You can be what you can’t see…it’s just a lot harder… That’s why we started the SACNAS Biography Project–an online archive of first-person stories by and about Chicano/Hispanic and Native American scientists with advanced degrees in science.
“Those scientists and engineers are just like you. Some of them were always excellent students, from grade school through college. Others got B’s and some just got average grades. A number of them explain how they wandered around. focusing on one subject and then another, until they discovered what they wanted to do. SACNAS realizes that role models play an important role in encouraging students to choose one path over another. These biographies will hopefully serve as positive role models for all.”
As a kid, I didn’t really understand why my world was so isolated. One of my early memories from childhood was growing up in La Habra, the Los Angeles area of Southern California. We rented a house there and tried to settle into a community with very few other Latinos. I remember going with my mother to our new neighbor’s house to introduce ourselves once we had moved in. The first thing that came out of the neighbor’s mouth was, “Why are Mexicans so lazy?” Back then I don’t think I really realized why no one in our neighborhood really talked to us much, and at that age, I hadn’t learned to care yet.
One of the things that my parents instilled in my siblings and me was that we should work hard, go to school, and do the right thing. In this way, we avoided focusing on the negative, and we could contradict the stereotypes people like our neighbor imposed upon us. Despite our hard work, we still fought against a lot of ignorance and discrimination. I remember during high school my brother, who was lighter skinned then me, being asked, “Why is it that your brother looks white, and you look like a Spic?” That was the actual terminology that was used.
When I went to college, I thought I was going to be an aerospace engineer because as a child I was interested in being an astronaut. Then when I went to school, I realized an engineering degree wasn’t really what I wanted. I was good at math, and I loved being outside, so I figured I should stick to something more “earthly” although I still didn’t have a clue what it should be. It wasn’t until my fifth year as an undergraduate at University of California, Los Angeles that I took a geophysics class and realized I had an interest in the field. The people who I took geophysics courses from were actually seismologists. When they wrote me letters of recommendation for graduate schools, other seismologists at graduate schools recognized the other seismologists’ names and accepted me with the idea that I was interested in that field of study. Essentially I got into seismology by fortunate accident.
I was accepted to an East Coast university and the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC), for graduate school, but after visiting the school back East, I decided against attending the college. I was very turned off by the school and faculty members who basically told me, “The only reason you’re getting funding to come is because of your last name.”
In my first few months at the UCSC, I was very intimidated. I didn’t have much exposure early on to seismology like some of the other students because I had only just begun pursuing any interest in the field. I felt like I was behind even though I was not. At the same time, I didn’t feel like I could relate to a lot of the students there whose parents were wealthy and had attended college themselves. It took me five years to earn my degree at UCSC, which is good, coming from an undergraduate degree to finishing with a Ph.D. The hard work and determination that my parents had instilled in me as a child paid off.
There were many times early on in school when I thought about leaving to get a job and help my family financially, but they would not let me. When I got out of school, I initially worked for a company in San Diego, not a school, so that I could insure job security and make more money then at a university.
Now I have the job security necessary to comfortably pursue other goals. One of my current hopes is that I will end up in a leadership position so I can affect policy change. Things that I’ve been pushing for lately have to do with exposing minorities to the geosciences. My position as a faculty member at a major university (University of Texas at El Paso) is a good one for promoting diversity. My job position helps me advocate for getting more minorities funding for research. I had always avoided this kind of work before because I wanted to be seen not as a minority but as a scientist first, who happens to be a minority.
I learned early on that if I worked hard I could achieve my most far-reaching goal. Some people will always view you negatively. That’s just the way it is. I believe to affect change, you really have to contribute to progression yourself. Serving as a mentor for students is one way I try to do that. I want students to know they can achieve their goals, whether they are earth bound or heading for the stars.
Back to Team
I was born and raised in El Paso, Texas. My parents migrated to the United States for better job opportunities so as to provide for their eleven children. My parents are from ranchitos (small ranches) outside of Durango, Mexico. My father was a teacher in Mexico; but when he migrated to the U.S. he became a bricklayer, a trade he soon mastered. He loved his job and felt passionate about being a master bricklayer. My brother and I would often work for him. I owe a great deal of my love for building things to my father. He helped me understand and appreciate the value of a good structure, as well as the beauty contained within it.I went to Bel Air High School in El Paso. During high school I worked hard, and eventually I won a scholarship to Rice University, a university of high reputation. However, when I told my parents about my opportunity, they weren’t very enthusiastic about it. Though they didn’t stop me from attending Rice, they never gave me the approval I felt was necessary. I decided instead to go to the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). I have never regretted this decision, for I believe I received an excellent education. At that time the school catered to undergraduates, and I learned the essentials I would need to become a successful engineer. One professor I had at UTEP, Professor Jack Dowdy, introduced me to the engineering problems surrounding heat exchange, and set me on a course that continues to this very day. It is amazing the impact that a few small comments can have on a student. I received my B.S. degree with honors in mechanical engineering from UTEP in 1976.
In January 1977, I started work at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, participating in the One Year On Campus (OYOC) program, which is meant to help minorities and women get higher degrees. I consider myself to be a case study in how the system works for getting minorities and women into advanced degrees through national laboratories. I saw people with advanced degrees doing the things I wanted to do, and that having a graduate degree in engineering was the key to success.
In August 1977, I left Sandia and headed to Stanford University. I was enrolled in an intensive one-year master’s degree program. That first quarter at Stanford was the toughest that I had ever experienced. At UTEP I was used to being the top student, and things just seemed to come to me naturally. However, the higher the educational level, the more dedicated the students are. For the first time in my career I was not easily the top student in my classes. I earned my master’s degree and then returned to Sandia where I continued to work. Seeing the need for even higher education, after two and a half years I returned to Stanford to pursue my Ph.D. under the Sandia Laboratories advanced degree program. At Stanford I worked as a research assistant with Professor Bob Moffat on heat exchange problems in engineering. After five years I obtained my Ph.D., and then returned again to Sandia. On the side I worked as an adjunct professor at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, where I learned that I enjoyed university teaching. I wasn’t looking for a position when I received a request from the University of Arizona (UA) to interview for a tenure track professorship. I had been recommended by my advisor at Stanford as a possible candidate for the position. I decided to interview, and I was offered and accepted the position in 1988. I am currently an Associate Professor, and the Director of the Experimental and Computational Heat Transfer Group, at UA.
In my laboratory we study heat transfer. A project we are working on in my laboratory is cooling down computers as they work harder to keep up with the ever increasing speed of operations. We use the human brain as a model. The brain is cooled by bringing liquids (blood) into contact with it. We are trying to use this idea by bringing cool liquid, air and water, into close contact with the processor, which heats up as it does more work. The heat is transferred to the liquid, which is then carried off and cooled by circulation. The process repeats, keeping the computer’s processor cool enough to function properly, much like the human brain.
I love my job. I work on problems in engineering that are important and interesting. With the knowledge that I gain from studying these problems, I get to teach and inspire students at all levels, from high school, to my university classes, to professional engineers in industry. I feel privileged being an academic at the University of Arizona.
Back to Team
I was born into an interracial Mexican-American and Anglo-American working-class home in Southern California at a time when Mexican-Americans and Anglo-Americans were socially segregated. Sometimes I feel that it is a miracle that I am even here because my father lived on the “wrong side of the tracks,” and my mother came from an old wealthy family in Arkansas that, before the Civil War, used to have slaves!
In my family, the fact that my two sisters and I are biracial was painfully suppressed. So when I wasn’t allowed to wear braids because I might look too much like an Indian, or when I was singled out in class, or picked on by other children in my all-white school, I couldn’t understand what was happening. I grew up thinking there was something inherently wrong with me.
But in a confusing and often solitary childhood, science was always very stabilizing—a rock I could count on. I knew that no matter what, hydrogen would always have one proton and one electron. And although my parent’s silence around our biracial family was difficult, they were very open minded about how to raise a girl. During the 1950s, there were a lot of female stereotypes, and girls generally had to play inside and help with chores. Instead, my parents let me run wild in the hills around our home, where I would spend hours observing nature and wildlife.
I excelled in school and, after high school, assumed that I was college-bound. However, my high school counselor thought differently. Perhaps it was racial discrimination or because I was a girl, or a combination of both. But when I graduated from high school, after earning all As and Bs, the counselor told me, “You know, I think it would be good for you to go to beauty school at Pasadena City College.” When I told my father, he was so angry. He encouraged me to apply to University of California, Riverside, which is where I earned a B.A. in biology.
I went on to receive my master’s degree in biology from the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 1969 and that same year started teaching biology at San José City College. Because I had such a successful career teaching at the community college level, I had never thought about going on to earn a Ph.D. until I read a series of articles about Mexican farm workers in the newspaper. The rage I felt at the inhumane treatment of farm workers and the degradation of the land they were working on propelled me into the newly formed environmental studies doctoral program at the University of California, Santa Cruz in 1994. I was 49 years old.
I decided on environmental studies because it gave me the chance to combine my love of science with my desire to help farm workers and farm land. In order to fully comprehend a problem, environmental studies examines the whole picture, including the social, economic, political, biological, and ecological aspects of the environment. So, to understand why Mexican farm workers were being treated poorly in the United States, I had to understand the social, biological, and ecological aspects of the entire agricultural system that they were part of, both in the United States and Mexico.
My work in graduate school enabled me to channel my anger at the injustice that farm workers face into a productive way to work toward helping people and the environment. Studying the “whole picture” gave me the perspective I needed to understand the complicated intersections between countries, science, farming, racial discrimination, and human rights.
Using the tools of looking at the “whole picture” that I learned in graduate school would have drastically changed my childhood. But it was my adventures outside, my love of science, and the painful feelings of rejection and isolation in childhood that helped shape my desire to use science as a way to preserve the environment and work for social justice. My childhood experiences also taught me to never be afraid of speaking my mind or getting angry. For a woman of my generation, this is an unusual characteristic. My mother always used to say, “Think before you speak!” But that always felt unnatural. If I had kept all of my thoughts and emotions stuffed inside, I would probably be dead by now!
In my life, allowing myself to get angry and speaking my mind has empowered me to make progress in both my education and my career. Most importantly, however, it has given me a way to look at the “whole picture,” to see how all of our actions can make a difference in the world. I may have been 57 years old when I finished my Ph.D., but I learned that it is never too late to follow your passion or speak your mind.
Back to Team
I was born in 1939 in Tularosa, New Mexico. My people are known as Chicanos, with four hundred years of heritage in New Mexico. My family was poor and extremely hard working, and I was the third oldest of five children. My siblings and I started working in the cotton fields when we were in grade school, trying to earn money to help our family. Although we were poor, we were rich in family values; the values I grew up with were those of family, community and helping each other.
When I started elementary school, I knew very little English. When I was in public school I had the impression that all teachers were white since that was the situation in our school—there were no role models for Chicanos. However, I was blessed with talent in mathematics and a high school teacher noticed that and pushed me into the more advanced classes in mathematics.
When I graduated from high school I was ready to join the Air Force. But, a friend of my family came to my graduation and offered to buy my books for the first year if I attended the College of Saint Joseph in Albuquerque. He took me there during the summer to see the campus and I decided I would take him up on the offer. This friend taking interest in my education motivated me in ways that are immeasurable.
I was the only one from my family to go to college and my first year of school was very difficult. I was so homesick I almost quit, but my parents considered education to be very important so they encouraged me to continue and pursue my degree.
When I was an undergraduate in college I supported myself by being a janitor for four years. I also had to take out loans to help support my education. Since I had not planned on attending college I did not seek any scholarships as a senior in high school and I did not receive any counseling to that end.
Despite my financial difficulties, I never had any doubt as to what I would study in college: mathematics. During my senior year at the College of Saint Joseph, my mathematics professor suggested that I attend graduate school and study statistics, since he felt that was becoming a very important field of study. He was right. I received a Ph.D. in statistics in 1966 from Colorado State University. As a graduate student I had a research assistantship for one year and a training grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for four years. In graduate school there are more opportunities for support in the form of research/teaching assistantships, fellowships, grants, etc.
What do statisticians do? We are involved in the design of studies for producing meaningful data, analyzing data for useful information, and drawing practical conclusions from data. Statisticians are employed in our government where they are involved in many areas used in forming national policy, such as the census bureau where they design sample surveys. They are also involved in the pharmaceutical industry where they analyze data to determine which drugs are effective and safe before they are dispensed to the public; in the credit card industry where they determine the credit rating of applicants for credit cards; in industry where they are involved in the quality assurance of products; etc. In short, statisticians are employed in many different types of industry, which affect our daily lives.
As a statistician I was involved in public education for 36 years, directing the research of over 50 master’s/ Ph.D. students in statistics, and collaborating with researchers in several science and engineering disciplines. I have also worked at the Los Alamos National Laboratory on problems dealing with system reliability, and at the Weapons Laboratory (now Phillips Laboratory) at Kirtland Air Force Base on research related to the development of an outer space discrimination system to defend against a potential nuclear attack, etc. Prior to my retirement from Texas Tech University in 2002, I was elected a Fellow of the American Statistical Association. One of my most important objectives is to promote the education of our minority students and to promote their involvement in today’s society. Also, I advise many minority students on educational opportunities.
If you are the first one from your family to pursue a higher education you will be setting a great example for those who are to follow. I was the only one from my family to attend a university but each of my four children has received at least a master’s degree. So you see, by pursuing a higher education you impact many others.
Back to Team
The best thing that ever happened to me was getting very sick in the 2nd grade. Because I had to stay home almost all year, my teacher told my mother to get me library books to read. My mom had never been to the library before, and had never seen a children’s book. Once she found the library, she chose a variety of adult books—particularly biographies. Using those books, I taught myself to read, and from that point I read everything I could get my hands on. I read the neighbor’s books, I read ingredient lists on food labels and chemical products at the local store, and I devoured anything they gave me at school to read, which unfortunately wasn’t much. To this day, I can breeze through a 500-page book in a sitting.
We lived in a diverse low-income neighborhood in Stockton, California. From the earliest age, I was surrounded by Filipinos, Latinos, Chinese, Japanese, African Americans, European immigrants, and other American Indians My father was Cherokee and my mother mixed Cherokee heritage, both born in Delaware County, Oklahoma, but relocated to the California Bay Area for work.
My world was small 60 years ago. Most people in my community were not aware of the broader world around us in terms of words and science. No one went to the doctor or dentist. We had a car and were one of the few families who would pack up and travel for two weeks every summer—seeing the West, sleeping in the car, and eating from the simple food supplies we carried. We’d stop for lunch at magnificent vistas or on the roadside, seeking the next vista.
The only outsiders who came into our little universe were teachers and for the most part, they just wanted us to sit, be quiet, and behave. Teachers seldom challenged us or even gave us assignments and tests. Eventually my high school stopped giving textbooks to students, as we were considered too irresponsible to take care of them. (However, even among kids I knew who were picked up periodically for theft, I never personally knew anyone who stole or destroyed a textbook.)
I was insatiably curious about the world around me, but no one in my orbit knew the answers to my questions. I remember asking in the 1st grade that if there is a word for mother and father like parents, why is there not a word for brother and sister? No one knew the word sibling. I wondered how fog materialized—all sorts of things—but nobody could tell me. My father found a used set of World Book Encyclopedia that I read many times cover to cover. I can still tell you the page that details the origin of the letter W.
I went to a big school with a lot of tensions and violence between groups of people. Many girls in my high school had babies, and the boys went to “juvey”—the juvenile justice system, the common start on a prison path. Few students were concerned about academics. In my biology class of 700 students, teachers introduced us to the concept of grading on a curve. In general this boosted the overall indicator of performance, but when they passed out the curve, one score was so high they had to take it out to keep all the other students from failing. That was my score, and that was when I discovered the actual field of Science.
In high school I dated a boy who told me about the SATs. I had never heard of the test, but I went with him to take it at the local community college. When they sent scores to my high school, the counselor called me in and told me that I could go to any college in the country. But I didn’t know any colleges—neither of my parents even went to high school. My father attended an Indian Mission school where they taught the value of learning but told him he wasn’t worth having any more years of education. My mother was suspicious of education. She felt that education takes children away from home and diminishes fully taking part in family and community roles—which is, in fact, somewhat true. I ended up going to San Joaquin Delta College to study nursing because it was the only school I knew about. At that time, I was too shy to ask where to get information.
The greatest gift my father gave me was a singular cultural adaptation: I was the oldest child in my family and as the oldest, it was expected that if you came of age and were not married, you would work and send money back home to help take care of the family. The money I earned in those years (along with some scholarships) went for my college education. However, the sense of wholeness and helping has stayed with me and my brothers all our lives.
By the time I finished at San Joaquin, I had begun to figure out higher education. I enrolled in California State University, Fresno, and completed a BS and MS in public health. My first daughter was born just after I finished, but I knew I still wanted to continue my education. I went to University of Texas, Austin, for a PhD in public health and had two more children along the way.
Having three young children while working on my dissertation was a challenge, and then five members of my family died in a 9-month period, including my father. The loss of my father affected me the most. I don’t cry easily, but I would sit at a cubicle in the library steeling myself to focus as tears ran uncontrollably down my face. As sorrowful as it was, I felt my father’s spirit with me, supporting me to go beyond the barriers that were set for him.
Since completing my PhD, I’ve held several amazing professional positions, largely emanating from the pursuit of curiosity, keeping an open mind, and exercising what I’ve learned about being bicultural. I’ve conducted research and written grants for medical schools; I was a founding faculty member of a multidisciplinary research center at the University of Alabama at Birmingham Health Science Center; I was a corporate executive for Honda of America—and for the last 10 years I’ve worked at Georgetown University, initiating new degree programs in international health, human science, and healthcare administration, as well as forming a center for health and education and a health law institute. During my sabbatical last year at Oxford I studied nonprofit governance, but I also made time to read and talk with brilliant scholars about philosophy, literature, history, and theology. I remain alert for the next challenge. I am the person I became in 2nd grade, taking in the world around me, reading everything I can get my hands on, and fueling the drive to pursue curiosity. Long ago, I let go of shyness and stories that embitter the soul.
It concerns me that few American Indians seek to study the hard sciences. If you look at the percentage of American Indians in the sciences, one might think that we are not predisposed to learn about chemistry, physics, or molecular biology. Yet, our heritage is rooted in empiricism! Indian traditions are deeply embedded in observation and objective testing. My father would take us to the mountains or the desert and make us sit and look. He didn’t always talk or explain. We had to be still, experience, and watch—then tell him what we saw over time. He asked questions in a Socratic manner that fostered thinking for ourselves and generating new questions. That is empiricism. Now is the time to reclaim this innate talent. As Native Indians, we share a heritage of keen observation, of not superimposing preconceived ideas.
Indian country has considerable experience with scientists—coming to our communities with an agenda that proves preconceived notions with self-serving intent. This is not the native way nor is it good science. The empirical fields have high standards to assess and interpret what we see, touch, feel, and smell, and to move cautiously to declare conclusions. That is why I think more Indians will make great scientists. We can capture the curiosity of youth and nurture the fundamental quantitative skills that are the tools of science. We have a long history honoring nature. It is time to bring these traditions into science and the common good; in doing so, we honor our ancestors.
Dr. Bette Jacobs is a Professor in the Department of Health Systems Administration and Distinguished Professor O’Neill Health Law Institute, Georgetown University & Fellow Campion Hall University of Oxford.
