teared up, especially when a Latino family would see my last name and ask if I spoke Spanish. It was pretty powerful. I remember two older women, who were also Colombian, walked by my statue three times.

Considering the other types of people who have statues at the Smithsonian, it’s natural to think I’m not quite sure I’ve done quite enough. But the point of the statues is to show people that all sorts of women belong in STEM.

You probably get this question all the time, but do you have a favorite microbe?

People do ask me this all the time, and I feel like I give a different answer every time. My favorite is usually the latest one I’ve made. H. Pylori is the cutest, and it’s one people are starting to hear more about. A lot of us have it in our guts. It can survive the acidic environment of our stomachs. In some people it’s harmless and part of the normal gut microbiome. And in others it can actually lead to painful gastric ulcers and is linked to potentially increase the risk of gastric cancers.

It’s one of my favorites because it demonstrates that it can be hard to determine if a microbe is “good” or “bad.”

Take a look at more of Ana Maria Porras' cute crocheted microbes, like this H. Pylori, and learn more about her work on Instagram @Anamaporras and en español @anerobias.

WRITTEN BY VALERIE NIES