Q&A: Laura Luque

The biology instructor helps students learn how to solve problems inside and outside of the classroom. 

Laura Luque was drawn to research during her youth in Mexico and came to the U.S. to pursue it as a career. Photo by Glen E. Ellman

Q&A: Laura Luque

The biology instructor helps students learn how to solve problems inside and outside of the classroom. 

Laura Luque, instructor II of biology, teaches a first-semester introductory course about molecules and cells and an upper-level course on parasitology. Luque, who studied the malaria parasite’s effects on human health, also serves as global health coordinator for TCU’s Pre-Health Professions Institute. 

As a teacher and adviser, Luque takes pride in molding those who enter her classroom into lifelong learners — and building community for underrepresented students at TCU. In 2021, Luque was named Honors Professor of the Year and won the Wassenich Award for Mentoring in the TCU Community. 

You’ve said that you grew up in Mexico wanting to be a researcher. What drew you to research, and specifically research about health? 

I was always interested in how things worked, but particularly nature. When I was growing up in Mexico, research was not very common, or at least that I was aware of, but I was somehow aware that in the United States it happened — so I decided that the way to reach that goal was to come to the United States as a student.

How did your interests shape your education from there? 

Once I started getting involved in biology, I really enjoyed understanding how the cell works and how the body works. It really just kept feeding that curiosity that I always had. What research provided to me was an opportunity to find what other people had not found. So even as an undergrad, I started being involved in research. It was a no-brainer for me to then continue doing master’s and PhD research. 

As a researcher, you studied parasites. Why should people care about them? 

People should care a lot about parasites. So even though the United States may not have parasites in the forefront, they still are here, and definitely around the world, particularly in the tropics. The one I was studying, the plasmodium parasite, affects over half a million children a year. So that is something that everybody should be worried about.  

Parasites have this uncanny ability to cause chronic disorders or lifetime diseases, and that actually is more costly and difficult to treat. They have been around humans for a long time, so they know us in and out very well, so they have all the tricks about the immune system. Just to give you an example, there is not a single vaccine that works against parasites right now. There’s one coming up for malaria, but it’s not as good as the one for viruses and bacteria. They’re just very challenging organisms. 

Laura Luque hopes students understand that professors are humans, too. Photo by Glen E. Ellman

You’ve also said there are some benefits to parasites. 

Absolutely. I will be kind of alone on that one. We all know that we have friendly bacteria in our bodies, and that they provide us with some benefits for digestion and protection from other bacteria. But very little is understood in the mainstream about the benefits parasites bring to us. Parasites have spent a lot of time with us and because of that relationship, it is now understood that our immune systems work better in the presence of a parasite. So when we remove parasites, our immune system goes out of whack.  

Some of the evidence that supports this idea is that in countries that have done a good job at removing parasites — industrialized countries like Canada, the United States, Australia, many European countries — they have seen a tremendous increase in autoimmune disorders. Part of the reason is because we don’t have these parasites that kind of regulate our immune system.  

What do you want students to take away from your teaching? 

I’m really trying to assist them in becoming lifetime learners. My goal is to shift this idea of studying for the exam to: “Let me learn the material.” Because if you achieve that, then you will always know how to tackle any situation that is in front of you. That’s really what I would hope my students get out of my course, and that they learn biology along the way. 

How do you think your teaching has been impacted by Covid-19? And are there any changes that you’ve had to make that you’ll keep?  

It was tremendously impacted. Covid-19 forced me and many of my colleagues to really reflect on what you’re trying to accomplish with your course.

What opened my eyes is that I needed to introduce a lot more flexibility into my courses. My course before was designed for the perfect student — the student who could be in class all the time, who could pay attention to this course on a constant basis, who basically had all the time in the world. Covid-19 made me realize that chances are most of my students will not be able to do that. It also made me realize that probably even without Covid-19, that’s the case.  

So I’ve started shifting the design of my course for a student on their worst day — how can I make them still be successful in my course? Allowing for quizzes to be dropped, allowing for exams to be dropped, allowing them to digest information. So the flexibility that Covid forced me to introduce is kept. And so far, so good.  

The introductory biology courses are considered some of the more demanding courses at TCU. What strategies would you recommend to incoming students? 