Back to Team
As a middle school student in Corona, California, I was fortunate to have Mr. Schultie for my science teacher. When I would ask him a question, he would say, ”I don’t know, but I have often wondered about that myself.” Mr. Schultie had a library in the back of his classroom, and he would suggest that I look for an answer there and let him know what I had found. For the longest time I thought he was ignorant. Finally, I realized that he was teaching me a very important lesson: I could find an answer to any question on my own. It was wonderful to have someone point me in the right direction. Many times throughout my education, I have been fortunate to have someone guide me by pointing the way.I attended California State University, San Bernardino after I finished high school. I wasn’t quite ready for college at that time, so I quit and worked as a buyer at Circle City Hospital for two years. That work experience convinced me that I was still very interested in science, and that an education would provide me with the necessary tools to become a successful scientist. So, I went back to school. This time I went to California State University, Fullerton. My favorite subject was chemistry. I recall a conversation that I had with my professor of organic chemistry where he told me that no one understood how aspirin worked. I was dumbstruck. How could we be so uninformed about such a common, over-the-counter drug? This started my interest in the chemistry of drugs, which continues to this day.
I moved to San Francisco and completed my Bachelor of Science degree in biochemistry at San Francisco State University. I was still very interested in the chemistry of drugs but was seeking financial security in a profession. How could you make a decent living in chemistry? Little did I know of the many interesting and lucrative opportunities that actually existed. Nevertheless, I enrolled in the School of Pharmacy at University of California, San Francisco. At this critical point in my career, I was again fortunate to have someone point the way. Dr. Neal Castagnoli told me that I could study pharmacy and at the same time continue my studies in chemistry. This is exactly what I did. I received a Doctor of Pharmacy (Pharm.D.) degree in 1983 and a Ph.D. in Pharmaceutical Chemistry in 1987 while working for Dr. Paul Ortiz de Montellano. Paul was also a major influence in my life. He continued to feed my curiosity, and more than anything else he nurtured my love for science.
I then moved to Pennsylvania State University for a post-doctoral fellowship. During this time my scientific interests broadened, and I began to study the chemistry of proteins, working with Dr. Steve Benkovic. I examined how a cell makes more DNA, something that must happen for the cell to divide. This was also an exciting time, learning new ideas and different ways to perform experiments. Steve taught me how to approach difficult problems in studying the chemistry of enzymes. These lessons are very important to my everyday life as a scientist today.
Finally, after all the training and hard work, I accepted a faculty position at School of Pharmacy, University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in 1989. Although I no longer practice pharmacy, I teach pharmacy students biochemistry and try to show them how the biochemistry of a cell (and a human) is changed by drugs. Today the pharmacist’s role in society is going through radical changes. In the last century, the pharmacist’s role was mainly to dispense medicine. Now pharmacists are receiving more intensive training, leading to the Doctor of Pharmacy degree. Pharmacists are now expected to take a more active role in helping patients.
My favorite part of my job, however, is conducting research on viruses. These are very tiny infectious particles that enter a cell and ”take it over” to make more viruses. My laboratory is interested in how a virus replicates inside of a cell. We try to understand how the virus puts itself together, making virus pieces from the cell’s pieces. I am still interested in chemistry, the chemistry of life. The lessons that I have learned from my teachers as well as my students and peers have made me even more curious about how life works. If I can have it my way I will continue to be a student for the rest of my life.
Back to Team
Over the years, I’ve learned that the journey towards and through a Science and Engineering Career can have many twists and turns, and is typically not the simple path that you envisioned when you were younger. However, it can be far richer and more fulfilling than you ever imagined if: (1) you work hard; (2) are persistent; (3) courageously and judiciously explore seemingly risky opportunities; (4) make enabling sacrifices; (5) accept that many of your decisions will be imperfect and possibly even wrong; and (6) learn from and move on from your failures and disappointments. In retrospect, I realize that my professional success has been enabled by many other supporting influences around me, starting with my parents. We also have an obligation to pay it forward to others when we have the opportunity.
My maternal grandmother never had the opportunity to pursue a primary or secondary education because of the turmoil of the 1910 Mexican Revolution which forced her immigration to the USA. Nonetheless, she valued the importance of education and often reminded me of our family’s Aztec heritage. Her stories about her Nahuatl-speaking grandmother and how Astronomy influenced the Aztec world view combined with more modern American science fiction influences, and were influential in my early interest in a STEM career. My parents were not college graduates, and neither were engaged in STEM Careers. Although they did not understand what a STEM Career could provide compared to other more familiar careers (i.e., business, law or medicine), they could offer love and support my decision to pursue my STEM career interest.
I originally wanted to be an astrophysicist and a professor, and that led my early education choices. In High School, I had to find courage to ignore other uninformed voices around me that tried to dissuade me from a Physics career as being “too hard”, or unmarketable. With my family’s support, I earned my Physics bachelor’s degree from the University of Dallas. Afterwards, my parents did not pressure me to get a “real job” rather than pursue a graduate education. This faith and encouragement helped me pursue the lengthy and arduous path through graduate school. Since I grew up in San Antonio, I focused my graduate school search within Texas. Unfortunately, after various visits, none of the programs seemed like a good fit for me, and it was too late to apply elsewhere. Uncertain about where to go to graduate school, I was fortunate to find a civil service physicist job at Kelly AFB in San Antonio to buy me more time to investigate graduate school options. My KAFB co-workers were friendly and I quickly learned how to do my job evaluating jet engines. Within a few months, I became bored with the position, and learned that the more interesting Physics jobs were elsewhere, and required much more education. Thus, I continued my search for a Physics Graduate School outside of Texas that seemed like a better fit.
I learned about the recent decision to place the Hubble Space Telescope Science Institute (STSI) at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and that looked like an incredible opportunity worth pursuing despite the distance from my family and culture. With my parents’ nervous blessing, I took a risk and went to Physics and Astronomy graduate school at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, far my family and cultural surroundings. My KAFB co-workers were supportive of my decision, but also thought I was crazy to resign from a secure career civil service job with steady promotion opportunities. In hind sight, it turned out that the position was not secure – KAFB closed due to a BRAC Commission decision within 10 years (now Port San Antonio).
The change of surroundings during my first year was much more difficult than I expected, and I was surprised how quickly “out of shape” I became from university study habits in my “gap year” between undergraduate and graduate school. I also did not save as much money as I thought I would despite staying at home for that gap year. There is a risk in taking a gap year between undergraduate and graduate school, and I was almost a victim. I seriously thought about quitting graduate school that first year, but I somehow worked hard and persisted. The memory of the lack of career challenge from my previous KAFB job was a key motivator. Fortunately, after that first tough year at Hopkins, things became more comfortable and exciting. Despite an interesting STSI summer intern experience after my first year at Hopkins, I realized that I was more interested in the state-of-the-art instrumentation contained in the Hubble Space Telescope. I learned that Condensed Matter and Materials Physics were an even greater passion, so I took a risk and shifted gears away from Astrophysics.
My Hopkins dissertation project focused on fundamental issues related to surface and interface magnetism, partially motivated by the chance to be advised by a very bright, dynamic and supportive Physics Professor: Cal Walker. After Hopkins, I still wanted to be a Professor, and I was advised that a challenging postdoctoral research experience was crucial. With Cal’s help, I was fortunate to successfully apply for an National Research Council Postdoctoral Research Associateship at the Naval Research Lab in nearby Washington DC. My choice was motivated by the chance to work with another dynamic researcher (and Hopkins alumnus), Gary Prinz. Coincidentally, Gary Prinz would later found NRL’s Nanoscience Institute. Besides my engagement in exciting research at the dawn of the age of spintronics, I also had the chance to learn how Gary motivated a team of researchers towards a coordinated goal, and the importance of research in support of US National Security.
Determined to be a Professor at a place where I could make a difference and move closer to family, I next accepted a position at Texas State University. Like graduate school, the first year was the hardest. I wondered if I made the right decision. After working hard and surviving the first year, it was exhilarating working towards building a new Materials Physics research and curriculum program that impacted the careers of many future students. I began offering mentoring that began to pay forward the help that I received. I had great satisfaction helping a group of ambitious Texas State students initiate a new “Science Extravaganza” outreach program that was eventually recognized and expanded throughout the National Society of Mexican American Engineers and Scientists organization. I was pleased that I significantly contributed towards Texas State University becoming a Hispanic Serving Institution, and lead the way to a new interdisciplinary Materials Science Doctoral program.
After 13 years at Texas State University, another opportunity for change and growth appeared – I was offered a chance to lead an R&D Department with outstanding nanomaterials science/engineering experts at Sandia National Laboratories (NM). This opportunity was the result of my expanding research collaborations putting me on the radar of Sandia National Labs. Many of my Texas State University colleagues saw great risk in the opportunity, especially since I would be leaving a tenured Professor position. Additionally, many of them thought that since the Sandia position was not a Professorship, it was not a “real” science position. I disagreed. Sandia’s offer was a risky opportunity, taking me out of Texas again and landing me in a new environment and culture. Again, the first year was the hardest and I wondered if I made the right decision to come to Sandia. Again, persistence, adaptability and networking helped me make the transition. It has been a tremendous and satisfying learning experience at Sandia, leading to recognition by HENAAC and Fellowship in the American Physical Society. In my present role, I continue to look for ways to keep paying it forward. I don’t know what opportunity lays in waiting in the future, but I hope that I will recognize it and have the courage to pursue it. I hope that my example helps you recognize and courageously pursue your path.
Updated April 3,2018
Back to Team
I never thought about becoming a mathematician or a scientist when I was younger. In fact, I had a strong desire to become either an actor or a hotel manager! While in school I worked as a Coke salesman at the 1968 Olympics in my native Mexico City, and in a hotel. As a student I excelled at all subjects; however, after the October 2, 1968 student massacre at Tlatelolco, I lost interest in school. The hope for democracy and change had been destroyed by the military. I immigrated to Wisconsin in 1974 where I held a few non-academic jobs – including a job at a cheese factory – before returning to school. I enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point (UWSP) in 1975, where I majored in Spanish literature and mathematics, earning my bachelor’s degree in 1976. I completed a master’s degree in pure mathematics in 1977 at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and in 1984 I completed a Ph.D. in applied mathematics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, under the supervision of Fred Brauer. I taught for a year at the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma(1984-85) before accepting a position as a postdoctoral student in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Cornell University. Simon Levin (now at Princeton University) was my mentor from 1985 to 1988. I joined the faculty at Cornell in 1988 as an assistant professor of biomathematics, was promoted to associate professor in 1991, and to full professor in 1997.I have been very lucky because I have a job where I am interested and am able to work with issues that I find important. Because I want others to be able to have the same opportunities as myself, I co founded (with Herbert Medina) the Mathematical and Theoretical Biology Institute (MTBI) in 1996. MTBI supports and fosters research activities primarily among underrepresented minority undergraduate students. During the regular academic year, MTBI also mentors and supports underrepresented minority undergraduate and graduate students from various universities who are working in the mathematical or statistical sciences. MTBI mentored and trained over 106 minority undergraduate students in the mathematical and statistical sciences from 1996 to 2000. About 47% of these students were enrolled in some of the most selective U.S. graduate programs in these fields in the nation. I received a Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring in 1997, in part for the work that I have carried out with MTBI.
I currently hold joint appointments in the Departments of Statistics, Biometrics, and Theoretical and Applied Mechanics at Cornell University. I am also a member of the graduate programs of applied mathematics, epidemiology, ecology and evolutionary biology and Latin American studies at Cornell. My research involves the use of dynamical systems, modeling, statistics and computational techniques in the study of theoretical questions that arise in these fields. You may never have heard of a dynamical system, but its main idea has already been covered in your algebra course in high school, the composition of functions. In dynamical systems, we choose a function f and a point a, and follow the computations, a, f(a), f(f(a)), f(f(f(a))), …, forever. For example, if f(x) = x2, then if we start with a real number a, the sequence of numbers generated gets larger and larger if a>1 or a<-1, smaller and smaller if -1<a<1, and stays one if a=±1. This is a dynamical system. Maybe it doesn’t look very interesting, but if you let a be a complex number, then beautiful patterns are described. However, I used them mostly to model populations and disease epidemics.
I have carried out specific research on HIV/AIDS, influenza, Chagas’ Disease, and tuberculosis. My research is driven by the study of the role of social dynamics (social landscape) on disease evolution. I received a Presidential Faculty Fellowship Award (1992-1997) for my interdisciplinary research and leadership efforts, which included a $500,000 National Science Foundation Grant. My research and education programs have been supported by various funding sources, including the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, National Security Agency, and the Sloan Foundation. I have published over ninety research articles, edited two volumes and co-authored a textbook on mathematical biology (with Fred Brauer). I was awarded the Profesor Plenario by the Universidad de Belgrano, and named a Catedra Patrimonial by the Institute of Applied Mathematics (IIMAS) at the National University in Mexico (UNAM). In 1999, I was named distinguished alumni by the UW-Stevens Point Alumni Association, and in 2000 I received the QEM Giant in Science Mentoring Award. For a recent interview look at STRIDES.
My job has been extremely rewarding. Thanks to my luck, awards, and hard work, I have been able to give back to those who need it the most. I have learned that education is the key to a better life for an individual, their family, and their community.
Back to Team
Growing up in Mexico City, I was surrounded by the enticing world of music, art, museums, and movies. But my family and I also explored the natural side of the city, discovering different parks, lakes, and rivers in and around the area.
My father worked in the electronics business and had to travel a lot, so we often went with him, including many wonderful trips to Acapulco. We’d always spend time at the seashore, looking at all the marine life, and enjoying the beauty of the land. At home, I had a chemistry set that included a microscope. I put everything I could under that lens—onions, bird wings, starfish I found at the beach.
I was insatiably curious—the kind of student who asks 50,000 questions. In high school I had a wonderful biology teacher who patiently put up with me and my questions about why this and why that. Finally, one day my teacher said, “If you really like biology and chemistry so much, why don’t I take you to one of the classes at the university?” I was so excited! I went with her to an animal physiology class at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) in Mexico City, which was a completely different world from high school. That is the day when I decided to go to university. I chose UNAM because it was one of the only schools at the time in Mexico that offered biology.
The first semester of college was very challenging. I had to work to support myself through school, so I taught English classes to kindergartners. But I was extremely determined. I was the first one in my family to get a college degree and everyone was always supportive.
I grew up in a very close family, surrounded by parents, two younger brothers, and a large extended family. I lost my mother when I was only 14 years old and it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever been through. Being with just my father and brothers felt lonely at times, but I had really close friends who helped me throughout. I had to grow up pretty fast, but I dealt with it by doing a lot of extracurricular classes, like studying the French language and Hawaiian dancing.
In addition to family support, my mentors encouraged me. Antonio Lazcano and Lynn Margulis transformed my life. Lynn used to tell me, “You have to apply for this course!” In doubt, I would respond, “I don’t know if I am going to be accepted.” Then she said something to me that I will never forget: “If you don’t apply, how will you ever get in?” My conversation with Lynn has now become my motto with my own students: “If you do not apply, you cannot get in!”
I stayed on at UNAM and got a master’s degree in biology. By then I was teaching college-level classes to support myself, but I also sold cheesecakes and chocolate cakes to make money on the side. So it really “took the cake” to get my master’s degree!
I knew that I wanted to expand my research for my PhD work and I was looking at interdisciplinary sciences, such as biogeochemistry, in which the study of biology, geology, and chemistry come together so the scientist can understand the interactions of different elemental cycles. I went to a lecture given by Ken Nealson, who was then at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. I was so inspired by his talk on biogeochemistry and bioluminescence that I went up to him afterward, told him I wanted to work in his lab, and he told me to apply. Later, Dr. Nealson called to tell me that I could study with him, but he was moving to the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee.
Going to Wisconsin for my PhD was one of the hardest things I have ever done. I had to leave everything behind. I packed my suitcase and off I went. I arrived in Milwaukee on a very cold day in winter; it was pretty crazy and shocking. Everything was completely different to me—the weather, the language, the social structure, the way people ate, the way people related to each other. I spoke English, but I was not really fluent. That first year I almost quit, but I am not a quitter, so I pushed on (with the help of my advisor and my best friend, Cecilia). By the time I got my PhD, I had become very proficient in English, biogeochemistry, and American culture!
After obtaining my PhD working on the biogeochemistry of manganese in Oneida Lake, New York, I was a postdoctoral fellow in two different laboratories: the Carnegie Institution of Washington, D.C., and the Institute of Marine Science(University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill). The aim of the research was to study the effects of atmospheric deposition (rain) in the open ocean and I even had the opportunity to experience a hurricane while at sea!
Now I am an associate scientist at the Great Lakes WATER Institute at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. I still work in the fields of biogeochemistry and microbiology, looking at the interaction of microbes and their environment. I currently work on the effects of invasive species, like zebra and quagga mussels, on the food web, particularly phytoplankton in Lake Michigan. I investigate how they are colonizing different areas and what effect it has on the local aquatic environments. Furthermore, we have been investigating the changes in Lake Michigan due to climate change, the impacts of which are felt at fisheries and primary production.
I love my job because I get to do so many different things. I have had the opportunity to work in the Sargasso Sea, Guaymas Basin in the Gulf of California, Yellowstone Lake in Wyoming, and Lake Michigan. Some days I am in the laboratory analyzing samples or looking under the microscope, while other days I am out in the field. We often take our research vessel Neeskay (which means “pure, clean water” in Ho-Chunk language) out on Lake Michigan to collect water, animals, and sediment cores to take back to the lab. I am very passionate about my job, because I am getting to do all the things I loved to do while I was growing up, but now I get paid for it! The best thing is to study hard, learn your English and math, and don’t give up on your dreams!
Back to Team
When I was a kid, I loved going to the movies with my uncle. During the 1950s, science fiction films became really popular. They had titles like Teenagers from Outer Space or When Worlds Collide. Even though these movies may have been far-fetched, they led to my first interest in science.
My uncle was not only my movie buddy. He also opened up the world to me. He taught me algebra, literature and philosophy, and he also showed me how to tap dance! He and my mother grew up in show business as part of a traveling vaudeville act. They were Oglala Sioux, and although my grandfather was not proud of his culture, the family earned their living performing in costume as an Indian act. He did not teach his children about the Sioux heritage. At that time, there was a tremendous amount of prejudice toward Native Americans, and my grandfather did not want his children to identify with a group that was so discriminated against.
My father, who emigrated with his family from Italy, was also a vaudeville musician and eventually became the musical conductor for the Holiday on Ice show. My mother ice-skated in the show. My brother and I often traveled with them when the show was on tour. But during the school year, we were enrolled in military or boarding schools. We lived in a lower-middle-class Italian neighborhood in Chicago. We spoke Italian, and my brother and I went to a Catholic school after my parents separated. My mother had a lot of grief because the community did not accept her. Even though she wasn’t raised Sioux, she looked Native American. We had further difficulties, since divorce was also not accepted in our primarily Catholic neighborhood. But I felt like I was a pretty normal kid.
My mother remarried when I was 13, and my stepfather moved us to Victorville, California, in 1958. I was taken from a city of five million people to a city of 5,000 people located in the Mojave Desert. That was a lonely time for me and I experienced a lot of culture shock. I spent most of my time reading and doing homework, since I was planning to go to college. When I was 17 or 18, I became inspired by the autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, an original renaissance man. Like Cellini, I wanted to become an expert in different subjects. Going to college was not expected back then, because you didn’t need a degree to get a job. But I wanted to learn about literature and science, and get my Ph.D.
I decided to pursue a career in physics because I liked the subject in high school. I started at the University of California, Riverside, in 1959. I got married at age 23, and we had our first child, Cora, after I completed my degree in 1966. During this time, I worked for the university while my wife worked for the phone company. I paid my way through school without any financial assistance. After I finished my master’s at the University of Washington in Seattle in 1968, we were tired of being poor, so I took a job with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) researching atmospheric diffusion. I studied how air quality in our country is affected by the dispersion of pollution from sources like smokestacks or cars.
