Growing up on a large swath of land in Puerto Rico, Jesús Dones-Monroig was always playing in nature. He was encouraged to plant, build, and explore the environment around his home. His father even took him to the ocean to go spearfishing, where he developed a fascination for marine life. He credits a lot of his curiosity of nature to his parents, who encouraged Dones-Monroig and his siblings to play outdoors.
“[My parents] let us be free to do whatever we wanted out there. They gave us the freedom to have an idea and play with things outside to make it happen,” says Dones-Monroig.
Eventually, this affinity with the natural world would contribute to Dones-Monroig’s interest in biology and organic chemistry. He went on to study chemistry at the University of Puerto Rico at Rio Piedras and was particularly inspired by his organic chemistry professor, Ingrid Montes, to appreciate the world through a molecular level.
Now a fifth year PhD student in the Department of Chemistry, Dones-Monroig works in the lab of Ronald Raines, the Roger and Georges Firmenich Professor of Natural Product Chemistry, and studies collagen mimetic peptides, or “CMPs.” Dones-Monroig has developed a CMP that can selectively anneal with damaged collagen. At this stage, he is working on optimizing his newly developed CMP to help detect mammalian collagen that has suffered damage. In the future, he hopes to develop a system that selectively anneals to different types of damaged collagen.
As a chemical biologist, Dones-Monroig also works on synthetic chemistry projects, from developing synthetic peptides through organic chemistry to synthesizing faster and more selective organic molecules for “click chemistry.”
“That’s why I love research in the Raines Lab,” Dones-Monroig says, “You’re not restricted to one area of chemistry.”
Promoting diversity and inclusion
Dones-Monroig is a family-driven, community-oriented person, and being so far from home has motivated him to create connections and support groups at MIT. He also feels strongly that without the right support, students can’t fully realize their potential in their academic and professional pursuits.
While pursuing his masters in chemical biology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Dones-Monroig was involved in programs that promote diversity and inclusion. Coming to MIT, he felt there was a lack of support for underrepresented and underserved graduate and undergraduate students at the Institute. With the help of professor and former head of the Department of Chemistry Tim Jamison, as well as individuals in the Women in Chemistry (WIC) group and the Chemistry Graduate Student Committee (CGSC), Dones-Monroig founded the Chemistry Alliance for Diversity and Inclusion (CADI).
Launched in 2018, CADI seeks to support the success of underrepresented and underserved graduate and undergraduate students in the chemistry department and to help ensure that the campus has safe, inclusive, and supportive environments for students. The group facilitates conversations regarding the state of diversity in the field of chemistry and provides students with professional and academic resources. Finding community in graduate school can be just as important as the classes one takes or the skills one acquires, Dones-Monroig says.
“If we are not given support at a personal level, our educational and professional potential is going to be directly affected. CADI is for anybody that doesn’t feel part of the chemistry department,” he says.
Dones-Monroig also serves as a pod leader for the MIT Summer Research Program (MSRP), a program that aims to promote the value of graduate education and improve the research enterprise through increased diversity in MIT.
“The students that come to this program are astounding. They’re very intelligent and driven, but they may not have the same resources as MIT in their home universities. So we welcome them,” says Dones-Monroig.
Continuing with his penchant for mentorship, Dones-Monroig will serve as a graduate resident advisor (GRA) at the MIT Student House. He will be a mentor to the international undergraduate and graduate students that live there.
Healthy bodies, healthy minds
Outside of his research, Dones-Monroig stays quite active and enjoys sports. He plays on MIT’s intramural basketball team, and he also enjoys volleyball, tennis, and surfing. Perhaps most impressively, he participates in the Spartan Races, which are races that range in length and feature a variety of physical obstacles. Next month, he will be doing an Ultra-Spartan Race on Killington Peak in Vermont, where he will go through 60 obstacles over the course of 30 miles.
For Dones-Monroig, exercise allows him to reduce stress and focus on something other than his research. He attributes his good health, mentally and physically, to staying active. This mentality is from his 61-year-old father, who still tries to run races against him, Dones-Monroig jokes.
“If you have a mindset of keeping your body as healthy as your mind, you’ll be more productive. I train my mind in the lab and come out and train my body outside,” says Dones-Monroig.
While Dones-Monroig clearly works hard, he plays hard too, and loves to dance salsa on the weekends. With friends that he has made in the local Puerto Rican community, Dones-Monroig goes out to dance and socialize at La Fábrica in Central Square.
“I think I’m decent at salsa,” Dones-Monroig laughs, adding, “When compared to non-salsa dancers, then I’m good!”