What I recommend to students is to allow themselves to be vulnerable. I think there is this idea that you need to know everything on your own, and actually the faculty is here and expects to help you. There is help around you, and there’s no shame in taking that help. People that have been successful in the past have taken that help.  

What kind of environment do you want to cultivate for students on campus? 

Well, I think one of the biggest things for me is a sense of belonging: that they’re welcome in my classroom and on campus, that they have found some kind of community. I think that’s very important. If you don’t have that, you won’t be successful. I would hope that somehow my presence or assistance in the classroom can help students feel that they have a community that welcomes them into campus. 

You’ve helped first-gen students. What are some of the big struggles that they have? 

Basically, you are on a road trip, and you have absolutely no map. So you hope you’re going in the right direction, but you have no idea as to, “Do I need to stop here? Do I need to accelerate there? Is this a good place to stop?”  

Sometimes all the acronyms people use are completely foreign to you. And even when you are experiencing the struggles that everybody else is experiencing, the challenges of a course or time management, for somebody who has family members or others who have gone through college, they can go back and say, “Oh, yes, don’t worry, what you’re feeling is normal; just hang in there and it will be fine.” And for our first-gen students, some of them may not have that at home. So not only is the environment foreign, but then they don’t have anyone telling them, “What you’re feeling is OK.”  

So it’s incredibly important for somebody to be checking on our first-generations, because they are experiencing many things that are very different from our other students and they may not even know to tell you.  

Do you consider yourself a first-gen student? 

I think in a way I was. My family has graduated from college, but everybody did it back in Mexico. So I did experience some of that being lost when I first came to the United States. We have many students that come from different countries whose families have degrees and have graduated from college in their countries. But the system is different, and it’s a different language and culture. Also, you cannot relate to your parents — I remember going back to my parents and they were like, “I’m not sure what you’re talking about.” So that sense of “I’m all alone in the world” was very true for me.

“It’s incredibly important for somebody to be checking on our first-generations, because they are experiencing many things that are very different from our other students and they may not even know to tell you.”  
Laura Luque, instructor II of biology


How have you been involved in helping students achieve their goals? 

I try to be involved in multiple ways. I am a mentor for STEM Scholars. I’m also part of the Community Scholars group, which is another subset of students who also have underrepresented backgrounds here at TCU. And as a mentor, I participate in a program TCU has for students before coming to college, which is called Bridging the Gap. I try to participate in all the first-gen events that we have. Even in my classes, I think my presence in the classroom as a Hispanic individual also bridges some gaps for the students who are not used to seeing people like them in the classroom. I try to be involved in the Biology Club. I try to just be present for the students.  

I think it’s important for students to know that faculty are humans — that we have interests like they do, that we don’t bite. If we want the students to be vulnerable, if we want them to trust us, I think it’s important for them to see that we are human, that we do care, that we see them as humans as well and not just another number. Sometimes there are barriers that are built between students and faculty, and I think it’s important to try to lower those barriers.  

You’ve also led a summer study-abroad program where Pre-Health students travel to Rwanda. What was the genesis of that? 

Even before I came to TCU, I had taken students abroad, mostly to Central America. When I came to TCU, I wanted to continue that idea because I think it’s important for our students to witness countries that are not western. It turns out that TCU has relationships with Rwanda, so that was a natural association. But also, after many conflicts, Rwanda emerges as a country that is trying to do things better, and among those things is their healthcare. It was a way for us to explore how healthcare is handled in a very different but effective way.  

We have challenges recruiting students; I think there’s still a lot of misunderstanding and stigmatization about countries in Africa, so that’s one of the obstacles we have to overcome. But once the students take the plunge, they become fascinated. Rwanda is one of the safest countries in the world. They’re more industrialized than people realize. So it is really just breaking misconception after misconception once we get the students there. Of course, Covid changed plans for us, so the past summer we went to Italy and we’re going to Italy this summer, but we haven’t given up on going back to Rwanda. 

What does it mean to you to have received honors like the Wassenich Award and Honors Professor of the Year? 

It was unexpected — definitely not something that I was working toward or thinking that I was going to achieve, and certainly not in a time of a pandemic. It meant even more because both awards are driven by the students, and also by completely different populations of students. The Honors award is by the Honors students, and the Wassenich Award was driven by the Community Scholar students. That was actually very rewarding. It means to me that I was reaching out to my student population, which includes our underrepresented students as well as those who are thriving in the Honors College.