Later in life, when my first daughter was old enough to go to college, I went back too! With a scholarship from NOAA, I commuted weekly to the Georgia Institute of Technology, and completed my Ph.D. in 1989. Besides being a personal goal, completing my education made it possible for me to become a professor.
I took the opportunity to take my research in a new direction, and learned about atmospheric gravity waves. I had always wondered why trees sometimes rustle at night, even when there shouldn’t be any wind. One theory is that these turbulent events are generated by atmospheric gravity waves. These waves are similar to the waves on the sea, except air is pushed up and down, instead of water. Atmospheric gravity waves can be created by thunderstorms, fast-moving cold fronts, or air moving over mountains. The turbulence generated by these waves can increase the spread of pollutants, and so it’s important to study how the waves are created. When I decided to research this field, there wasn’t much information out there. It has been said that the best way to learn a subject is to write a book about it, so that’s what I did.
Maybe it was my fascination with the Italian Renaissance, or maybe it’s from growing up with multi-talented vaudeville performers, but I have always loved learning about new and different subjects. Now I am learning about my own history, since my Native American background wasn’t really recognized because “it didn’t belong” when I grew up. My grandfather took the name of DeSoto because he wanted to appear more Spanish than Native American. It was really sad, because the forces of society succeeded in destroying his interest in his own culture. But the reverse is true for me.
Since I was denied that part of my background, my interest in my heritage has been rekindled. I want to learn more about it, and help young Native Americans interested in science. One of my colleagues, a member of SACNAS, invited me to give a talk at a SACNAS conference. Science is such a common language. It is about thinking, learning, and using something that everyone has, no matter what your race, class or gender is: your mind.
Back to Team
I was born in a town called Rio Grande City, Texas, but I grew up in Roma, just a few miles away. I have an older brother and a younger sister. My father was from Roma and my mother came to the United States from Mexico when she was six. Part of border culture is having family on both sides and crossing the border on a regular basis. This has always been a part of my life. My interest in science grew out of my interest in nature. I used to grow plants and flowers with my grandmother, and I had a fascination with wildlife. I also enjoyed going out to our farm, planting and being involved in the harvesting of crops.
While growing up, the obstacles I faced were self-imposed and had to do with accepting challenges and not underestimating my own abilities. For example, I was not a risk taker. My mother, who was a teacher, constantly challenged me and pushed me in directions I would not usually go in. I was able to make decisions on my own and realize I had the ability to do well in many activities when I started to take the risk. Once I was persuaded to participate in a statewide poetry reading competition, even though I had never done this before. I discovered it was something I could do. The experience also taught me poise, self-confidence, and how to be comfortable talking to people I did not know.
I used to talk to our family dentist about my future plans. Of course, he wanted me to be a dentist, but I wasn”t sure I wanted to do that. There were new events going on with space exploration when I was in college, and microbiology was frequently mentioned. Microbiology is a branch of biology which looks at tiny life forms we can only see with a microscope, such as bacteria. That fascinated me, and I chose to major in microbiology.
Originally I did not consider going to graduate school. However, one of my microbiology professors at the University of Texas, Austin, encouraged me to pursue more education. During my senior year he asked me if I was going to take a special test called the Graduate Record Exam (GRE). The GRE is what you take after college to apply to graduate school. My professor encouraged me to take this exam so that I could continue on in higher education. His encouragement was very important to me at that time. I took the test and did well. I applied to the University of Texas, Austin, graduate program in microbiology, and I was accepted.
When I was doing research in graduate school, I used to study the relationship between a particular type of fungus and grasses. The green stuff that grows on moldy bread is an example of fungi. Mushrooms are also a kind of fungus! The fungus I study lives within the tissues of a certain type of grass, but you cannot tell from looking at the grass that the fungus lives there unless you take a piece of grass, dissect it, and look at it under a microscope. The fungus produces chemical compounds which end up helping the plant, by keeping away animals and insects which normally eat it. The fungus benefits from this relationship with the plant because the fungus derives all its nutrients from the plant itself, so these two different organisms help each other. Amazingly, when the grass releases seeds to produce more plants, the fungus is already within the seed, ready to grow.
For many years I had a career as a research scientist, and during that time I worked in the lab, published papers, and taught classes. I am currently associate dean of the graduate school at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, New Mexico. My responsibilities deal with getting students into programs so that they can pursue their career goals. For example, if you want to be a scientist, or teach your favorite subject at the college level, you will need to attend graduate school.
The advice I”d like to pass on to you is that you should not be afraid to dream of the things you would most like to do in life. The dreams themselves can lead to aspirations and hopes, and through continued work those aspirations can become a reality. Your dreams are achievable and the secret to converting those hopes into reality is education.
Back to Team
Growing up in New Mexico, I was always interested in the stories about how the mountains and rivers surrounding me came to be. I remember being told the mountains outside Albuquerque were uplifted during a single huge earthquake and I questioned it immediately, wanting to know more. I also loved hiking in the mountains because I could get away from everything and be on my own.
Even though I was always good at science, I had a really tough time applying myself. My family was very poor; my mom struggled to keep enough food on the table for my brother and me. She chased jobs throughout northern New Mexico and we moved so much that I had changed schools seven times by the time I graduated high school.
To help my mom, I started washing dishes at a local Albuquerque restaurant when I was 12 years old. By the time I was 19, I was managing a fancy restaurant in town. I had guys twice my age working under me and I saw my future in their toil. I knew this wasn’t the life I wanted, but I didn’t know how to break free.
If I hadn’t met my wife, Kelly, I wouldn’t be a geologist today. She is four years older than me and had already graduated from the University of New Mexico (UNM) when we started dating. She pushed me to enroll and helped me apply to school. I got in despite my bad grades in high school and I had to take a lot of remedial classes in the first couple of years.
I enrolled with the intention of becoming a physicist since I was good at science. But the physics class was in the basement and it was terrible! We were indoors, working with equations and doing meaningless experiments. It felt so sterile, closed in, not what I wanted to do with my life.
In my third year, I was still trying to choose a major when I took a geology class by accident. I was immediately enthralled. Geology allowed me to combine my love of the outdoors and science. I saw these guys getting paid to go camping and I knew that was the job I wanted.
While I was studying at UNM, I had several significant mentors who paved my way to a successful academic career. Gary Smith, who taught my intro to geology class, arranged my first job that wasn’t in a restaurant or a car shop. I worked updating a database at the New Mexico Geology Museum and, while the job was tedious, it was my pathway out of the restaurant industry.
Through Gary I met Jeff Grambling, who hired me as a geology field assistant and taught me all about mapping complex geology. He was an amazing friend, mentor, and teacher. While I was working with him, he died from a brain tumor. He was only 40 years old, younger than I am now. I still feel the loss of him greatly.
When Jeff passed, Karl Karlstrom took over for him and he was also an important mentor. He gave me a strong foundation in structural geology that I still draw on today. In fact, I still use my notes from his classes as a basis for some of my lectures at Cornell today. Karl really pushed me to go to graduate school. For example, once he had me lead a field trip for a group of students visiting from Princeton University. I showed them the local geology and they were so impressed with my knowledge that they thought I was a postdoc. The Princeton professor who brought the students to New Mexico ended up becoming my PhD advisor. Later, Karl told me he knew it would work out that way.
When it came time to apply for graduate school, I was scared to leave my comfort zone of New Mexico. I had spent my whole life there and I loved the blue skies, green chili, the people, and the geology. Also, I was the first person in my family to graduate high school, let alone go to a university and graduate school. I was terrified to move to New Jersey, but Karl really pushed me to go to the best university I could. If it weren’t for his advice, I would have stayed in New Mexico and I probably wouldn’t be a professor at Cornell.
Going to a place like Princeton was definitely intimidating, but I knew it was a great opportunity and I did my best to fit in. My PhD advisor, Lincoln Hollister, granted me amazing opportunities and treated me like a colleague instead of a student, which made all the difference for me. We co-authored some really high-impact papers together and he invited me into big multi-institutional projects. He also introduced me to the geology of British Columbia, which I’ve now studied for the last 15 years.
I am now an associate professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, working in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences studying tectonics, structural geology, and igneous and metamorphic petrology. Simply put, I try to figure out how the earth loses heat. The earth is a heat machine, hot on the inside and cold on the outside. Ultimately, that’s why we’re able to live on it. Without plate tectonics, which help circulate the heat to the surface, the earth would cease to bear life.
To answer these big questions, I’m in the field a lot, which is one of the best parts of my job. I recently calculated that I’ve probably slept outside for two-and-a-half to three years of my professional life, which amounts to two or more months in the field every year.
While I love being in the field, it’s been really difficult being away from my family so much. I was gone when my son learned how to talk and I’m still sad I missed out on that. Also, a lot of the places I go are really remote. There are no cell phones, no Internet, no nothing. During my PhD studies, I’d get dropped off by a helicopter in the wilderness of British Columbia and be gone for weeks, never talking to my family. I’m very lucky that my wife, Kelly, puts up with it. When she met me, I never imagined I’d even go to college and she never imagined that she would marry a guy who’d be going to crazy places full of grizzly bears just to look at rocks.
So much of my life is defined by what I do as a geologist, yet I’ve actually spent more years working in restaurants because I started so young. It’s important to know that wherever you are during your teenage years does not have to define where you end up being. I had a rough and wild childhood living in bad neighborhoods and I didn’t do well in school. But all that didn’t mean I couldn’t go on to something better. Being a geologist wasn’t even on my radar; it really happened by accident. I always tell my students to do the best they can and don’t be afraid to do really scary things, like, for example, going to Princeton—something truly terrifying, but that in the end turned out really well!
Back to Team
I am Mexican-American, and I was born in Las Vegas, New Mexico. All of my relatives are from New Mexico–my family has been there since the beginning, from before the border was changed so that New Mexico was no longer a part of Mexico, but a part of the United States. In this sense, I have always been ”American”. I grew up in Denver, Colorado in the housing projects. I have a brother and a sister who are both younger than I. My family received welfare and always lived far below the poverty level.
My brother, sister, and I were raised solely by my mother. Sometimes my mother would work outside the home, so we had a great deal of responsibility. I was the oldest, and I had to make sure that everyone did their chores and their homework. I did my homework without any help, since my mother had only a third grade education. Sometimes she would relieve me of some of my chores so that I could do extra homework. In this way she showed me how much she valued education.
I attended Smedley Elementary School, Horace Mann Junior High School, and North High School, all in Denver. When I was growing up, we faced serious obstacles like poverty and discrimination. I was always aware of the notion that Mexican-Americans were not able to reach certain levels of success. I had a dream when I was small that I would be a brain surgeon and that I would discover something fabulous. However, that was one of those dreams that was crushed by the very subtle yet pervasive message that people who looked like me could not achieve this. Every year, my public school teachers would share statistical information with our class showing that kids with all of my characteristics, such as being on welfare, coming from a single-parent home with an income below the poverty level, and living in the housing projects, were likely to fail. A chart in the classroom showed different incomes for different families, and I found out that the income for my family was so low that it was off the chart. I thought that if people were that poor, they wouldn’t even be able to live. I laughed to myself because it was my goal at that time to reach the poverty line.
I felt invisible in school, but I wanted to succeed. There was no way I was going to inherit money or a job, so I knew I had to be a good student. I thought that English class was really unmanageable, because I never knew what the teacher expected and in history class, we never talked about people that I felt I could relate to. Out of all the different subjects in school, I liked mathematics the best. With mathematics, I found that if I followed the rules, I would get the right answer. It didn’t matter what the teacher thought, because there was only one answer that was right. I stopped listening to remarks that were negative. I just kept on going with my education. I decided that when I hit that brick wall, I’d hit that brick wall and let the wall stop me, rather than just stopping myself before I’d even tried. I graduated from high school, I was sixth in my class. After high school, I started college at the University of Denver as a mathematics major. I did very well in this program, and I went on to the University of Colorado, Boulder for my master’s degree.
After I had finished my master’s degree, I still wanted to get a Ph.D. Considering the discrimination I had faced, everything else seemed easy. When I went to college, I knew I had to work twice as hard as anybody else just to prove that I had equal abilities. This made me a very hard worker, and an extremely persistent individual. I earned my Ph.D. at the University of Colorado, Boulder. My current title is professor of mathematics at Phoenix College, which is part of the ten college system of Maricopa County Community Colleges. I teach mathematics from arithmetic to calculus and differential equations. From my experiences I have learned that if you have a dream, God has given you the ability to make that dream come true. If someone tells you differently, they are absolutely wrong.
Back to Team
I was born in Buffalo, New York, on the Tonawanda Seneca Indian reservation. Growing up on a reservation, poverty was a part of the fabric of life. The reservation didn’t have running water until few years ago. The housing conditions were poor, and my family did not have much money for extras. There wasn’t a tremendous emphasis on education at home. Government policies at the turn of the century were geared towards assimilation, so most people on the reservations did not trust educated people or education. My mother hoped that I would graduate from high school. My parents were supportive, but they did not expect me to be an excellent student.
There is one very clear connection between my culture and my interest in science. I would say that on the reservation, there was a great deal of pride in being free, including free thinking. This way of thinking helps if you want to do scientific research. As a scientist, one thing you get to do is pursue a question that is of interest to you, even if it is not of interest to someone else. My mother was the one who helped me become interested in science and mathematics. She had scored 100% on the New York State test in geometry, and she always told me I could do the same. I never did get 100%, but I scored very high on this exam. Unfortunately, my mother never had the opportunity to attend college. When her friends were going off to college, she had to get a job as a domestic. In fact, she worked as a domestic in the high school she attended. She would have liked to be a teacher, but she did not have the money to get the training to become one.
I went to the University of Buffalo, which I thought was a long, long distance from home, but it was actually only thirty miles away. I lived in the dorm for my first two years of college, and my quality of life jumped tremendously. There was running water, and as far as food went, all you had to do was go to the cafeteria and there was as much food as you could possibly eat. It was really a step up, and it was interesting meeting people from other cultures who thought dorm life was awful.
Generally, my career as a college student was rough, and I was not a very good student. I had basically graduated from high school without studying very much at all. I didn’t have good study habits at home, so I didn’t adjust to university level work very well. My interests were mostly in football and spending time with friends, so my schoolwork suffered. I had started out as a chemistry major, but in my senior year I switched to biology, in part because I was getting A’s in biology. I decided that I wanted to continue my education beyond the four year degree. My ambition at that time was to be a high school science teacher and football coach.
When I started thinking about graduate school, I was told that I should get a master’s degree in science first, and pursue the master’s degree in education later. I was accepted to the University of Buffalo Graduate Program in Biology. That was the point at which I really became interested in being a scientist. After receiving my master’s degree, I went on to Case Western University in Ohio. I had a wonderful advisor and friend there, Howard Schniederman. He was a successful developmental biologist with a large and very well-known lab. The students and faculty in that lab were the most diverse research group I’d ever seen. There were men and women from many different ethnic backgrounds. Dr. Schniederman had assembled a group of people who were excited about research and excited about science. It was a great experience. The focus of my research was studying how cells were organized and how they develop structures in the body. I was interested in finding out how an organism develops from one cell to an organism with many different kinds of cells, using the fruit fly as a model. I started thinking, ”Why not go ahead and get a Ph.D. and teach at a university?”
After I received my Ph.D., I began teaching at the University of California, Santa Cruz. I taught there until I started my present position as the director of the Minority Opportunities in Research Division at the National Institute of General Medical Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland (right next to Washington DC). The goal of our division is to increase the number of minority students who go into research, and we have programs for students at all levels, including high school students. Throughout my education and career, I have seen the value of lifelong learning. The happiest people I know continue to actively learn despite their age. I have always wanted to understand more about how people learn and why some enjoy learning more than others do. If you are lucky your education does not end when you graduate from school, but continues throughout your whole life.
Back to Team
Many people who set high goals for themselves and reach them can tell you that a clear objective, determination, and support from loved ones got them were they are. I cannot. I had none of this support early in life. My father did not foster career-oriented aspirations in me because I was a girl, not a boy. He also did not support my decision to go to college later in life. I had a teacher who was excited about mathematics, but she never told me I could become a mathematician, although she did instill a love of math in me early on. Without support early in life, it was hard to set any goals at all, simply because I didn’t know I could. In other words, I didn’t set many goals because I didn’t know I should have any.
As an Italian and Cuban-American girl growing up in the Midwest, it was hard to find mentors, or even friends, who were of a mixed cultural heritage. I left the area as soon as I got out of high school and went to a more diverse area at the University of Wisconsin for college. Madison was a bigger city; it was southern Wisconsin, so it was a little bit more diverse but still wasn’t enough for me. I still felt very out of place, and soon I dropped out of college and moved to California, where suddenly the whole world opened up. The process of getting through college at a university seemed nearly impossible early on because of my lack of support from home. My father had encouraged my brothers tremendously and helped them pay their tuition, but he refused to give me a dime. In the end, I was forced to wait until I was in my mid-twenties to be considered financially independent so that I could apply for financial aid with or without my family’s help.
It wasn’t until I moved all the way to California that I realized how much diversity, or rather a lack of diversity, had affected me growing up. Still in California, however, there were very few women, especially Latina women in the field of mathematics. It did not even occur to me that mathematics was an area I could thrive in until I took a community college calculus course in San Francisco. I got such good grades and seemed to enjoy the work so much that my peers began to enquire about my plans for a four-year university. When I told them I hadn’t given college much serious thought, they were astounded. Eventually some older student friends of mine convinced me to give college more serious thought. Finally I was being told, “Of course you can!” instead of “Why would someone like you be interested in that?” Soon I began to look into University of California, Berkeley, and in time, I was accepted to the school.
While my goals and passions in mathematics seemed to be finally coming into clear view, I still didn’t have many mentors in the field encouraging me to thrive. Eventually I managed to put myself through college and graduate school at Berkeley as a mathematics major by working and going to school full time. I had this goal when I got into graduate school that it didn’t matter if I got my Ph.D. What mattered was that I learned as much as I could. I would only set these small goals for myself, not knowing how far I could take anything. Simply getting a B average was a goal, and then I got all A’s. By setting these small goals, I eventually was able to overcome the large obstacles set before me.
Now I am a faculty associate at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where I get to teach other students and run a program called the Wisconsin Emerging Scholars program. The program is supposed to increase the number of minority students in science and engineering by having them in intensive calculus discussion sections, similar to honors classes. I have come full circle back to the area in which I grew up, to the first university I attended and then left. It’s interesting because not a lot has changed. People still assume the ethnic norm to be Caucasian, and students of color often get marginalized and placed in the category of “other.”
Part of my job is to try and bridge existing gaps so that students don’t get left behind or not offered important opportunities to help them thrive. My experience growing up here and my education living in California help me bring together two worlds here. My favorite part of being a mathematician and teacher is working with students. I love it when I get to talk to a student outside of the classroom and find out their individual stories. I think it is important for me to offer mentorship because it is something I never had. It is part of my goal to offer support to students who may not have it and help define objectives that may not yet have been offered, so all they need is determination to carry them the rest of the way.
Back to Team
Sometimes you realize that there are certain moments in your life that influence you in a profound way. For me, one of those moments came when I was in junior high, and I saw a picture of an Indian doing a Sun Dance. Although I am Southern Arapaho, I did not live a very traditional life as a child. But when I saw this picture, I knew that I would some day do a Sun Dance—and from then on, my Native American background became very important to me. The Sun Dance represents the cycle of birth and death, whether symbolic or real, and it represents both tradition and transition. Now, years (and many Sun Dances) later, my cultural heritage defines much of the scientific work that I do. There have been many transitions in my life, some of which have been very unexpected, but my cultural heritage has provided me with a strong personal foundation, despite all of the changes in my life.
