The old one-dimensional female archetypes -- the soccer mom, the starving artist, the successful-but-lonely boss lady -- are dead. Women are creating new, multidimensional archetypes and defying stereotypes. The most fulfilled women are constantly creating in multiple areas of their lives, whereas burnout often happens when we feel like the routine of our day job is all we have time for. The Archetypal Woman Series is a tribute to inspiring women who rearrange time and space to explore and excel in a range of activities. May their stories encourage you to expand into your own uniqueness for the benefit of you and everyone in your orbit.
Editor's note: There was so much I wanted to cover with Iréne, it was hard to know where to start! From her childhood in Costa Rica, to the rigors of her Biosciences PhD program, to the creative process behind her paintings and her book, and the lead-up to the recent launch of her website, PuraPrana.com, where you can find her "art medicine" offerings--we talk about it all, and still barely scratch the surface.
What I find so unique about Iréne is that she is at once left- and right-brained, logical and intuitive, a doer and a meditator, and an artist and a scientist.
Don't think this means she always had it easy--it took her many years to discover how the many facets of herself could align in a society that wants to put us in a box. She has found it to be well worth the effort. May it inspire you to do the same.
~ Mary Margaret
You have a PhD in Biosciences. Can you tell us a little about what earning this degree entails? What exactly did you study in this program and why were you drawn to it?
Those must’ve been the four longest years of my life! At many times I honestly thought I wouldn’t make it. A PhD in itself is hard. As an international student, it’s even harder: English as a second language, the daily subconscious stress that your student visa depends on at least a B+ performance on all exams, and all the other added extras of maintaining legal status and keeping your Principal Investigator happy.
It changed my life through very tough experiences, and in hindsight, all of them taught me how to be resilient and showed me how I can still deliver excellence under difficult circumstances.
I lived in a lab for six years straight, including my master’s. Ask my husband! Our dates were Saturday and Sundays at the lab where he would sit at the flow cytometer station and push a $65,000 button for me. However, no matter how hard it did get, because of my life experiences and where I grew up, I’ve always been hyper-alert of my privileges and blessings. When things flowed into my life almost as if by magic, I would cease them because I knew many were denied those opportunities. In fact, my PhD dissertation is dedicated to all the children and HUEmxns that will never get the chance to study the way I did. I owe it to them to excel and make it count.
That’s how I ended up studying genomics as applied to viral research, by pure chance and destiny. It was a perfect marriage. I was studying and witnessing the frontier of what being alive and staying alive means.
I decided to study the science of life because I’ve always had a hunger for how everything works from the biological perspective. I’m fascinated by nature and the Great Mystery. Pope Pius XII said that “True science discovers God waiting behind every door.” Those six years showed me that. It’s never ceased to amaze me, my eternal awe, the eternal inspiration, the precise perfection of our biochemical nature. It defined my ever-existing need to dedicate my life to the service of HUEmxnity through science, and though neglected for many years, through my art.
There’s not one day I regret going through grad school even though the price I paid was very high. I wouldn’t trade the knowledge and understanding it has given me for anything.
You are also a prolific artist, and just launched your website puraprana.com that showcases hundreds of your offerings for sale. How have you integrated the sides of yourself as both a scientist and an artist?
Yes! My online store is now open and that is such a huge little victory for me!
Some of the first memories I have are me making potions with plants from my neighborhood or painting and drawing. I always wanted to create, I would even make crafts and sell them at school during breaks or to my parent’s friends. But, in Latin America, the life path carved for mostly all, is study or perish. I was asked by my dad to finish a PhD before I could be what I wanted to be, out of pure love and the desire for me to have a solid future. Both of my parents worked so hard and sacrificed so much for me to have the best life they could give me. How could I not? It’s part of who we are as a culture.
In 2007 while I was waiting to hear back from my “real” master’s degree scholarship application, I enrolled in what some of my colleagues call “the witch-doctoring master’s degree", an in-depth program in holistic health and lifestyles. I started reclaiming myself, a compromise between honoring your parents and honoring yourself. I finished in 2011 and by then my mind was going even faster than it normally does. In 2012 I thought of PURAPRāṇA. I knew it was special and immediately reserved all the handles and domains that I could, and it started simmering. It’s gone through so many iterations. I’m glad I waited until it was perfectly cooked!
As soon as I was done with my PhD, I was officially free to be who I was born to be. I started working towards my artist dreams. I had been saving and buying tools slowly. I was ready. I started painting again, making jewelry, and plotting how I would execute and blend my passions in a bid to detoxify my being from all the negative experiences from the previous years.
I knew art had been my lifeline in my lifelong struggles with anxiety and persistent depressive disorder, that contemplative practices were the foundation of my mental health, that there was immense power to creative alchemy, and that I had a special VIP pass to the imaginal realm.
I must have some sort of synesthesia because I experience sound as 3D colorful visions and feelings. Not all the time, but definitely a good part of my waking life. That’s where most of my art comes from, from music. At one point I asked myself, how could I put this together in a way that would honor what I know my soul needs to express?
I started thinking of how to integrate all of this and that’s when I was able to give word to my calling: art medicine—my personal collage of science, art and spirituality. My work and offerings explore the mythology and science of the biosphere, space cosmology, the contours and fields of the HUEmxn experience, and my personal ancestral mythos.
