As a child in Peru, Vásquez learned about medicinal plants from her grandmother. Her grandmother’s passion for plants rubbed off on Vásquez, who began exploring Peru’s Amazon rainforest as a teenager, on trips with her mother. “Nobody in my family is a scientist, but I have always been curious about how things work,” she says. That led her to wonder about medicines derived from plants and other sources found in the Amazon. “I started to learn about the processes through which nature creates new molecules and realized a lot of them come from microbes,” says Vásquez.
Microbes work like tiny chemists says Vásquez. Some of the compounds they create might help make or inspire new medicines like cancer treatments or infection-fighting antibiotics. Other microbe-made molecules could help clean up oil spills or absorb toxic waste from mines. Certain chemicals might help enrich soil. Such compounds could allow trees to grow again in areas of the Amazon cleared for logging, farming, oil extraction, and mining—common causes of deforestation.