One of the very first surprise transitions in my life was when I decided, after beginning college, that I did not want to become a minister, as everyone in my family had assumed I would. (I had been playing the role of counselor and mediator in my family for a long time.) I enrolled as a psychology major at the University of Kentucky, thinking that a minister needed to understand how people work and think. My family did not understand my decision to go to college or support me while I was doing it. After delving into academic studies, I realized that I was not going to be a minister; I was going to be a psychologist instead!
However, the area of psychology that I wanted to study changed. My master’s degree was in a field of psychology called radical behaviorism, which means that I studied how different types of punishment and reward change animals’ behavior. But while I was working on my thesis, I realized that I was very bored with my work. I decided that I was going to have to rethink once more what psychology meant to me. This time, I decided that I wanted to work with people, so I went into cognitive psychology and got my Ph.D. at Temple University in 1978.
Before I’d even finished my Ph.D., my life took yet another unexpected turn. Jobs for cognitive psychologists were hard to come by in the late seventies, and the only job I could find was doing research for the Federal Bureau of Prisons at the University of Miami. Although I fundamentally disagreed with many aspects of the work, all my current research interests are a result of having taken that job.
After four years at the University of Miami, I worked in the prison system for another nine years. I became interested in substance abuse treatment and prevention because it occurred to me that 80–90% of the people I’d worked with in prisons were involved with drugs and alcohol. I knew from experience that prison did not help “cure” them of their addictions. Eventually, I left the prison system and went to work at Brown University, where I did research about substance abuse and prisons.
At Brown, I got to do a lot of things I hadn’t done before. I designed a Native American studies curriculum and taught subjects that I really care about. I also helped Native American students adjust to the university system and then later adjust to going home again. That transition is very difficult in college because you aren’t the same person when you go home as you were when you left. Sometimes this is especially hard for Native kids from reservations, who often feel that their communities don’t understand them anymore.
Now I am the senior study director at a corporation called Westat. I research substance abuse treatment programs in Native American communities. Substance abuse is a huge problem in many Native American communities because they tend to be poor and to have little hope that life will ever improve. I am strongly against the use of prisons to control substance abuse. I don’t think that it helps substance abusers or the communities they come from. I work to develop programs that will help entire communities heal and to prevent more people from becoming addicted to drugs and alcohol.
One of the most important aspects of helping Native communities overcome substance abuse problems is to help them realize that their cultures and ways of living may be different from other people’s, but they are just as valuable. When people realize that who they are and what they do is important, drugs and alcohol become much less appealing. Long ago, the Sun Dance introduced me to a new outlook on life—one that embraces change and impermanence. This foundation has given me the strength to help other Native people learn to value our heritage and contributions to the world so that we, as a community, can heal.
1945 – September 3, 2017
Back to Team
My father was a major influence on my early life. He was a Western Cherokee from Oklahoma who grew up living off and on with his grandmother, a medicine woman. When he was in his early teens, being the oldest, he left home due to the Great Depression and ended up in New Mexico. My father was in World War II, and in many ways my family owes a great deal to that war. Not only was it a great equalizer for minorities, but it also provided the GI Bill, which enabled my father to go to college in New Mexico. He became a high school mathematics and science teacher and a coach. When I was young I went to grammar school with Mexican-Americans, Anglos and Native Americans. For entertainment we would go to rodeos or pow-wows, where my father occasionally danced. While not wealthy by any measure, we were not truly poor. When I was ten years old we moved from Santa Fe, New Mexico to Santa Rosa, California. It was distinctly different in California, and the American Indian and Southwestern cultural presence was replaced by a very traditional Anglo-American culture. My father became a principal of a junior high school serving Mexican-Americans, Native Americans and African-Americans, and because of his commitment, life experiences and ability to relate to others, he became an honored educator. His commitment to serve others left a lasting imprint on my life. I am proud to be an American Indian scientist and love to work with students and others interested in science.
I was not a great student, but my high school biology teacher, Mr. Rathman, really took an interest in me and made me feel like I could make it through. My performance in high school was okay, but not good enough to get me into the university. Since the university was too expensive anyway, I went to a community college instead. I first thought I wanted to become a dentist, so I took science courses as a freshman and sophomore. It was at Santa Rosa Junior College where I was mentored, again by a biology teacher. Mr. Nixon not only expected good work but also took a personal interest in students. I didn’t do too well in college until I transferred to a four-year college, California State Polytechnic College (Cal Poly). Again, a great teacher took me under his wing and I was able to blossom as a student. At this time, I decided I wanted to become a scientist because I loved the study of cells. I ended up getting a master’s degree under the direction of Dr. Ron Ritschard at Cal Poly who gave me great career advice and support. I then transferred to University of California, Davis for my Ph.D., and again had the fortune of being mentored by a great person, Dr. Robert Grey.
I work in a sub-area of cell biology that deals with how cells change shape or form. I am particularly interested in what goes on in the cell’s cytoskeleton, a structure much like our own skeleton, which is meant to support the cell and give it form. However, the cytoskeleton has another function. The fibers that make up the cytoskeleton are used to move the cell, change its shape and move material from one part of the cell to another. The cytoskeleton is intimately involved with cell division, which is called mitosis. There are many things happening during mitosis, such as the separation of the duplicated chromosomes and the pinching in of the cell membrane to separate the two daughter cells. Moving things around requires motors, and the cell has built-in molecular motors. When you think of a motor maybe you think of an engine in a car, the electric motor of an elevator lifting people up to the 9th floor, or the motors in a dam that are used to convert water energy into electrical energy. One of the functions of a motor is to convert energy into motion, which is exactly what a molecular motor does. Using the fibers, or tracks, of the cytoskeleton of a cell, molecular motors enable the cell to undergo mitosis. The motors perform many functions. Some move the chromosomes apart and others constrict the dividing cell, with a muscle-like constricting belt, into two new cells. Amazing. In my laboratory here in Boston, and also working at the Marine Biological Laboratory, I examine these molecular motors and try to figure out how exactly they accomplish their task during mitosis.
My life as a scientist has been truly exciting and has allowed me to meet many people, travel, and live in a variety of places. In addition, I have served on the faculty at Dartmouth College, the University of Miami School of Medicine, the University of Pittsburgh, where I chaired the department, and at Boston College. In addition, I first joined SACNAS in 1979 and served as its President from 1998-2000. In all of my jobs I have tried to be involved in efforts to create opportunities for minorities in the sciences.
Elected Fellow of American Association for the Advancement of Science 2004
Elected Fellow of American Society for Cell Biology 2017
Updated April 3, 2018
Back to Team
There is a saying among my father’s people, the Tlingit, “When the tide is out, the table is set.” The Haida (my mother’s people) and the Tlingit are the Native peoples of Southeast Alaska and British Columbia and for millennia have thrived on the bounty of the land and sea.
We are a canoe people—fisherman, hunters, and gatherers of marine resources—and our lives are inextricably tied to the Earth. The Haida language reflects this deep connection to the natural world and celebrates the beauty that surrounds us. For example, the names of the months in the Haida calendar inform us of the activity happening in our ecosystem throughout the year. Kong koaans (June/July) means “Great month” because the weather becomes warm and the food becomes plentiful. K’algyaa kongaas is “ice month,” when the first ice appears on the rainwater in the canoes; and Wiid gyaas (April) means “Salmonberry bird month” when the song of the salmonberry birds announces that winter is over.
While the Haida, Tlingit, and other Native Alaskans are still intricately tied to the land, we are not the only ones to reap the bounty. Although commercial fishing is rated as one of the most hazardous occupations in America, fishing in Alaska is a billion dollar industry and is made up of both large commercial fishing operations and individual fisherman. A percentage of these individual fishermen are Alaska Natives, but their voices are not always heard during the setting of state and federal fishing policies. I spent my career as an Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Agent (through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration [NOAA]) speaking on behalf of Alaska Natives to ensure that their needs and uses of marine resources were recognized and accounted for.
I never set out to get a Ph.D. in marine policy. In fact, I wasn’t planning on going to college at all—I wanted to get married right out of high school. When our families didn’t approve of the marriage, the wedding was called off and my fiancé moved away. Soon after, my sister applied for me to go to college at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. The whole thing happened quickly. She sent the application on a Wednesday, my uncle—who was a professor there—took the application to the admissions office himself and I got accepted by Friday. I arrived on campus on Sunday, two days later. I had a sleeping bag, two suitcases, and my sewing machine. My sister registered me as a business major, but I quickly found that I didn’t like the field. I switched to home economics, but then the department closed down. At my uncle’s urging, I became a fisheries major.
As a fisheries major, I had a strong focus on biology and learned methods of sustainable approaches to the harvesting of fish and other marine resources. After I graduated, I wanted to do what every fisheries biologist does: sit up on a tower on a river and count the fish going by. But my uncles, many of whom were fisherman, encouraged me to get a master’s degree with a focus on management so that I could better represent their needs as Native Alaskans in the fishing industry. However, when I started my work as a Marine Advisory Agent after earning my master’s, I learned that neither my undergraduate nor master’s degree actually taught me how to truly support Native fisherman.
As a Marine Advisory Agent, the job was multi-faceted: one part community educator, one part policy advisor. As a community educator, I taught individual fisherman about running a business and marketing their catch. I also taught basic survival skills and marine safety to fisherman and the community at large. For the fisherman, I taught basic survival skills—what to do if your skiff goes down. For others in the community, I focused on outdoor survival skills and Native food gathering. In terms of policy work, I focused on advocating for Alaska Natives in the fishing industry, and on representing Natives and non-Natives who customarily use many marine resources. When natural resources are being allocated out, it is often the “subsistence” users who lose out, even though they live next to, and rely upon these many resources. Since everything about the fishing industry is regulated, it is vital that non-economic values—cultural and community—are recognized and accounted for in regulations and allocations.
To make sure that I was the most effective voice for my people, I earned a Ph.D. in marine policy from the University of Delaware. My doctorate taught me how to examine and understand political documents and figure out how to speak on behalf of my community in a policy arena. Earning my Ph.D. also gave me the essential credentials to make sure I was listened to. In the middle of a meeting, when someone is talking down to the Native fisherman and subsistence users, it helps when the chairman says, “Excuse me, we will have Dr. Garza speak next.” That definitely puts the whole Native group on a higher plane! I often spoke to issues and concerns that other Natives had, but were not comfortable voicing in a large public setting. Their knowledge of sustainability and concern for conservation matched any scientist.
As I became increasingly involved in making sure Native Alaskan’s needs were met in the setting of marine policy, I spent more and more time inside at meetings! Pretty soon, teaching about Native food gathering and outdoor survival skills felt like a breath of fresh air—literally! Although I grew up harvesting seaweed, as a child I didn’t realize that there was science involved. But to gather food on the beach, you are a botanist, a biologist, and a climatologist all in one because you have to be able to correctly identify the plants and animals you are collecting, you need to know how to read the tides, understand the seasons, and study the clouds to learn about the weather conditions. This “traditional ecological knowledge” is science that has been passed down through generations of Alaska Natives. In this part of my career, I used my traditional science along with the science I learned in the university to protect, and support my community. I still continued to learn from the many Native hunters and fishermen who have decades of experience of the local ecology and biology, as well as generational knowledge from their fathers and forefathers.
In addition to cultivating their scientific awareness of their environment, the ancient Haida and Tlingit also became advanced artists, storytellers, and craftspeople. In my retirement, I am learning more about the language and the arts of the Haida people. I do beading, basket weaving, and Raven’s Tail, a traditional weave using wool. I am gathering the cedar bark for my baskets and learning why Sgaana gyaas (July/August) is “Killer whale month,” when cedar bark is stripped from the trees it sounds like blowing killer whales.
Back to Team
When I was a child my parents taught me to believe that I could do anything I wanted to. But when I arrived at the University of Oklahoma to be a professor of chemistry, I began to have my doubts. I was a young scientist, a mother, and the only woman and Native American in my department. It would have been helpful to have someone to teach me how to be a scientist and a mother at the same time, and how to survive being “the only one.”
Since there was no one in person I could talk to, I turned to history and learned about a woman named Madame Marie Curie. Madame Curie was the first women in France to receive a Ph.D. in science and the first woman to lecture at the prestigious Sorbonne University. Her work mostly focused on the uses of radiation in medicine. She won Nobel prizes in physics and chemistry, and became the first person to receive this award twice. On top of all these accomplishments, Madame Curie was also a mother. She took her daughter Irene everywhere with her, including the lab. Irene grew up to be a scientist and was awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1935.
Like Madame Curie, I wanted to spend as much time as possible with my child, but needed to focus on my career as well. Since I was a new faculty member, I had lots of work to do in the evenings and weekends, so I decided to take my son with me to my office while I worked in the lab next door. He soon became very comfortable with the world of science, and he is now in college and majoring in chemical engineering.
The female graduate students in the chemistry department told me they were grateful for the example I provided. I showed them that it is possible to be a woman chemist and have a family too. While I was happy to provide some guidance for these students because I understood what it felt like to be isolated, I was still struggling to find a community of females, Native Americans, and other minorities in the sciences.
Before arriving at the University of Oklahoma, I never felt out of place. I grew up in Eufaula, Oklahoma, the capitol of the Creek Nation. I don’t think there was anyone in town that wasn’t at least some part Indian. In fact, I recall vividly in grade school that we all thought it was strange if someone didn’t have any Indian blood!
Early on I knew I enjoyed math and science. I had an ability to do things very logically and I always enjoyed difficult brain teasers and solving problems. In my school, boys and girls were equally encouraged. I was never made to feel that because I was a girl I couldn’t succeed in math or science. In fact, in my advanced math class, there were five girls and only one boy!
My decision to attend college was an easy one. My parents and teachers were excited for me, and after a little deliberation, I decided to major in chemistry at the University of Oklahoma. However, when you grow up in a community like mine, it is very strange to leave that environment and find out that you are suddenly in the minority. It was a huge shock for me those first few days college when suddenly I was the only Native American and almost only woman in all of my science classes.
At first I didn’t realize how different I felt. I thought maybe it was just because I was quiet or shy. Later on, I understood that the differences between my classmates and me were cultural. I particularly noticed these cultural differences when I became a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin, and then a professor. I saw that many people think they have to promote themselves constantly in order to further their careers. This kind of self-promotion was not part of my culture, and I wanted to rely on my performance in science and teaching to advance my career – not bragging. But in the culture of science, people can often assume if you are quiet that you have no accomplishments! Despite the pressure to conform, I remained true to myself and my cultural heritage. Through this experience I learned that I can only do what I feel comfortable with and hope that people will see my intelligence and good qualities through my actions not my words. I learned that the most important thing about pursuing my dreams is that I feel good about myself, do what I feel is right, and behave with dignity.
Even though I am still the only Native American and one of three women in my department, I have found that I am not the “only one” in the world of science. I am working on creating a network of minority scientists across the country, encouraging universities to hire more scientists of color, and educating minority students on how to choose a school that will best support them. It is my goal that future minority women scientists will not have to turn to history books to find a role model – instead they will find role models all around them.
Back to Team
World culture has shaped much of who I am. I was born in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. My father was a career sergeant and Vietnam veteran in the US military, and we were posted to new assignments on a regular basis. By the age of 11, I had lived in Puerto Rico, Central America, and Taiwan. Layered over my nomadic military lifestyle is my family’s strong Hispanic culture. Being Puerto Rican has always been important to them. This respect and honor for my culture clashed deeply with how I was treated at school. I was a native Spanish speaker. Due to my accent, I was made fun of and, at times, even physically abused by other children. I also received insulting comments about the color of my family’s skin. These experiences created a lot of sadness and low self-esteem in me.
In later years, I lived in England, France, and Germany, and I have spent shorter periods of time in Mexico, Japan, Italy, and Brazil. I have always lived within multiple cultures surrounded by different languages, giving me a deep appreciation for the varied lifestyles and viewpoints of other nationalities. What I found by living in many diverse cultures is that there is a common human experience that transcends ethnicity.
Because we all share a common human experience, I recognize the importance of science in an international context. All knowledge is human; that’s what makes us all unified. Students read about a molecule or about the ocean whether they are in the Middle East or in South America. Humans from every nation have contributed to scientific knowledge. There are issues that affect the whole planet that need to be addressed by the international community. Some of the most important issues today pertain to health, energy, and water. The first issue, health, includes global epidemics like malaria, tuberculosis, HIV, and SARS. Contagious diseases are going to affect all of us whether they are in our country yet or not. The second issue, energy, is important in preserving our resources and environment. We need to look at clean energy like solar power versus polluting energy like gasoline. The third issue, clean water, is something we take for granted in this country, but many people die around the world because they don’t have access to clean water and sanitation. I believe every country has something to offer to help tackle these problems. Together we can create change.
Right now, I’m involved in international efforts/activities on the status of women in the world and the participation of women in science. Half of the human race is female, and we have a contribution to make in every area of scientific investigation. I have always worked in male dominated fields, and only a few of my colleagues have shared my Hispanic heritage. As a physics undergraduate at the University of Rochester, I was one of eighty students; only two were women, and I was the only minority. When I was at Stanford University for my Ph.D., I was the only woman out of eight to continue in science. Today, in the biology department at New Mexico State University, only four out of 19 tenure-track faculty are women. I am one of only two permanent women faculty members there. This is just an example from my workplace. However, around the world, women are not represented equally. In some cases, the inequality can be devastating. Women are poorer than men in our own country and around the world. Training women in the sciences ensures that women’s ideas about the direction of science are included in the questions we ask, but it also gives women a better life—you can make a good living as a scientist.
Through international dialogue on the status of women, I have learned that communication between countries and listening to the voices of the underprivileged are important. My research presently lies in the area of communication. I study the nervous system. The nervous system itself is about communication: its function is to give information to the brain about internal or external happenings. In particular, I am interested in the neural regeneration that can help restore hearing loss. Many people are born without hearing, and many lose it progressively through life due to a variety of causes. In my lab, we examine the sensory cells that are responsible for hearing. We hope to stop specific types of hearing loss through the repair and restoration of cells in the nervous system.
Science is a universal language that the whole world can use to communicate, from one nation or culture to the next. Science created a way for me to connect with others in the world, people of all different ethnicities. In this way, all of us from different nations and cultures can learn from and respect one another. For me, learning this universal language of science has helped me heal from the discrimination I faced as a child, and it holds tremendous potential to continue to break down barriers of oppression and hatred—to create a world without borders.
Back to Team
From a young age I knew that I wanted to be in charge of my own life. In the Hispanic culture, if you don’t get married you still belong to your parents, and if you do get married, your husband dictates what you do. So, when I left my family in Texas to go to college, I told them that they should pretend that I got married because I was going to have a career.
When I was a kid, I always saw myself as different in the sense that I never wanted to do what was expected of me. Growing up in the small town of Hebbronville, Texas in the 1940s, it was easy to be unusual. I didn’t want to follow what seemed to be the obvious route for everybody: getting married, having children, and taking a job at the “five and dime. At first this was hard for my mother. She would always keep me updated on who got married and how many grandchildren her friends had. Once she said to me, “I never dreamed that when you went away to get educated that you would never come back.”
I think it was a combination of my culture and my parents that taught me to be independent and competent. My parents were both very open and eager to interact with the world. For example, my father taught me to be curious, which I think led to an early interest in science. When I was young we lived on a ranch for a couple of years. I remember my father bringing home birds’ nests and eggs, snake rattles, wasp nests, and even a dead coyote. All of us kids would investigate and ask questions about what he found. In the evenings we would listen to radio programs from Mexico City. We used a battery radio because we didn’t have electricity and we had a long antenna that went snaking up to the roof. There were programs on music and theater and those shows made me aware of the world. I wanted to be a part of it, to learn, to expand my horizons.
