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Honoring the Life & Contributions of Founding Member Dr. Ciriaco Gonzales

SACNAS celebrates the life and immeasurable contributions of founding member Dr. Ciriaco Q. Gonzales, who passed away earlier in 2020, by sharing his story and memories from our community below.

Dr. Gonzales was born and raised on a farm in the village of Luis Lopez, New Mexico in Socorro County. He graduated from Socorro High School in 1950 and enrolled at New Mexico State University that fall, majoring in biology and graduating with honors in 1954.

Following his education, he served a two-year deployment to the far east in the US Army as a medic. In 1956, he was released from active duty and enrolled at the University of Arizona to pursue a Masters degree in entomology and toxicology.
He met and married his wife in Arizona, then moving to University of California, Berkeley to earn his PhD. After completing his PhD, Dr. Gonzales would spend a year as a research scientist at Berkeley.

As a founding member, Dr. Gonzales was present when SACNAS was formed in 1973 at a meeting at the National Institutes of Health. At the time he had moved to the College of Santa Fe where he would serve as a biology professor for nine years.

“We established SACNAS in a way that when I went to our first meeting, I was awe-struck. I had never seen any other Chicanos or Native Americans who had a PhD and were faculty members,” Dr. Gonzales recalled during the 45th Anniversary Founders Panel at the 2018 SACNAS Conference.

In 1975 Dr. Gonzales moved to Washington DC to serve as Director of the Minority Biomedical Research Support (MRBS) Program at the National Institutes of Health.

Later, in his 45th anniversary talk, Dr. Gonzales shared how the founding members, who were all professionals, quickly realized during these early days that the society should include students as well.

“We thought we’ll bring the MBRS students to present at the SACNAS conference and guess what happened! The sponsors and exhibitors followed… they came in and started recruiting students, and the ball started rolling,” explained Dr. Gonzales.

Indeed, the SACNAS National Diversity Conference would eventually grow from just a few hundred attendees in the 1970s, to over 5,000 attendees in present day. “My effort was to get a pipeline going. We have to flood the marketing with a lot of Chicano and Native American scientists!” said Dr. Gonzales.

In 1995 Dr. Gonzales was selected as a member of the Senior Executive service of the United States, eventually serving Director of the Division of Disadvantage Assistance in the Bureau of Health Professions, Department of Health and Human Services.

“Dr. Gonzales was the program officer for the very first funded grant I received, when I began my faculty career at Diné College,” said Steven Semken, PhD. “I will be forever grateful to him for his help to me and to my students.”

“He has been instrumental and effective in facilitating great resources for faculty and student success,” added Andrew Tsin, PhD. “Personally, he was a wonderful individual and a great role model for all of us!”

After retiring in 1999, Dr. Gonzales was awarded an honorary doctorate during the New Mexico State University spring commencement, and volunteered with medical missions to Honduras and in Maryland. Dr. Gonzales also continued his contributions to SACNAS, speaking at various events, including the 2018 SACNAS Conference.

“SACNAS is a place where you can become family and meet familia! The work he did at NIH contributed to my ability to become a scientist. I will always be thankful for his work and dedication to the community,” said SACNAS President-Elect Pamela Padilla, PhD recalling meeting Dr. Gonzales after randomly sitting next to him at a SACNAS conference lunch.

“He looked at me and asked ‘Where are you from?’ I explained that my home was New Mexico, and began to explain by family background. He began to quickly talk about his family. We both realized that we were related- through my paternal grandma (Apolonia Gonzales-Padilla). He remembered growing up with my dad (primos).”

Founding Member Dr. Ciriaco Gonzales with Board Member Dr. Martha I. Dávila-García at the 2018 SACNAS conference

In addition to his dedicaton to mentorship and pathway building, Dr. Gonzales also ensured that the story of SACNAS and its members would live on by writing the “hidden figures” story of his sister Amy Gonzales for STEM + Culture Chronicle, as well as co-writing “The History of SACNAS” with various fellow founding members.

“Iʻll miss seeing the joy in Dr. Ciriaco Gonzales eyes at the annual conferences when many of us former MBRS trainees, who later became NIGMS program directors, attend with our own research trainees, and graduate students,” said Lifetime Member Healani Chang, PhD. “Iʻll miss him seeing my pride in my former students who attend with their undergraduates. The legacy of Dr. Gonzales continues…”

Over the course of his career and life, Dr. Gonzales would mentor countless students and future scientists at the College of Santa Fe, NIH, and through SACNAS. He would be instrumental in creating the pipelines he originally envisioned for students over 40 years ago. While the SACNAS community will miss Dr. Gonzales, we remain committed to carry on his legacy of mentorship, career development, and building a truly diverse STEM workforce.

To close, we include a poem written by Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales in the 1960’s, which Dr. Ciriaco Gonzales quoted in his 45th Anniversary speech:

Yo soy Joaquín,
perdido en un mundo de confusión:
I am Joaquín, lost in a world of confusion,
caught up in the whirl of a gringo society,
confused by the rules, scorned by attitudes,
suppressed by manipulation, and destroyed by modern society.
My fathers have lost the economic battle
and won the struggle of cultural survival.

Read the full poem here >>