One of your works, available on your website, is your book Hands of Wonder: Contemplative Art Meditations. It’s a rich blend of your own illustrations, meditative techniques, and the science behind them. Can you share a little about your process during the creation of this book?
Hands of Wonder is my first big offering. It’s #anewkindofcoloringbook, and there’s nothing quite like it out there. It all started with a seed that a Cuban artist and friend planted in my heart. He said to me, “Iréne, you should put all of this in a book." I was already working on a mudrā [hand position] illustration series for myself as a way to connect back to illustration, and then I met one of the book’s contributors and it was all set in stone from there.
We made a plan and I sat down to draw and gather narratives, poems, and science. In many ways it was like designing one of my experiments. It took me about six months to do the 37 original illustrations. In my studio there’s always music, almost always instrumental. If there’s music, everything flows for me. There are plants, crystals, incense, essential oils, tarot and oracle decks, vision boards, and books written by my teachers and other inspirational HUEmxns.
It was a hyper-creative healing process that was informed by felt and embodied awareness and creativity. I did everything from the research, conceptual design, obtaining any licenses and permissions to use quotes from external sources, to the final published product—except editing my Spanglish. I hired a professional editor for that part.
For me, it’s all a puzzle we have to remember how to piece together. It’s a journey into accessing information I can feel inside of me. Call it what you may. I opt for genetic memory from all the ancestors whose DNA I carry with me everyday. Biologically speaking, it’s DNA that’s survived at least 200,000 years as a Homo sapiens.
Our mitochondrial DNA was born out of fateful endosymbiosis more than 1.45 billion years ago! We’re made of very ancient, resilient and intelligent stardust. I dive into this cosmic current and it whispers where to look, where to draw a line, and the wonder I see.
You were born in Costa Rica, educated in New Zealand and the United States, and now you live on St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands. How has geography informed both your art and scientific work?
I’m extremely blessed that I was able to have the courage to apply for scholarships to work my way through tertiary education. Far away lands always intrigued me and no wonder why! Dad and me did a genetic test and just as we suspected, our itchy traveling genes were 100% justified: we have bits and pieces of DNA quite literally, all over the world. It’s incredible.
New Zealand shook all the conservative up-bringing I had received. It taught me what vegetarianism and veganism were (not so popular in mainstream Catholic Costa Rica when I was growing up), it introduced me to yoga, it had such a diverse population like I’d never seen, it gave me my second family who I love as if they were my own blood. It was pure magic.
The Māori sovereignty, and the integration of the Māori language and culture into the everyday life of the community, blew my mind away. Aotearoa and its beautiful people definitely helped mold who I am today. New Zealand and Washington DC gave me state-of-the-art science, the gift of the world of underground art—I was that odd duckling scientist submerged in a sea of artists and activists. The USVI have given me the opportunity to settle, to slow down like never before, and to be immersed, everyday, in Madre Tierra. It’s a blessing to wake up and be surrounded by only salty air and jungle in every direction.
I think that has been key to PURAPRāṇA, since I draw my spiritual sustenance from nature and nature is what informs every piece of my art and meditations at the foundational level.
What are your dreams for the scientific community? How can it, and should it, continue to evolve?
I have many, but there’s one that’s always reigns supreme in my mind--a modern taboo that no one likes to talk about because it’s only some unfortunate few. It’s forbidden. There’s a toxic culture of overwork and a graduate mental health crisis happening globally. I’m going to go ahead and say that it’s not just students, but extremely successful and awarded research faculty are driven to suicide by the system as well. I’ve witnessed this first hand sadly.
To paint with numbers, a survey of 301 graduate students at Emory University showed that >34% likely had moderate to severe depression, while 7.3% reported suicidal thoughts, and 2.3% reported having plans for suicide. A 2018 study saw roughly 39% of graduate respondents scoring in the moderate-to-severe depression range, a 6.5-fold increase over the same indicators in the general population. A more recent Nature global study of 6,300 students found that >36% of PhD students have sought help for anxiety or depression caused by unforgiving curricula and research demands. The top concerns were recorded as mental health, bullying by supervisors, and career uncertainty.
It’s no secret that universities have become an enterprise, and that they’re churning out more PhDs than there are jobs for highly specialized scientists out there. I don’t have the answer, but I would like to see universities becoming more receptive of student mental health and fairly auditing student-mentor relationships to identify toxic environments. There have to be more checks and balances.
When you’re a PhD student, your life depends on getting that degree, especially if you’re international—in the US some reports cite international students making up to 81% of the student body in STEM fields! You’ve pretty much gambled it all for a piece of paper and the promise of a bright future and a better life.
That’s a lot of power over students, and that can translate into big egos and misuse of that power. In many ways--depending on your country, luck, and immigration status--research students are in effect indentured servitude that’s still allowed.
You’ve described your work as art medicine. How can your art, digital and in-person courses, and retreats contribute to someone’s healing?
Art is my lifeline, my prayer, my altar, and my primary spiritual practice. The healing I’ve experienced with a blank paper or canvas in front of me has no comparison. It’s deeply profound. Intentional Creativity® is a process that goes deep within you. We don’t work with any external influences, only you at your rawest embodiment. We move energy with story and color. I weave unique experiences using mixed media and approaches to call for embodied presence and self-expression.