Although neither of my parents had very much education, they expected that my two younger sisters, my younger brother and I would all go to school through the eighth grade. After eighth grade they hoped we would all get jobs to support the family. But it happened that I was a good student and my teachers encouraged my parents to let me finish high school and finish college.
Every year we started school late because during the summer we were migrant farm workers. We used to go as far as Wisconsin to pick cucumbers and along the way we would stop in Nebraska to thin sugar beets. On the way home we would stop in West Texas to pick cotton. Sometimes I would buy my schoolbooks for the next year so I could study during the summer and catch up on what I would miss.
My horizons began to expand when I went to college at Texas Women’s University (TWU) in Denton , Texas. I decided to major in medical technology because I knew it was a secure way to make a living, I could always work in a lab or teach. During the summers that I was in college I was continuing to work with my family in the fields. One year I knew I wanted to do something different and so I found a job working in a lab at Baylor Medical School in Houston, Texas. After I graduated from TWU, I worked at Southwest Medical School for three years in the rhuemotology unit where we studied diseases like arthritis. This job convinced me that I could handle the intellectual aspects of research and prompted me to go to graduate school.
I received my Ph.D. from Rutgers University in New Jersey in 1972, where I studied cell biology, specifically, how each organelle contributed to the overall activity of the cell. I did my post-doctoral research at the University of California, Santa Cruz with Dr. Harry Beaver who was a wonderful mentor. In 1974 I became a professor of cell and molecular biology at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). My early training in cell biology and biochemistry had led me to study organelles in yeast and later to organelle biogenesis in plant seeds. In my current research I am applying similar tools and techniques to understand subcellular calcification in a group of planktonic algae called coccolithophorids.
My job is to educate and train people to do research. Education has given me a different perspective on my life and on the world. My advice to young students is to take yourselves seriously as people with an intellect. Respect yourself, and above all, know that your life really matters.
Back to Team
My birthplace is Edinburgh, Texas. My mother’s family goes back many generations in Texas, and my father is from Mexico. I have one brother and two sisters, who are all younger than I. I grew up Chicano and bilingual within a strong matriarchal system, where mothers ruled. I had 67 cousins all within a five block radius. Sixty-four of my cousins received college degrees, and eleven got Ph.D.s or master’s degrees. All of my cousins and aunts and uncles were bilingual. Self-esteem in my family was strong, and education was highly stressed, although this was, and still is, the poorest county per capita in the United States. My family is where the ground work for my future academic success was built. There was a high emphasis on honesty, fairness, cooperation, and compassion. Family members encouraged us to be “vivo”, which means to think on your feet and use common sense. We didn’t have television while I was growing up, and I think that had a positive effect on how I saw myself and the world around me. As I got older, I began to work picking cotton as a migrant farm worker. Being in contact with nature, I was always interested in how the components of an ecosystem work together. However, some of the obstacles I perceived came from the fact that non-minorities ran the schools, the places of work, the government, and every other institution. My mother, because she was bilingual and fluent in Spanish and English, attended all of the Parent-Teacher Association meetings, to make sure we were treated fairly. Many other parents, because of the language barrier, were not able to do the same for their kids. The students at my school were almost all Chicano, but hardly any of the kids in the accelerated learning classes were Chicanos. I knew that something was not right about this situation. Despite the barriers, I was always a very good student, and I especially liked chemistry, art, and English.
When I was in high school, my counselors told me to go to vocational school, even though I hated to fix cars. So when I went to college, I decided I was going to be an accountant. I soon realized that wasn’t what I wanted to do. I was hired as a work-study student cleaning up a laboratory, and I began to get interested in science. Eventually, I began working in a laboratory where I could actually do research. I decided to major in zoology and minor in organic chemistry. My major professor gave me different tasks to do in the laboratory. Most non-minority professors didn’t know much about working with people of different cultures. However this professor knew when he had a good worker, and he kept them. I did very well in college, and I published three articles by the time I graduated. Later, as a graduate student, I published twenty papers.
Today, I have an endowed chair, it is called the James A. Perkins Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies at Cornell University in New York state. My research is unique–I do research in both the field and the laboratory. I’m a biological chemist interested in the organic chemistry of natural drugs from plants, insects, and fungi. One of the most exciting things about my research is having developed a new discipline, which in itself is rare. My laboratory has been instrumental in creating Zoopharmacognosy, which is the study of how animals medicate themselves. When animals are sick, they know what plants to use to cure themselves. Most of my research takes place deep in the Amazon and African rain forests, studying primates, plants, and arthropods.
In science, as in any other career you may choose, you must have reading and writing skills, and be able to think critically. You have to be able to think clearly about the destruction of the environment, because it is important that the rainforest not be destroyed simply for a few greedy people. In my laboratory at Cornell University, I have many minority students, but I do not work only with minority students. In fact my laboratory is known as the “United Nations laboratory”. We have students from many races and cultures. I try to involve all of my students in the spirit of scientific discovery, which for me, is the most exciting part of being a Chicano professor.
Science is about thinking and solving problems. As a student, it is very important for you to do what comes naturally to you. You should be happy at what you’re doing. I would like to tell young students that reading is vital. Learning to use a computer can come later, but it is essential to read and be able to write and think about what you read. Listening to your elders is also important. Never let yourself be discouraged by negative and mean spirited people. Education will get you what you want in life, but you must work at it.
Back to Team
I always had an interest in outdoor life and improving the world around me. I was the youngest of four siblings growing up in Nogales, Arizona. When I started school, science became my favorite subject. In junior high and high school, I had to make an important decision that would affect the rest of my life. I was advised not to continue taking science and mathematics courses because knowledge of those subjects was not necessary for a secretary or a Spanish teacher – the two traditional careers for Hispanic females in the 1960s. I didn’t want either of those careers. I enjoyed my science courses and I was doing well in them.
My parents had taught me to be disciplined in my studies, and had always encouraged my interest in science. When I discussed the situation with my parents, they urged me to continue taking science and mathematics. They told me that they would support me with whatever I decided to do. I remember how excited I was when one of my teachers told me that because I had done so well in my algebra and geometry classes, he would teach me calculus after school! While I did study, I also had fun being a member of the Girls Athletic Association. I graduated from Nogales High School in 1963 having taken calculus, biology, chemistry, and physics.
I obtained an associate of arts degree from Fullerton Junior College in 1965 and a Bachelor of Science degree in zoology/chemistry from the University of Arizona two years later. After three years of working as a special education teacher in California, where I conducted mathematics and science classes for learning disabled high school students, I returned to the University of Arizona as a research associate, and obtained my doctor of philosophy degree in soil chemistry in 1979. Later, I worked at the Western Archaeological Center where seven states depended on my advice for the scientific techniques of maintaining the historic adobe structures and ecosystems in the national parks. To provide guidance, I conducted on-site experiments to find out which particular soils were used in the construction of the 18th century buildings. As a Federal manager, I arranged to have testing for Federal jobs take place in the smaller towns where jobs were located. Growing up in Nogales, I knew of many people who wanted Federal jobs, but weren’t able to go to the state capital to take the eligibility test. The Federal Executive Association honored me as Manager of the Year for creating and implementing this system that increased minority representation in the applicant pool for all Federal jobs.
In 1984, I was hired by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a soil scientist. My responsibility was to develop criteria and write the regulations for the use of sludge on agricultural land. Sludge is what remains when garbage decomposes. In my report, I mathematically described several potential pathways humans could get toxin poisoning from industrial sludge. For example if sludge with a high concentration of a toxin is spread on cattle grazing land, the toxin will pass into the cows. If these cows produce milk for human consumption, this toxin could poison people. For my efforts on addressing this important issue the EPA awarded me the Bronze Medal.
Since 1989, I have worked as National Coordinator of the Global Change Research Program studying the changing global climate and its effects on trees, animals and forested ecosystems. My job as a national science administrator is to translate and provide scientific information to help policy makers develop regulations, determine needs in scientific research and choose which science researchers will receive funding to fill these needs. One year, I decided how to distribute 25 million dollars to scientists and the science projects they proposed. When the results of the environmental research are given to me, I use them to help advise politicians making the rules for the use of land. I also represent the United States at international environmental conferences and committees.
My advice is that you should pursue your interests no matter what they are. Don’t be dissuaded by the obstacles and disbelievers that you will encounter. If you are dedicated to your dreams, you will always find a way to accomplish them.
Back to Team
Coincidence? My Parents met in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, as students at Louisiana State University. My father was from Mexico and came to the United States to study Chemical Engineering, and my mother, a Cuban-American, was studying Nutrition. This duality in cultures is mirrored in my own life experiences. After my parents married and my sister was born in Baton Rouge, they moved to Mexico City, where I was born. From then on I lived half of my life in the US and the other half in Mexico. I completed high school in Mexico City and then came back to the US for college and eventually graduate school. After holding positions in Puerto Rico and Georgia, I have returned to live and work at the place where my parents met, LSU! What a coincidence.
I am currently the Chairman of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the Bingham C. Stewart Endowed Distinguished Professor of Engineering (my position is funded by a $2,000,000 endowment). My research activities are paid from the interest that the endowment earns each year. With this money I am able to support undergraduates, graduate students and postdoctoral students who work with me on many different research projects (computational mechanics, earthquake engineering, sustainable technologies and the use of virtual reality in engineering education).
Ever since I was a young boy, my wish was to be a civil engineer, just like my maternal grandfather. My grandpa was an unusual person. After I finished high school, I enrolled at Virginia Tech, and my grandfather enrolled there at the same time! While I earned my Bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, he earned two more degrees, completing them at the age of 72.
After completing my Bachelor of Science degree, I attended the University of Colorado, where I earned a Master’s degree. I worked as a consultant for four years and traveled all over the world. Nevertheless, I felt that something was missing in my life, so I went back to the University of Colorado and earned a Ph.D. in civil engineering in 1989. The work that I did for my doctoral dissertation resulted in experiments that went up on two Space Shuttle flights, STS-79 in September 1996 and STS-89 in February 1998.
My wife and I wanted to have our children experience growing up in a Latino culture, so I accepted a position at the University of Puerto Rico, where I remained for four years. In 1991, I was awarded a Presidential Faculty Fellowship, a program that was created by President Bush. This award consisted of a $500,000 research grant, given out over a five-year period.
My dedication to reach my educational goals didn’t just happen. Children are directly influenced by the family’s attitudes, by the values that are expressed in the activities that families undertake, and by the many teachers that students encounter during their studies. I already mentioned my grandfather, who provided me with a role model of an engineer. My parents were leaders in the Parent Teachers’ Association, showing me that you have to take an active role in the educational process. I remember my father telling me that the most valuable inheritance he would leave me was a very good education. I also had caring teachers and mentors. I recall very vividly Mr. Flores, one of my high school teachers in Mexico City. Towards the end of my senior year in high school I was suspended for two weeks for unruly behavior. The principal arranged for me to return on the day that the calculus final was to be given. I would not have been able to graduate had I failed this course. However, Mr. Flores called me every day at home and tutored me over the phone to make sure that I was keeping up with the material. Everyone was surprised, especially the principal, to learn that I earned a 98% on the calculus final.
A Ph.D. provides you with much more than simply a technical education. It also provides you with training on how to organize your thoughts, how to seek out information, and how to address complex problems. A Ph.D. also provides the opportunity to have a much greater impact than just in your own small circle of colleagues and students. In 1994, I was asked to help draft President Clinton’s science policy document entitled, “Science in the National Interest.” There I was able to work with prominent U.S. scientists to formulate the scientific and technological direction this country would follow for the next decade. What a pleasure and an honor it was for me to be among these people! However, the one thing that I didn’t like was the lack of people of color among this group.
The Mayas, Aztecs, and Incas had amazing scientific and engineering accomplishments. It is up to you, our future scientists and engineers, to continue in the tradition of our ancestors.
Back to Team
Like many kids growing up in the 90s, I can remember the first time I played a computer game. My elementary school had an Apple II, where we played The Oregon Trail. It seemed magical and I was curious about what was inside the case, making pixels appear and disappear and guiding me through the story.
My parents had moved us from Guadalajara, Mexico to the United States when I was six for better work and educational opportunities. When they saw my passion for computers, they pieced together what little money they had and bought me a 486 DX2 desktop computer for our home. It wasn’t long before I was tying up the phone line, tearing through America Online free trial CDs and begging for our own dialup internet account. We had settled in Auburn, California, and during my high school years, I convinced our electronics teacher to let us have a zero period. Every morning before school started, I could do self-study programming with other students who were interested in computers.
On the way home from a basketball game one day, a teammate’s dad suggested that I apply for a summer internship where he worked at Hewlett-Packard (HP). I sat at my computer to create my first ever resumé, applied, and got the internship the summer before college.
During my internship at HP, I met another intern who was studying computer science (CS) at Howard University. I was a little intimidated by the amount of math required to pursue a CS degree, but he helped change my perception. I was not naturally gifted in math, but he said all I needed to do was do my homework, get clarification when I needed from study groups or office hours, and study for exams. This simple advice was exactly what I needed at the time.
Enrolling at San Jose State University (SJSU) felt like being reacquainted with my Mexican roots. I’d been listening to punk rock, alternative music, and rap, but at SJSU, I woke up to the sounds of mariachi and was introduced to Spanish rock bands and artists that I really enjoyed. To pay for school, I worked at a web design firm and then at a startup called Excite@Home, where I did web development for the intranet site of the company.
Unfortunately, the company went from 3,500 employees to just around 500 in the course of a year and a half and I had a front row seat to watching the dot com bubble burst. Management laid-off most of my team and moved me from part-time to full-time to help with internal communication while the company continued to shut off operations. I continued chipping away at my credits, taking a math class early in the morning and then working full-time.
After finally getting laid-off, I tried to get another job to continue to pay for school but there was an oversaturation of software engineers in the Bay Area. My original plan after I graduated was to get an MBA and go back to work for HP or another major tech corporation. One day, I received a letter in the mail from Dr. Herbert Silber about a program called Minority Access to Research Careers (MARC). The letter asked, “Have you ever thought about doing a PhD?” I didn’t know what to expect, but I knew I needed financial assistance to pay for school, so I applied and was accepted.
Through MARC, I began doing research with a professor in the CS department and found that I loved doing research! We’d start with an open question, figure out how to formulate the problem, come up with a plan to test our hypothesis, and then work through different solutions. I no longer wanted to be get an MBA, I wanted to get a PhD and become a professor. But, I didn’t want to get a PhD in CS, I wanted to use my computational skills to solve science problems.
That’s when I was introduced to Dr. Frank Bayless who runs the Student Enrichment Office at San Francisco State. The office has various programs that allow minority students to do research and prepare them for grad school. I studied bioinformatics in the CS department which helped solidified the research I was interested in. From there, I applied and went to grad school at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) to the Biomedical Informatics program, which had a strong biophysics and bioinformatics focus. Having been formally trained in CS, I needed to catch up as best as I could on biology, biochemistry, chemistry, cell biology, and pharmacology so that I would be successful throughout my graduate studies. It was a daunting task, but I was able to do it!
At UCSF, I did lab rotations where I developed computational methods to study enzymes, researched the genetics of Latino/African American populations, implemented a system to study the structure of RNA, analyzed malaria messenger RNA, and developed methods for predicting the side effects of small molecule therapeutics.
I decided to join the lab of Dr. Ajay Jain where I developed computation methods which combined the positive and negative effects of drugs with their 3D molecular structure to predict interactions with proteins that can lead to undesired side effects. I learned so much from my advisor and I feel grateful that I was able to work with him during my graduate school career.
With my graduate work completed, data science had emerged as a field where individuals like myself who are trained as scientists can have an impact solving real-world problems and building data products. Now, I am part of the founding team at an artificial intelligence company called Primer. My role has changed quite a bit from data science software engineer, to technical lead, and now manager. It has been an amazing experience building technology from scratch. It very much feels like doing research, except the product is not a research paper but a piece of technology.
Some of the things that are valued in academia – communication, mentoring, research – can be satisfied in industry. Evolving and changing one’s mind about a career path is normal and it is good to be flexible. Building technology from scratch has allowed me find innovative solutions to difficult problems and, as the company grows, I am taking more of a management role which has allowed me to mentor other team members. Appropriate training should be provided to grad students who want to persue careers outside of academia. A lot of progress has been made at universities, but there is more work to be done.
For me, it’s fulfilling to be part of a field that brings all my strengths and interests together. I have seen how my persistence and determination has continued to pay off! One thing I’ve learned is that your learning is up to you. The teachers and professors are there to teach you, but at the end it is your responsibility. I was in an university setting for 14 years (undergrad, Masters, and PhD), but at the end of the day, I achieved my goal of getting a PhD and no one can take away from me.
Back to Team
I was born in the Indian village of Cochiti, New Mexico, and I am the youngest of seventeen children. We have traced our ancestry to Alonzo Rael de Aguilar, who came to America in 1690 during the second entrance of the Spanish into New Mexico. Alonzo held positions in colonial New Mexico such as secretary of government and war, lieutenant general, alcalde of Santa Fe, and protector of the Indians.Like many other New Mexicans, my primary language was Spanish. However, unlike many others of my ethnicity, I was born in an Indian village where my father had a small grocery store. Growing up in an Indian village, I also learned the Keresan language. In the house, my family’s culture was Spanish; but outside, it was Keresan. English is my third language, but it has become my primary language over the years.
Although my father’s formal education extended only to the first grade, and my mother’s to the sixth grade, both enjoyed reading. My mother encouraged us to learn trades or become teachers to make a living. One older sibling was especially influential, encouraging the younger brothers and sisters to go to college. Up through high school I had no difficulties in school. With very little exception, everyone in my elementary and high school was of Spanish descent. Although all of our classes were in English, we all spoke Spanish as our primary language. In a graduating high school class of thirty, I ranked ninth overall.
Two of my greatest handicaps growing up were shyness and the lack of suitable English vocabulary when I started college. The shyness was probably a result of having grown up in Cochiti and having very little experience with the American way of life. The vocabulary aspect was probably a result of growing up in a relatively undereducated family. During my college education, I sought to befriend English speaking students with two objectives in mind: to overcome my shyness, and to better learn American culture. As an undergraduate, I served as treasurer for the Young Democrats, and later was vice-president in the student council. Serving in these organizations required a certain amount of public speaking. This helped me overcome my shyness. The exposure to three different cultures prepared me well for understanding human nature and the psychology underlying cultural differences.
My older brother had majored in political science at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, where I went to do my undergraduate work. When I went to register for my classes, my advisor asked what my major was going to be. He had to repeat the question because I was not sure what he had meant. I answered ”government.” However, after I took Dr. Clare Sun’s botany class, biology became my major.
I knew very little about biology when I took my first class in botany. Fortunately, Dr. Sun was a great teacher. I was amazed that living things are composed of cells, and that through biochemical means, they grow and reproduce themselves (this is called ”differentiation”). It surprised me that most members of the plant kingdom actually reproduced through asexual means. Up to this point, I had thought of life as either material or spiritual. Discovering biology added a completely new dimension to the world. For most classes in college I used two notebooks, one for lecture notes and one to improve my English vocabulary. Learning and understanding the meaning of words made me a better student overall. Understanding words made me a better listener, note taker, conversationalist, and writer. My reading comprehension improved greatly. My fear of failing in college was probably my greatest motivation to get me through undergraduate school.
A very important influence in my career choice came after serving in the United States Army, where I worked as a clinical laboratory technician. Microbiology, the study of tiny organisms such as bacteria, became very interesting to me. Following two years of employment at the University of New Mexico Medical School, immunology also became very exciting. My employment there made me realize that I could not be on top of scientific research without the required advanced training. I was fortunate that most of my mentors provided encouragement and served as good role models. I went back to school and earned my Ph.D. in microbiology with an immunology specialty at the University of Arizona. Now, I am a professor of immunology and microbiology at the University of Texas at El Paso.
For all students, it is important to know that whatever you do in life will, in one way or another, be influenced by how well you use English. This applies to reading, listening, speaking, and writing. Believe me, science becomes a lot easier and more interesting if you understand the vocabulary!
Back to Team
I remember the day I got called into my high school counselor’s office because she heard a rumor that I wasn’t planning on going to college. Both my parents had gone and my Dad even had his PhD, but I’d just read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and I wanted to explore and read books at my own pace. I had a lot of curiosity for things outside the classroom. My guidance counselor had other plans for me and persuaded me to apply to the University of Washington, where I started that fall.
Before long, I had dropped out of 11 classes because I didn’t see the point of going. As a kid who grew up on a farm in rural Washington state, I loved backpacking and dreamed of becoming a nature photographer. So it was a stroke of luck that I had a botany class that transformed what I had been looking at all around me. Botany class made sense to me because now I could begin to understand ecosystems, the names of plants and how they coexisted together.
This particular botany course was advanced, so everyone was talking over my head and I quickly realized that I had a lot of catching up to do. So I began to ask a lot of questions, which always made me stand out, but I was comfortable with it because I have always been a little different. My grandparents are from Mexico, but in a rural community, we were the only Chicano family. Visiting my mom’s family in San Jose, everyone spoke Spanish (whereas I didn’t) and I felt a strange isolation. And living in Washington state, I was called “wetback” and “beaner”. But all this made me unafraid to stand out, so I kept asking questions, which made professors want to work with me and they often became my mentors.
By switching to botany as my major, my grades went from terrible to really good. I took a class at the marine station where we did experiments changing water viscosity and monitoring how larvae were swimming. I had so much fun with these experiments that I asked if I could continue doing the work. The team at the marine station gave me full run of their lab, which is something that has continued to be a pattern in my life. When I make a pitch to explore something further, there have always been people who open the door, give me a chance and believe in me to do my own research. For instance, I met a visiting professor from the Netherlands who asked me whether I wanted to do a PhD in his lab studying marine invertebrates. I hadn’t even thought about graduate school at that point, but I felt it was too good to pass up and I went to Europe. Or when I attended a genomics conference to give a talk on snails and a guy from UC Berkeley approached me afterwards. We got to talking about snails and three hours later, he asked me whether I wanted to do a post-doc to map their genome. So I went off to UC Berkeley.
And now, I am a research fellow at the Marine Biological Laboratory, researching cephalopods like pygmy octopus and pygmy squid. What’s fascinating about studying cephalopods is that evolution has created two lineages. We know that humans used to have a simple nervous system and therefore we shared a common ancestor. Cephalopods elaborated on those structures, so we can examine the complexity of the brain as compared to vertebrates to see the basic principles of how they are made.
Much of our focus in the lab has been studying the effects of MDMA (commonly known as ecstasy) to create more social behaviors. Previous studies have shows that the same ion transporter exists in both octopus and squid, suggesting that our social behaviors come from an ancient circuit. Most scientists tend to think of octopi as anti-social, but when they are treated with MDMA, they begin to spend more time with others, making contact and searching out other octopus in their tanks. We often tell ourselves that humans are so complex that we can’t be understood, but our research suggests otherwise and allows us to get deeper insight from a scientific standpoint.
This year, we hired a talented scientist to work in our lab. She was an intern before, working full-time as a waitress, going to school full-time, doing her research and balancing family. It took her 7 years to graduate because of all she had to juggle. I saw her natural ability to work hard and problem solve. She didn’t have the best grades or the most prestigious resume, but she had a lot of potential that she just didn’t see yet, so we hired her. I remembered how important it was for my unusual career path to have the doors opened and be given the chance to exceed expectations, and that is exactly what she has done. A visiting professor from NYU Abu Dhabi collaborated with us recently and was deeply impressed by her. Also, we recently ran a workshop on genetic tools in cephalopods, with participants from top labs around the world. She taught the core methods and by the end of the workshop, participants would walk right past me to ask her questions, seeking out her guidance. I can’t tell you how great that felt. You don’t have to be a genius to be a great scientist or even be a career scientist to research and ask questions. My story isn’t that I am smarter than anyone else. People want someone in their lab who wants to be there and work hard. In some sense, when you fall outside the communities around you, you can either feel isolated or you can gather strength as an individual. And you find empowerment to follow what you think is exciting.
Back to Team
My Hispanic background is so diverse (including Spanish and Mexican) that sometimes I just describe myself as fifth generation Texan. Although my parents grew up in the small town of Bishop, Texas, they moved to Houston, Texas when I was an infant and that is where I grew up. From the age of seven, I lived in a single-parent household in an inner-city neighborhood called Denver Harbor. I can remember that the middle school that I attended was pretty rough with lots of racial tension. Luckily, I was included in a school program called “Major Works” which encouraged academic excellence. This program helped shield me from some of the negative things happening at school.
Times were hard and my mom had to work two jobs. As the oldest of four children, I had to take care of my younger brother and sisters much of the time. Although it wasn’t easy, I can look back and say that growing up in my family taught me to work very hard and to be responsible for myself and others.
My mom always wanted her children to finish high school so that our lives could be easier than hers, but it never occurred to me that I might go on to college. However, when I was in the 9th grade, I had an algebra teacher that inspired me to seriously consider going to college. Mr. John Patronella made me feel smart. He made me believe that I could succeed in college, especially in math. When I brought up the idea of college with my mom, she beamed with pride and supported me all the way.
I consider myself lucky to have had such a wonderful mentor as Mr. Patronella because I didn’t feel that I got a lot of support in high school. For example, I remember a high school counselor who tried to discourage me from taking trigonometry and physics. She said, “Oh sweetie, you don’t need more math or science. You did all of your math, you did all of your science; you’re not going to need that.” Not only did I have the desire, but I believed in myself enough to know that I was capable of taking these classes, and I’m glad I did!
After high school, I went to the University of Houston for one semester but being in college was very different than I had imagined. So despite all of the support and encouragement from my mother and Mr. Patronella, getting a job and making money sounded more appealing to me; I dropped out. I moved to South Texas for a job, and it took me about two years of working long hours for not enough money at a small company before I decided to return to school. Fortunately my mother and Mr. Patronella were still very supportive and encouraging. I applied for student grants and loans while attending the University of Texas, Pan American fulltime. With Mr. Patronella’s continued mentoring, I decided that I wanted to attend graduate school, so I moved back to Houston. I was nervous about graduate school but promised myself that I would go to University of Houston for at least one semester. It turned out that I enjoyed the challenge of graduate school and research. I earned my Ph.D. in 1997.
My first year in graduate school, I was a research assistant for Dr. Siemion Fajtlowicz and helped to develop a version of his computer program called “Graffiti.” Graffiti generates conjectures in math. Similar to a scientific hypothesis, a mathematical conjecture is a math statement that will be either proven true or shown to be false. In middle school and high school, students are usually working with “concrete” math or math that’s already proven to be true. Students then learn how to do the problem and verify that the answer is correct. What makes my work fun and interesting is that I am able to work on conjectures, which means that I do know that they are necessarily true. If a conjecture is proven to be true, then it becomes a theorem; if it’s proven false, it’s usually thrown out and work begins on another mathematical statement.
By living and going to school in Houston and South Texas I was often surrounded by people with a similar cultural background, predominantly Hispanic. Still, at the University of Houston there were very few female or Hispanic graduate students in the math department. Luckily, in the math department, success was based on how hard you worked. Pursuing math and science has been challenging at times.
As an associate professor in the Department of Computer and Mathematic Sciences at the University of Houston-Downtown I conduct mathematical research and teach college math. I plan to continue my research activities and teaching, and hope to someday become a full professor. I would also like to write short math books for college level students. My research with the Graffiti program continues as I have developed a similar program called Graffiti.pc. This has provided me many professional opportunities, for example, I was recently invited to be one of the main speakers at an international conference in Canada. A mathematics conference is usually a meeting where mathematicians share and discuss their research.
There are a lot of opportunities for someone with a Ph.D. in mathematics. You can become a professor like me or go into industries such as aerospace, pharmaceuticals, banking and accounting, governmental agencies, and high tech. The website for the Mathematical Association of America provides good information on a variety of careers.
Employers are interested in the reasoning abilities and analytical skills of mathematicians. If you enjoy math and think it would be a career path for you, then follow it, embrace the challenge!
Back to Team
If he has “seen further than other men,” Isaac Newton once said, it was because he “stood on the shoulders of giants.” And so it is with me. I find it difficult to express the deep appreciation I have for the people who impacted my life. My parents—proud, hardworking, resilient people—gave me my start in life. My father helped build the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City and later served with Pancho Villa in the Mexican Revolution, before coming to the United States to work on the railroad. My mother, orphaned at an early age, was a reilera (a soldier’s wife who accompanied her husband on military campaigns in the Mexican Revolution), until her first husband was killed at the Battle of Torreon. Because of their families’ poverty and the tumultuous nature of the war, neither of my parents had a formal education. Both migrated to the United States where they met, fell in love, and began our family.
Living in a converted boxcar, they traveled throughout the Southwest, with my older brothers being born in places like El Paso, Texas; Deming, Arizona; and Niland, California. Realizing the importance of education for their children, my parents settled in the small town of Tranquillity, California, so they could build a permanent home and their children could get an education. This is where many of my siblings were born and raised. Of my older brothers, four volunteered and fought in the Second World War, two in Korea, and one in Vietnam, and all were decorated for valor in battle. My sister is an activist who fought to assist Chicanos and other underserved people in achieving the American Dream. I honestly believe that I have a family of true American heroes, true “giants,” upon whom I can depend.
My start as a scientist began with my fascination with biology, and it was then that I began to know the power of mentoring. When I attended Tranquillity Union High School, a teacher piqued my interest in biology by making the course fascinating and by fostering my growing interest in science. After graduation, I went to California State University Fresno where I received a great deal of mentoring from my professors, and I eventually graduated with a bachelor’s degree in biology.
After graduation, I was accepted into the U.S. Navy’s Officer Candidate School and then served in the navy as a Destroyer Deck Officer. After active duty service, I decided to return to California State University Fresno State to earn a master’s degree in microbiology. My mentors persuaded me to continue on to a doctoral program and facilitated my acceptance to the University of Southern California, School of Medicine. There I earned a PhD in microbial biochemistry under the mentorship of the chairs of the Departments of Biochemistry and Microbiology, and supported by a competitive fellowship. Afterward, my predoctoral mentor escorted me on a visit to several universities in La Jolla, where I met several prominent scientists including my future postdoctoral mentor. There I competed and was awarded an NIH two-year postdoctoral fellowship at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. At Scripps, my preceptor and mentor taught me by example that science was not only extraordinarily interesting, but it was exciting and fun as well.
My first faculty appointment was to the Department of Microbiology at the Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine, where the department chairman served as my mentor and was highly instrumental in my receiving tenure and promotion. I conducted research in immunology and virology, and coordinated the medical microbiology course for medical and graduate students.
As one who enjoys new challenges, I left my tenured position and entered a new phase in my career by working in the biotechnology industry—I held positions such as senior scientist and director of Microbiology Product Development. In these biotechnology companies, I directed the development of reagents and diagnostic tests to aid in the diagnosis of infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and other bacterial and viral diseases. I also served as an adjunct faculty member at the Tufts School of Medicine, Department of Microbiology.
After six years in industry, I again decided that I needed a further challenge. I spoke to a good friend at the National Institutes of Health (NIH)—who suggested that I might like to work there. Soon the chief of the Office of Scientific Review offered me a position as a scientific review administrator at the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), with the responsibility of administering the review of scientific grant applications. After three years, I moved on to become chief, Office of Scientific Review of the National Institute of Nursing Resarch (NINR) and executive secretary of the National Advisory Council for Nursing Research. In 1996, I became chief of the Minority Biomedical Research Support (MBRS) Branch at the NIGMS, and in 2001, I was selected to become the associate director for Special Populations, National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), where I served until my retirement in 2008.
I presently continue as a member of the faculty of the School of Arts and Sciences, Johns Hopkins University, and I teach a course in biotechnology. In all the positions I held at the NIH and at Johns Hopkins, I both received mentoring and was a mentor—not only to my staff, but also to many students and faculty at research institutions throughout the country.
I truly believe that mentoring is crucial to everyone’s success. SACNAS, with its tradition of mentorship, is a unique and wonderful organization. I have been an active supporter of SACNAS for many years, and indeed fortunate to be elected to the SACNAS Board of Directors and later elected to be president of the Board, beginning January 1, 2011.
Back to Team
I was born in 1926, in Nogales, Arizona, six years after the end of the Mexican Revolution. Both of my parents were elementary school teachers in Pueblo Nuevo, Sonora, a mining village in northern Mexico. My father was very politically active in the revolution by supporting education and the eradication of poverty. He was also a very devout Catholic. However, the revolution was very anti-religious and this created an inner conflict for him. My parents actually left Mexico twice before I was born, and eventually they left for good, settling our family of eleven children, first in Nogales, and then Tucson, Arizona.
Since my parents were from Mexico, my background was heavily influenced by Mexican culture. Even though Tucson was a largely Mexican-American city, I only remember having one Latino teacher in all of my twelve years of school. When I was in the second grade my teacher changed my name from “Eugenio” to “Eugene” because she said it was easier to pronounce. On the whole, however, I remember my teachers being very supportive. Once my fifth-grade teacher told me that she was going to start calling me “Senator Cota-Robles.” I saw this as a manifestation of her high expectations for me.
My education was interrupted by World War II when I joined the Navy and went to the South Pacific. In addition to fighting for our country, serving in the U.S. military took me, as a seventeen year old, to places like New York City, San Francisco, Honolulu, Ulithi, and Hiro-Wan, Japan. Secondly, the GI Bill entitled World War II veterans to full financial support for four years of college. I was thus able to return to Tucson and attend The University of Arizona.
I was on track to become a dentist, like my mother had always wanted, even though I didn’t have any of the skills that a dentist needs. However, pre-dental students have to complete science courses, and it was in my sophomore year in a bacteriology class that my life and the course of my education were changed forever.
One person who particularly influenced me was a friend named Charles Murphy. He was a graduate teaching assistant in my class, as well as being a World War II veteran. He was the reason I went to graduate school. After getting my B.S., I ended up being employed by Gerber Baby Foods in Oakland, California as a quality control bacteriologist. My job quickly became routine and somewhat boring. Murphy was in graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley. When he found out that University of California, Davis (UC Davis) was starting a graduate studies program in the sciences, he decided to transfer there and urged me to apply.
As with my undergraduate education, I was extremely fortunate to have a close community of friends and colleagues at UC Davis. Our senior professor and academic advisor, Dr. Jerry Marr was also our good friend. He was the type of professor, that after our experiments in the laboratory were concluded, would take us to his home and bake us an apple pie at midnight!
Our work focused on a study of the internal organization of a particular bacterium, Azotobacter agilis, a nitrogen-fixing bacterium. We were attempting to isolate and pinpoint the sites where biologically useful chemical energy was created in the cell. One of the reasons I was particularly interested in Azotobacter was because this bacterium is able to fix atmospheric nitrogen into amino acids, a rare and biologically very important reaction. The team I worked with was among the first to establish that the enzymes responsible for energy metabolism were localized in the bacterial cell membrane.
After graduate school I studied further as a U.S. Public Health Service Postdoctoral Fellow in Stockholm, Sweden and later I became a professor of Microbiology at the University of California, Riverside. I continued to work in the area of microbial cell structure, including the study of the replication of viruses within bacterial cells at Pennsylvania State University and the University of California, Santa Cruz.
I am now a Professor Emeritus, which means that I have retired from my position at the university. Currently I am promoting rigorous college preparation for minority students, particularly Latinos. My advice to students is to do the best in your studies, make many friends, and always, always read. Reading, friends, and personal success will all help expand your horizons and make it more likely that you will have a fulfilling life.
July 13, 1926 – September 12, 2012
Read Dr. Eugene Cota-Robles’ Obituary
Back to Team
Where I grew up in Chicago, being of Latino and Navajo descent was not much of a factor in terms of how I thought of myself or my abilities because my neighborhood was a very diverse place. My attitude was to not allow ethnicity to become an issue. The point was whether or not my siblings and I could do well at academics or other things we tried. Since my father ran his own business, we had a place in the community.
I was never a strong student before high school. I was always put out in the hall for causing trouble. I was a rough and ready kind of guy. My family always had a sort of “hand to mouth” lifestyle, meaning we didn’t have a lot of money, so when I was in grade school I got my first job delivering newspapers. When I went to high school, I was still delivering newspapers in the morning and working in a grocery store after school. My mother had this vision that my brothers and sisters and I would become doctors, lawyers, engineers and so on. She had decided that I was going to be a doctor. However, when I told my high school counselor in my senior year that I wanted to be a physician, he looked at my academic record and said I might not make it through the first year of college. But I had determination and a lot of pride, so I decided I would try anyway.
I went to a Catholic college called Loyola University in Chicago, and I was bound and determined to make it. The university had a pre-medical program which was very rigorous, requiring students to take nineteen credit hours per semester for the first two years. I didn’t know this at the time, but my friends were taking bets as to how long I would last my first semester! That first year was really a struggle because I was a biology major and was required to also take chemistry, math, English, philosophy and religion classes.
In my freshman zoology class there was also the option to do extra credit projects in biology, and I needed all the help I could get. Because I had worked at my father’s business repairing small appliances, we would tinker around and experiment. I learned about problem solving in that environment. When you did these extra credit projects, you might have to dissect the central nervous system or neuroganglia of an earthworm or crawfish or prepare a slide with all the mouth parts of a bee.
When I dissected the brain of an earthworm, which is actually two strands (ganglia) wrapped around the esophagus (in the throat), I learned to use a scalpel and tweezers to carefully remove tissue to expose the ganglia without damaging them. This was a good experience to learn how to do careful dissecting under a microscope. You would have to take out the esophagus in order to have a look at the entire nervous system of a worm. Another project I did was to dissect a crayfish. With the crayfish, the nervous system goes through the outer shell, or exoskeleton , of the animal, so you had to carefully take the shell apart. I managed to maintain a solid B average in zoology through working extra hard on these projects. Somehow, I stuck it out.
In my junior year I took my first botany course and really enjoyed it. I continued to take other botany courses in my senior year. With this experience I decided not to go to medical school but to continue on in botany during graduate school at the University of Iowa. I earned my Ph.D. in 1967. After a number of post-doctoral fellowships I began teaching at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In 1988 I began for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) as a plant physiologist. Since 1995 I have devoted my time to helping other minority scientists achieve success.
I think for all students, the most important thing is to listen to that inner voice that wants to know about nature and life. Use all your senses to learn about the world around you, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Lastly, see yourself as part of a larger whole, and use your life to make the world a better place.
Back to Team
I was born in Los Angeles, California and raised in El Paso, Texas. I have three sisters, all younger. In El Paso, many of the professionals were Hispanic, including a previous mayor. El Paso is a very ”Latino” city. I grew up believing that I could enter any profession I desired.In my family, it was essential and traditional that you attend Catholic schools for your entire education, including college. One very positive thing about Catholic schools is that they do not discriminate against anyone for reasons of race, color, or gender. The emphasis is on discipline and religion. In my elementary and high school, science was not emphasized due to a lack of science-based courses. I had no one in my immediate family to provide me with the guidance and direction as to what to do with my future, so I wasted valuable time during high school and first years or so of college.
I went through high school heavily involved in playing sports. Unfortunately, I was never enrolled in high school courses that prepared me for college. I believed that I would play football in college. Because I went to a Catholic high school, Cathedral High, I was inclined to apply to five or six Catholic colleges. I accepted an offer and attended the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. I had no idea of what I wanted to do in college but I had a strong urging from my parents to be a dentist due to the high salary they made. Fortunately, while in college I started doing some research at the Texas Medical Center and this experience influenced me to develop an interest in science.
Many of the biology professors at the University of St. Thomas were full-time faculty at the Texas Medical Center, and very well established in their disciplines. One such professor was Dr. Henry Browning, Chair of the Department of Anatomy at the University of Texas Medical Branch. His expertise and research was in endocrinology. He made a major impact on my life and the lives of many other students by introducing us to the field of endocrinology and by allowing us to do research in his lab. Endocrinology is the study of the endocrine system which is a system consisting of glands, hormones and target organs. The endocrine system is one of the two major physiological controlling systems in the body. To explain it another way, hormones are chemical mediators which regulate a variety of bodily functions including growth, development, reproduction, and metabolism. One should visit the library to find pictures and simple definitions of the endocrine system.
One of the difficulties many of you could encounter in pursuing higher education is that you may not be able to study and/or work near your parents, which we all want to do. You may have to teach or do research at an institute that is far from your parents’ home. It seems that the more education you obtain the less likely you are to live near your parents. However, you do learn how to work and live a distance away from home. Scientific research can be very lonely and you work on your own much of the time. Academics is hard work but since we Chicano(a)s are used to working very hard in general, the work encountered in academics is a ”piece of cake.” If you chose to become a scientist, your family may never understand what you do. My parents always believed that success was being a doctor or a dentist. My grandmother called me a ”mouse doctor” because she knew that mice were part of my work. When I became a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, my main focus was on teaching and doing research that was biomedically relevant. I worked very hard for many years, often putting in sixteen hour days. Now that I have been a professor for some twenty-plus years, I have been thinking that trying to do administration might be interesting and fun.
The culture you grew up in is probably very different from the academic culture. For example, in our culture you are raised to not question authority. You are also taught that blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth. Unfortunately, this does not apply to academics. Looking back at my life, my Chicano culture and/or background has taught me the importance of hard work and to work well with others. Throughout early life you will learn many skills that will be important later, although you may not know it at the time. The social skills we are taught in our culture have really helped in my profession as an academic. I was taught the value of hard work at a young age, which has paid off for me. Overall, my life as a professor and scientist has been very exciting and rewarding.
Back to Team
As a kid I was fascinated by “critters.” I caught my share of Texas snakes, “horned toads” and tarantulas. But San Antonio is land-locked. I never met a live ocean creature until I snorkeled in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and was amazed by the sea life I saw. My Marine Corps enlistment was ending, so I asked myself “How can I make a good living doing work I enjoy?” A college degree would help, so I began studying biology at San Antonio Community College. At first, I worked all day and attended night classes. But I earned credits slowly, so I found work as a hotel night auditor, which let me take more classes during the day. I finally completed my associate’s degree and transferred to St. Mary’s University. My imagination was captured by other scientific fields, and I switched my major to chemistry, then mathematics and, finally, physics!
I had enjoyed studying atoms, magnetic fields and other physics topics, but now wanted to work on something I could see and feel. While investigating graduate programs, I discovered that oceanography is “multi-disciplinary,” including biology, chemistry, geology and physics. Physicists could be oceanographers, too! Physical oceanographers study the water itself, such as currents, waves and phenomena like El Niño. I applied to several physics graduate programs and several oceanography programs and received two offers: one for medical physics at the University of California at Berkeley, the other for oceanography at the University of Hawaii. The decision was a no-brainer–it was oceanography in Hawaii for me! I received my B.S. in Physics in 1967, and immediately married my sweetheart, Yolanda Cano. We left three days later for Hawaii on what turned out to be a 10-year honeymoon!
Dr. Brent Gallagher was my Master's thesis advisor and mentor, and remains a friend to this day. He suggested a terrific project: the first comprehensive study of the physical oceanography of Honolulu”s Ala Wai Canal, a small tropical estuary. Yolanda pitched in to help with the fieldwork. From a small boat, we measured currents, water temperature, salinity and nutrients, and collected bacteriological samples. I completed my M.S. in 1970 with the publication of this work. The report provided an important baseline for future studies, and is a useful reference for marine ecologists.
It was Dr. Rudy Preisendorfer, an applied mathematician who works for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and my love of mathematics that drew me to work on tsunamis. Tsunamis are waves generated when a violent geophysical event like an earthquake, landslide, or explosive volcano creates a bump (or cavity) on the ocean surface. In deep water, the bump may be only a few meters high but ten to hundreds of miles across, so the sea surface slope is extremely gentle and the waves pass under a ship completely unnoticed. The deeper the water, the faster the waves travel. In the deepest water the waves reach speeds of 500 miles per hour. As the coast is approached, waves in back are in deeper water and travel faster than those in front. The waves are squeezed into a smaller area, but the total energy of the waves is constant. To offset the smaller area, the height of the waves increases, sometimes to more than 30 meters! In my Ph.D. thesis I developed a new mathematical way to describe how a tsunami behaves when it attacks a coastline or harbor. I completed my doctoral studies in 1975, the same year that Yolanda graduated. During that ceremony, I received my Ph.D. in Physical Oceanography. Yolanda, not to be outdone, earned two degrees–a Bachelor of Fine Arts and a Bachelor of Art History. It was one of the most emotionally satisfying days of our lives.
Dangerous waves, and the mathematics of these waves, had captured my imagination. I continued working with Rudy for two more years. In 1977, I joined NOAA”s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory (PMEL) in Seattle to work on the first oceanographic satellite, SEASAT, which took radar images of the ocean. This new type of wave data revealed many exciting discoveries, including snapshots of beautiful (but dangerous) wave patterns generated by hurricanes. After SEASAT, I led the PMEL Hazardous Waves Project. I currently lead the PMEL Tsunami Program. We use sophisticated computer models to simulate tsunami attacks on coastal communities; this helps identify areas that are at high risk, and provides valuable guidance to emergency managers. We have also built the first deep-ocean network of stations that track tsunamis and report them in real time, a project known as Deep-ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunamis (DART). DART systems use a bottom pressure recorder to measure a tsunami. The measurements are sent acoustically to a surface buoy, which transmits data to a satellite, then to a Tsunami Warning Center. Research that focuses on saving lives and property is very satisfying, and I feel fortunate to have spent most of my career in this field.
Back to Team
I always wanted to be the best, be it in mathematics, English, or the sciences. My father taught us the value of being competitive from his sports background, which I transformed into a motivation to excel in school. I am Mexican-American and grew up in Montebello, California. My parents are both from Los Angeles.I am a professor of chemistry at California State University, Los Angeles (CSULA). Chemistry is part of all of our lives, and recent discoveries have affected our way of life for the better. For example, the discovery of cures for a variety of diseases came out of the laboratories of chemists who were designing materials that are now being used in silicon chips, transistors, and other things. The cars we drive and the planes we fly in are made of materials that were discovered in chemistry laboratories by scientists looking for new strong, light, and durable materials.
While I was an undergraduate I was fortunate to have several role models in the department of chemistry and biochemistry at CSULA. I started out as a mechanical engineer, but that only lasted for a few quarters. I was introduced to research by a teacher named Professor Thomas Onak. Professor Onak’s passion for research and dedication to teaching were especially encouraging in helping me decide on a research and teaching career. Two other professors who served as mentors to me during my undergraduate years were both Latino; Anthony J. Andreoli and Raymond Garcia. There were very few minorities in the sciences, and I was surprised to find two in the department. After I spoke to them and found out about the research programs in the department, I changed my major to chemistry. I also changed majors because I had received A’s in general chemistry and thought it was fun and interesting. After conducting research for a few quarters, I found it to be a wonderful experience. I also enjoyed the academic lifestyle–professors seemed to live a relaxing life. Interacting with students and doing science appealed to me. Little did I know how much work professors actually do! I received my Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry from CSULA in 1986. I knew that I needed a higher degree in order to one day be a professor, so graduate school was definitely in my future.
I attended graduate school at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). During that time I had many opportunities to conduct experiments in the laboratory and be creative. After completion of my doctorate in 1991, I went to Harvard University as a postdoctoral fellow to work with Professor George M. Whitesides. Until then, I had yet to see the relationship between chemistry and other science disciplines such as biology, medicine, and biochemistry. During my time at Harvard, I learned about the connections among these various fields of science. I decided that my research would have to involve other areas besides chemistry.I have been a college professor since 1994, and I have found it to be a wonderful experience. They say you never really know and understand the material until you have to teach it, and so far that has been true! But a professor of chemistry does not only teach classes. I also do research. My research group and I focus on the area of bioanalytical chemistry, which is the use and development of instrumentation to examine biological problems. Specifically, we work with hollow pieces of glass called capillaries that are 50 microns (50 x10-6 meters) in diameter. This is a little larger than the thickness of a single strand of hair. We inject into the capillary different biological molecules that we would like to study and understand and then place an electrical voltage across the capillary. The voltage affects the molecules differently and causes them to move across the capillary at different rates of speed. We can measure properties of these molecules by observing where they end up in the capillary. One of the great benefits to this technique is that we need very small quantities of the molecules for study.
Battles don’t always go to the stronger or the faster man. Sooner or later the person who wins is the person who thinks he or she can. My advice to students is straightforward–read everything you can get your hands on, learn how to write, believe in yourself, see the big picture, ask lots of questions, and embrace the moment for it is quickly gone. Also, take as many mathematics and science classes as you can. Have the courage to be a leader, and don’t be shy. Make your parents and grandparents proud.
Back to Team
I grew up in east Los Angeles during the 1940’s and 1950’s, which was a very exciting time. The older generation’s stories of the difficult times they had endured inspired us to hope for something better for our generation. Our family slowly worked its way out of poverty, and by the time I got to high school, our standard of living had improved quite a bit.
School was always relatively easy for me, with the exception of English, which I really didn’t master until college. Whenever I wanted to excel in any subject I could, but usually I was just an average student. My curiosity in the sciences began before high school. As a kid I enjoyed tearing things apart to figure out how they worked. My friends and I even dissected rats in our attempts to identify their physiology. My accidental placement in the college-bound track in high school furthered my interest in science. I actually found chemistry and physics fun!
My fascination with the sciences brought me to study physics at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) as an undergraduate. However, my pursuit of a physics degree did not last long and shortly I switched to chemistry. My college experience made my life very different than the friends I had grown up with in East Los Angeles who were all Chicano and never had any college aspirations until they came back from the military service. In college, my friends were the Jewish and Asian students (mostly Japanese) who carpooled with me to UCLA. Growing up in Los Angeles with Chicano, African-American, American Indian, Asian, and poor white children from Oklahoma gave me a strong awareness and appreciation of diverse cultures and the common struggles that all people have growing up.
I was not a very motivated undergraduate student. I received mostly C grades. It was circumstance and luck that brought me to graduate school. During my undergraduate years there was a draft for military service and I knew that when I finished school I would have to go into the army.
I had never thought about graduate school before, but it sounded a lot better than going into the army. When University of California at Riverside (UCR) invited me to attend their graduate school, with tuition paid for, and a research job, I joyfully accepted. The only provision that the school mandated was that I receive B grades in my final semester at UCLA. For the first time in my life I had an academic goal. I worked hard and obtained A’s. The following semester I began UC Riverside graduate school. The experience of attending graduate school changed my whole world, I lived on campus, I did research, and earned a 4.00 grade point average. I loved graduate school.
My attendance at UCR enabled me the opportunity to be one of the few students in the United States working on an exciting new research project. Specifically, we experimented with organic materials that conduct electricity when you shine light on them. My research helped to create the understanding that the creation of charge carriers occurred very close to the surface of the material and that the oxygen in the air residing at the materials surface was acting like a solid state impurity and causing other complicated effects to occur. By having a very clean surface of an organic materials, such as you have in a high vacuum, the material behaved in a predictable manner. This was a big scientific discovery, at the time, which was 1965.
Due to the success of my research, IBM hired me after I finished some postdoctoral research. The first project I worked on for IBM was an organic photo (light) conductor, a polymer film, which is used by copying machines. Our invention allowed IBM to break into the market dominated by Xerox with a machine that provided consistent high quality copies.
After twenty-seven years in a fulfilling career with IBM, I became an Associate Dean for the College of Science at San Jose State University. I have been here a little over three years. I have a job that I helped to create and now I fund the position with government grants. I spend my days working with schools to help students take more math and science classes, and to be successful in these two disciplines. I help all kids, but in particular I focus on Latino, African-American, and Native American kids.
In my life, I definitely got a few lucky breaks, like attending UC Riverside; but, I now realize that determined students will make their own breaks. If you are motivated, and you really believe you can do something, just push at it. The breaks will come, and you will take advantage of them. The obstacles will come, and you will surmount them. You have to believe that you can succeed. You cannot let anyone else determine what you are capable of doing because nobody knows, and you will never know until you try.
Back to Team
If someone told me as a kid that I would grow up to become a professor of chemistry at the University of Texas at San Antonio, I would have thought that they were nuts. In fact, a junior high school teacher advised me, like he did the other Mexican American students, that I should not be taking algebra. Fortunately, I had supportive parents, and found some teachers in high school who explained to me that college was an option after all.
I was not one of those who sailed through college smoothly. I abandoned the idea of a chemistry major after one year of studies and was pursuing an anthropology degree instead. After attending Stanford University for two years I dropped out. What started off as an expectation to only leave college for a year, quickly became six. A lot happened during this period: I married Josie, worked everyday at a bottling plant, and was active in social justice issues like immigration and educational opportunity. I do not feel that my time away from school was wasted. These experiences are part of who I am. And besides, I believe that had I finished Stanford in a regular fashion, I would never have returned to complete a degree in chemistry. I don’t think it’s likely that I’d be as happy at some other career as I am as a chemistry professor.
The second time around, college felt like a choice and not an obligation. With my return to school at San Jose State, it was apparent that while I had a new sense of maturity and that my love of chemistry had never left. Initially I was just concerned with earning a bachelor’s degree to increase my career opportunities, but after assisting an inspiring professor with research in the university laboratory, I couldn’t envision myself doing anything else. I wanted to become a professor and he assured me that if research was truly my passion, then nothing could prevent me from making that goal a reality. Besides being a father and a husband, research and teaching has become my purpose in life.
Being a professor is a long jump away from being an auto mechanic, and I would have never gotten to where I was if I wasn’t so interested in chemistry. Science always fascinated me—especially learning about molecules and atoms—but it wasn’t until I engaged in research at the graduate level that I obtained the fire to go above and beyond. It has led me to a very privileged place in society, a place where I’m able to do what I really love to do and get paid for it. As a professor, I encourage my students to pursue anything they are passionate about. This is a message underrepresented minorities students tend to not receive as often as they should and one that I hope to communicate through my work as Associate Dean for Diversity Initiatives at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA). In my students, I see the possibility of changing the world and increasing the diversity among faculty, specifically in field of chemistry.
We are a long way from diversity at the faculty level. To get there, we are going to have to train large numbers of students in science, starting at an early age. More students need encouragement pursuing science and math, and those who are proficient need to be sought out. With enough people trained in these areas, the few that are really passionate can go onto become members of the college faculty and research scientists. In the grand scheme of things, our individual contributions get magnified with the next generation. I’ve passed on the teachings of my professors to my young students, who will hopefully go off and continue the message.
It is important for everybody to discover an area they are willing to commit all of their efforts to, because passion is what gets us to do the heavy lifting in our lives, making dreams obtainable no matter how large. It is also essential for students to go through life at their own pace—not the pace dictated by teachers and guidance counselors—because time can reveal our true passions. By exposing ourselves to a bit of every subject, we discover what truly inspires us. It takes a lot of work to be great at something. After returning to go back to college, my agenda was to go as far as I could. I told myself that if I didn’t make it as far as I would have liked, I didn’t want to feel that I could have performed better. That experience taught me to just keep moving forward, to progress. Progress is what I expect in my research and in my life. Of course everyone should learn from their experiences, but the past should never extinguish our dreams. If everyone makes it their mission to be more experienced in the attempt to discover what truly drives us, what makes us passionate—then the only place to go is forward.
Back to Team
I grew up on the Navajo Reservation in an area called the Four Corners region, where the borders of Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado come to a single point. My home, which we did not own, was company housing; my dad worked for an oil company on the reservation. As a child, I had the unusual experience of getting on a bus every morning and traveling an hour and a half off the reservation to a town in the state of Utah, just to attend school. The predominantly Mormon school was the closest in the area, and a number of other Native Americans in the area were also bused in.
It was apparent that we were outsiders. The school even went as far as dividing the classroom, with almost all the Native American students on one side and the white students on the other. The school proclaimed that the class was broken up according to academic comprehension and that the Native American students happened to have more deficiencies. Regardless of the explanation, the division created a rift in the classroom, and I can recall people talking poorly of the Native American students, labeling us as less intelligent.
I was fortunate enough to have teachers who felt I could succeed on the “white side.” I recall some of my friends, who were not as fortunate, being taught things I was already familiar with. As a minority in class, I felt I had to do well, and I always saw it as a challenge to perform just as well as the white kids. Even when faced with this complicated and challenging environment, I was never discouraged from my interest in school.
My motivation to succeed in school came from my parents, namely my father, who at the dinner table would lecture my older sisters and me on the importance of a good education. It happened so frequently that I can remember thinking to myself, “Wow! Here we go again!” Because we never owned a home and our small community (15 houses) was located in an isolated rural desert area, with very few opportunities for people to live well, my father viewed education as a ticket for his three children to get out of there.
My oldest sister was the first to go off to college and my other sister was next. Both inspired me to follow their lead because I always looked up to them. To ensure my chances of being well-prepared for college, I left home to attend a college preparatory high school called the Marine Military Academy in south Texas. Through an organization known as the Navajo Code Talkers, Marine veterans of World War II, I was given a scholarship to attend the academy. Although it was difficult to leave home, the experience was very rewarding. Not only did it teach me discipline, but it really showed me that college was the path I wanted to take.
After the military academy, I attended Colorado State University. Once there, I would think back to my childhood, living on the reservation, being bused to school, and dealing with racism in a predominately white town. It felt like I had made it, lived up to the expectations of my family. The best part: there were no dividing barriers! My college roommates were white and African American, and we would laugh because this arrangement was not common, but it was also not looked on as bad, either. Even though we were all racially different, we shared the same passion: to succeed in college.
My interest at the time was to become a veterinarian, which stemmed from my childhood, when my father and I would ride horses. I absolutely loved horses (and even did some rodeo!) and the thought of working with horses for a living seemed very gratifying. To become a veterinarian, I began taking the required science courses—one of which was microbiology. Working with that complex world, invisible to the naked eye, sparked my interest. I was able to see firsthand that science isn’t just fun to learn, but the results from scientific research can help people live longer and more enjoyable lives. So I decided to change paths and pursue a Ph.D. in microbiology at Colorado State University.
I now teach microbiology at Oklahoma State University, and I love my job. I work hard at my university so it can be a place without the barriers and limitations I experienced early in my education. Besides being a professor, I am the president of the Native American Faculty and Staff Association. Our organization provides scholarships to Native American students on campus to ease some of the financial burden of college. We also organize events, sponsor motivational speakers, and fund other areas of the school in order to inspire students to succeed. Through this organization, I hope that we can knock down obstacles that get in the way of students reaching their goals.
Native Americans are truly underrepresented in biomedical science. Because I am one of the few Native American microbiologists out there, I think it is very important for young kids to have access to minority role models in the sciences, which will hopefully give them the needed encouragement to pursue science as a career. My vision and hope for the future is that someday, as more Native Americans enter the field of science and research, we can establish a research institution on the reservation. We would train future scientists and physicians of all races. A step of this magnitude could open a lot of possibilities for Native American youth, but first more barriers must fall.
I am now in a position to make a difference, and my father showed me that education was the ticket to get there. His wish for me was to surpass his own accomplishments, to be happy, and to make an impact in life. This was because he never had the educational opportunities that I was given. His memories of his job were of moving from place to place and working day, evening, and night shifts to make a living for his family. About six years ago, I happened to be driving with my wife and kids in the Four Corners region, the place where I grew up. I decided to show them where I used to live, but when we got there, nothing was left of the housing compound except a few structural fragments and familiar trees that I remembered playing around. It confirmed what my father had taught me: You have to build the strongest foundation possible if you want a house to last.
Back to Team
The paths of life are not always straight or unobstructed, but when we have a purpose anchored in passion, we can always make the best of our circumstances. We can choose our outlook in whatever surrounds us, and this is key for getting where we want to be in life. I believe that drive results from passion and perseverance. And I believe that mathematics can spur us all to discover our passions, by tapping deep into our creative roots.
I was born in Rosario, Argentina, the cradle of a Latin culture pervasively infused with European traits, a country tethered by glaciers, jungle, desert, and sea. My background is part native, part Italian, part Swiss, and part Spanish. I am proud to be a Latina woman, but I don’t feel my heritage defines me exclusively. Since I grew up in South America, I never saw myself as an ethnic minority. I was also surrounded by both strong men and women, and this made me little aware of gender stereotypes.
My parents were both first-generation college graduates: my father was a hand surgeon, and my mother a biology researcher and university professor. They inspired both my younger sister and me by encouraging us to discover and pursue that which we had a passion for.
My father passed away in a car accident when he was just 41 years old. I was nine. Though physically absent, he lived through my sister and I, as my grandfather used to say. And he certainly lived in the stories and memories of the many who knew and loved him. During his life, my father had a joyous bohemian spirit. In the hospital ward he would sing to the lepers he treated, inspiring them while restoring functionality to their hands and feet. After his death, my mother remained a strong and steadfast spirit. Always focused on the positive, she led and inspired us even through the most difficult time of her life.
Throughout my life, my analytical mind has always craved worthy challenges. This is why I went to a math and science intensive high school, the Instituto Politecnico Superior General San Martin, an institution also known as “El Poli” to its many alumni. There, my passion for mathematics began to develop. Surrounded by a majority of male peers, I enjoyed subjects like chemistry, drafting, and material sciences while learning, literally, to make nuts and bolts in the old workshop lathes. El Poli taught me practical skills such as carpentry, soldering, blacksmithing, and even masonry. In my senior year, my search for a balance between theory and applications led me to specialize in construction. I loved creating floor plans, blueprints, and performing engineering calculations.
While still in high school, I came to the U.S. on a cultural exchange for a semester with an organization called Youth for Understanding (www.yfu.org). This was a great experience from many angles. I attended an American high school in Spokane, Washington, and had a fantastic host family who would later influence my return to America. Once back in Argentina, I finished high school and took the summer to think about my future. My love for math and science had grown strong, yet these subjects had almost been my exclusive focus during high school. I felt I wanted to explore something new. I considered a variety of fields: medicine, economics, engineering, architecture, and even law.
After reading my parents’ anatomy books, I realized I was not terribly moved by the prospect of memorizing such detailed information about our human body. So, I opted to start a career in economics and accounting. I really enjoyed taking classes in marketing, and civic and commercial law. These subjects enriched me, adding much-needed breadth to my high school experience. But when I began working in an accounting office, it became clear to me that the scientific creativity I had experienced in high school had no equivalent in the accounting field, and so I returned to mathematics.
Mathematics is a field where the creative mind can be unleashed to blossom while extending and reshaping the work of other creative minds. A student of mine, who is a full-time artist, once reflected: “Doing mathematics is like shaping clay into a piece of art. You problem-solve until you achieve the shape you envision, or something even better.” The fulfillment that stems from a finished piece of mathematics can indeed be just as personally engrossing as the work born of the artist’s hand. Unfortunately, the beauty of mathematics and its creative power often remains hidden to those who are only exposed to the artifacts of the discipline. Mathematics is more a way of thinking, than a collection of facts, rules, and skills. It is the art of essentializing, to unveil structure.
After completing a year and a half of mathematics studies at the Universidad Nacional de Rosario, I transferred to Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington, where I had earned an international scholarship. There, with the unwavering support of my USA host family and many of my Whitworth professors, I quickly earned my bachelor’s of science in mathematics.
Both my parents had university degrees, so I always thought I would earn a graduate degree as well. I moved to Arizona and started the PhD program in mathematics at the University of Arizona in Tucson. There I was surprised to notice a gap between the mathematics I knew and the mathematics I was expected to know. I had always led my peers when it came to mathematics, yet now somehow the tables had turned. It was an exciting yet an unsettling time.
I have always surrounded myself with people with forward-looking vision and a positive outlook. Such individuals are great assets in challenging times. A good friend of mine, now himself a mathematician, would often remind me that focusing on the math I loved was far wiser for graduate school success than fretting about: “Just do your best and enjoy the math you love!” The advice I sought from my math professors seemed to echo my friend’s words: “Having to catch up is normal, don’t get discouraged!” So, I dropped some classes and took others that were still challenging but more manageable. And so I got through my first year of grad school.
Some of my peers ended up leaving the program. Stepping away from a mathematics PhD program is not always a bad thing. Leaving because you decide math is not what you want to do is fine. But leaving because all of a sudden you feel defeated can be an issue. The sour flavor of feeling one has fallen short sticks to you no matter what, and may later undermine other successes. So my advice is: know what you like, and leverage the opportunities to pursue it. I focused on my love for mathematics and immersed myself in the field.
Early in my graduate career I discovered groups and fell in love with Galois theory. But later, a summer reading introduced me to symplectic and Poisson geometry, and this plucked just the right chord in me. So I became a geometer. I chose a problem that straddled both theoretical and applied mathematics and earned a PhD in mathematics specializing in Poisson geometry of dynamical systems.
After postdoctoral time at the University of Michigan and the University of New Mexico, my husband and I have returned to his hometown of Tucson. I am now Director of Development and Evaluation at the School of Mathematical Sciences at the University of Arizona, and my current academic work focuses primarily of mathematics education.
In addition to being a mathematician, I also enjoy many hobbies: operating a ham radio, spinning, dancing salsa, and pottery. I still enjoy carpentry a skill I have drawn upon while remodeling two houses. Today, I am also the wife of a driven entrepreneur and the mother of two young boys.
I have found that in life, the important thing is to understand what motivates you. Do you want to make money? Do you want to be well known? Or do you want to do something you have a passion for and use it to make a difference? Having that clear is important for approaching whatever you might choose to do in life. I have always done the things I love. I feel privileged to have had this choice, and I wouldn’t change a thing.
Back to Team
As a graduate student at the University of Hawaii, Honolulu, I worked with immigrant populations from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. The immigrants were mostly women and children who had just arrived in Hawaii and were eager to learn English and fit into American society. To teach them English, I used experiences from my daily life instead of using textbooks. I shared my Native Hawaiian culture with them, and, in return, they shared their values, culture, and stories with me. My students were eager to communicate with me when they were passionate about what we were discussing, and I learned a lot, too. This kind of exchange between teacher and student was revolutionary to me and completely different from the educational system that I grew up with.
When I was in school, I learned English in a completely different way. As Native Hawaiians, both my parents’ and my generation were forced to learn English and not practice or respect our traditional native language. This devaluing of our language felt like a devaluing of our culture. When I was able to teach English in a new way, it was a very healing experience. My classroom celebrated people’s diversity and culture. We thought of English as a common language that enabled vastly different people to communicate.
Because of this lack of respect for our Native Hawaiian language and culture, I struggled to succeed in the American educational system, which supported competition and individuality over teamwork and community. I wasn’t always an A student. I never had teachers who were Hawaiian, and I had no one in school who understood what kinds of challenges I was facing as a Native Hawaiian student. It was hard to flourish in that environment because Native Hawaiians value Ohana, the family, (immediate, extended, friends, and neighbors) and Aloha, compassion and kindness -in human interaction. Luckily, I had the support of my community and family to get me where I am today.
Ohana and Aloha aren’t just Native Hawaiians beliefs; it’s who we are. Ohana and Aloha have been central to my life, from growing up playing team sports to interacting with people during my school years and my time as a research scientist. Later, these values became part of my career in public health. Ohana and Aloha were taught to me by my parents, who were very supportive of my education, especially because neither of them or anyone else in my family went to the university.
I received a scholarship in basketball and went to the University of Hawaii, Honolulu. Because I was an athlete, I was interested in how people made choices about their health and behavior. This directed me to pursue a bachelor’s degree in human development.
Once I discovered that my strengths were my values of Ohana and Aloha, I knew that I wanted to do work with Hawaii’s multi-ethnic population and stay in the health sciences field, so I pursued a master’s degree in public health education at the University of Hawaii, Honolulu.
My current research is in developing a quit smoking program for native Hawaiians. There are a number of smoking cessation programs across the nation, but Native Hawaiians continue to smoke at a higher rate than other ethnic groups, and I want to know why. My hypothesis is that it may be that Native Hawaiians need more cultural components in the smoking cessation program. For example, the programs may be more effective if they involve the whole family, or perhaps people would succeed more if they worked in small group sessions instead of following the typical American model of one–on-one counseling.
Being a Native Hawaiian scientist working with a Native Hawaiian population is of tremendous benefit because there are so few Native Hawaiian women in the sciences, in the university system, or on faculties. Native Hawaiian faculty at the university numbers only two percent while our population in the state is twenty percent. We desperately need more Hawaiian role models in the universities and in public health programs like the one I am developing. The Native Hawaiian population needs to have people they can relate to, who understand their culture, their upbringing, and their obstacles and can help them succeed in the American educational system. Being a role model and providing an opportunity to conduct research and learn new skills, to help others move on and create careers for themselves; these are the legacies I would like to leave other Native Hawaiians.
Even though I wasn’t an A student, I made it to where I am today. You can say it was hard work and determination, and it was, but I think my family and friends and the compassion of others helped quite a bit. Ohana and Aloha go a long way in life, for they are virtues rooted within.
Back to Team
I am a child of two cultures. My father is from Quito, Ecuador, and my mother is Jewish from New York City. Although I was born in London, England, most of my childhood was spent in Latin America. Since both of my parents were economists with the United Nations, my brother and I had the opportunity to live in many different countries including Ecuador, Paraguay, Chile, and Guatemala. Even though I have lived in America from the time that I was twelve years old, Latin America still feels like home and for many years I planned on returning to live there permanently.
Moving to America wasn’t easy and I found it very difficult to adjust both socially and academically. Kids at school asked whether we lived in trees in Guatemala. My 7th grade P.E. teacher told me to go take off my stockings when I wasn’t wearing any – it was just the dark color of my skin! As far as academics were concerned, it was challenging to get into the right classes. My school said it wasn’t on the tracking system, but it was obvious that there were low, middle, and high classes. I had to fight to get into the high track math class where I knew I belonged. I had loved math and science ever since I received a book on astronomy from my grandfather when I was seven years old. Thanks to my parents, who valued me for being a girl and being intelligent, I was never faced with the notion that women could not be scientists or mathematicians.
I majored in physics with an emphasis in astronomy at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, where I was the only woman in the department. However, in my senior year, I realized that it would be difficult to pursue astronomy in Latin America. I knew that I wanted to balance my love of science with my passion for political work, but I didn’t know how. One of my physics professors encouraged me to apply to graduate school in geophysics, emphasizing that such work could be beneficial in Latin America. I took my professor’s advice, and started my graduate work at Stanford University in geophysics.
After receiving my master’s degree, I was employed by the U.S. Geological Survey doing field research in Guatemala and Nicaragua where I was setting up portable seismographs in rural areas. As it turned out, there was an earthquake while I was there, and because I could speak Spanish, I was able to explain to villagers what we were doing. All of a sudden it felt like I could do science research in Latin America and help people at the same time. However, I realized that in order to do really interesting and beneficial scientific work, I needed to get a Ph.D., because that advanced degree would give me the independence and means to create my own projects.
I enrolled in the Ph.D. program in seismology at Columbia University in New York City where I became very interested in studying the Chilean Earthquake of 1960. At 9.5 on the Richter scale, it is the largest ever-recorded earthquake. It lasted for almost five minutes and created tidal waves as far away as Hawaii! The particularly interesting thing about this earthquake was that an unusual seismic event had been recorded at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena fifteen minutes before the earthquake struck. My question was whether these events were related or were simply coincidence. After years of research and studying seismographic records from all around the world, I was able to prove that the two events were connected. It was my hope that this work would contribute to the research being done on how to predict earthquakes.
While my research was very fulfilling and exciting, my experience at Columbia was challenging. It was extremely difficult to be the only woman, let alone Latin American in my program. Despite the hardship, I graduated in 1988 and was the first woman to ever earn a Ph.D. in seismology from Columbia!
Although I never made it back to Latin America to live, my life has come almost full circle because I am now working in the Washington D.C. area, including the district where I attended school. Similar to when I was in school, many children are being placed in classes based more on the color of their skin rather than their academic potential. Most of these classes have very poor science, math, and technology programs. In my work as the director for the Carnegie Academy for Science Education in Washington D.C., I teach science and mathematics to elementary school students and educators in the D.C. public schools to try and improve the programs and increase opportunity for the students.
Getting to where I am in life has not been easy, but I have learned to fight my battles and see where I can make a difference. Science has given me a special view of the world. It has taught me to think critically, ask questions, and persevere.
April 26, 1954 – December 16, 2013
Read Dr. Inés Cifuentes’ Obituary
Back to Team
I was born in a little town called Rio Verde in the state of San Luis Potosi in Mexico as the oldest of seven children. One of the challenges to living in a remote part of Mexico is that education is not as readily available as in other places and the quality of education is not as high. To excel academically, you have to work very hard and go beyond what is expected of you. I knew this all along because I had cousins, relatives, and friends who went to school in major cities around the country and their educational opportunities far exceeded mine.
But ever since I was a child, I have been fascinated with chemistry. I was doing experiments by the time I was six years old. One of my favorite experiments to do with my childhood chemistry set was to crystallize copper sulfate. It was a blue crystal and I loved to see those blue crystals form. My uncle also really triggered my interest in science; he was a chemist and I saw him as an example of a person I could emulate.
When I left home and went to college, I studied chemistry at the Monterrey Institute of Technology in Monterrey, Mexico. It was the very best school in our country and my uncle was a professor of chemistry there. My first year at the institute was a total struggle for me because their academic expectations were so much higher than I was accustomed to and I hadn’t yet developed the study skills to keep up. The only thing I could do to catch up with my peers was to work twice as hard as everyone else. I had to forget about everything that wasn’t academics and focus solely on my studies.
After college, I originally thought that I wanted to start a company with my father to recycle byproducts of corn, a major crop in the region where I grew up. Unfortunately, he died in an accident, which forced me to reassess my career goals. I decided to continue on with my schooling and enrolled in a PhD program in chemistry at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. I felt that going to graduate school in the U.S. would be an excellent academic springboard to launch me anywhere else I wanted to go. I chose Georgetown in particular because the school offered me the best balance between a very rigorous education and a beautiful setting in the nation’s capital.
The hardest thing for me in coming to the U.S. for graduate school was the language barrier. I was not able to understand all of the questions I was asked. I remember early on when I got an exam back. I was completely surprised that my answer was graded as incorrect. When I went to the professor and asked what part of my answer was incorrect, he said, “Everything you wrote is correct. Unfortunately, you didn’t answer the question that I asked you!” It took about a year to learn enough English to excel in my classes. This experience felt similar to my college years, when my peers just showed up for classes and took notes and that was it, and I had to work twice as hard to get to the same level as everybody else! But through these experiences, I learned that when you apply yourself and work toward your goal, you can overcome any obstacles.
Now as a professor of medicine at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill, I lead a large group of researchers and train the next generation of biomedical scientists. In my lab, we are trying to develop ways to prevent the transmission of the AIDS virus among individuals in an effort to end the epidemic. I never imagined as a chemist that I would be doing biomedical research with such direct clinical implications, but the common denominator throughout my scientific career is that I’ve let science take me where I needed to go.
Being a full tenured professor at an institution as prestigious as UNC is a huge accomplishment for me and every day that I come to work is a total pleasure. I work in the newest building at the UNC campus. It is absolutely beautiful and totally state-of-the-art. We have windows with a beautiful view of the woods and it’s very relaxing and conducive to being both creative and highly innovative. This type of environment allows me and my colleagues to come up with novel solutions to problems and to tackle questions of fundamental importance in the field. My favorite aspect of my job is seeing young researchers develop and become seasoned independent investigators. Many of them become leaders in their field. Their transformation is just amazing to watch! My goal is to continue to set a good example for the next generation of scientists and to provide the people in my laboratory an outstanding environment to develop their talents.
Looking back, it seems incredible to be where I am now because neither of my parents had a degree nor even went to high school. Yet all my siblings and I ended up going to college and many of us went on to pursue advanced degrees. After my father died, my mother was left alone with seven children. My dad had always conveyed the importance of education and the opportunities school could bring. But it was up to me to set an example for the rest of the family by going to college. My father also had an incredible work ethic: when he died, he was working four jobs. But I had seen nothing yet! After my father died, my mother had to take care of us. That’s when I realized how incredible and special she was. Raising seven kids and putting them through college and graduate school is really amazing. I’ve never met anyone as accomplished as her and she is the focus of all my admiration.
My advice to young people looking to be scientists today is to go beyond what is expected and deliver something that is better than what everyone else is doing. The one thing that always motivated me was doing experiments—to ask questions and actually find answers. As long as you continue to cultivate your curiosity, you’ll do great! And make sure to take advantage of all the resources available to you. Don’t be shy.
We live in such an incredible time, when so many of the answers to our questions are literally at our fingertips. To be able to ask about any subject, any issue, anywhere in the world and to have an answer appear on your computer screen is truly amazing. Seeing how the world changes in front of you every day allows you to be in awe about all the potential discoveries in the world and will inspire you to make your own powerful and long-lasting contribution.
Back to Team
I was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and I grew up in Alcalde, New Mexico. Alcalde is a very small village in northern New Mexico, which was started by Spanish speaking people hundreds of years ago. It is somewhat isolated from the rest of the world, and has a culture that is very rich in tradition and folklore. The people in the village value education.When it came time for me to go to high school, I had to make a decision. The nearest high school was about fifteen miles away. My parents wanted me to go to Santa Fe (about thirty miles away) to Saint Michael’s, a boarding school, because it was supposed to be very good. I told them that I did not want to go because I did not have any friends in Santa Fe. In the end I went to Saint Michael’s, and it turned out to be a great experience. I learned a lot, made many new friends, and was still able to keep the old ones. St. Michael’s had excellent mathematics and science teachers. It was amazing how much fun it was to learn mathematics and science. My parents were really supportive, and it was their belief in a good education that helped me to appreciate the importance and fun of learning new things.
When I was growing up in northern New Mexico, nobody had a lot of money and everybody had to work hard. I would not have been able to go to college, except that by attending the high school that I did, I was able to get a cooperative student scholarship to New Mexico State University. This type of scholarship meant that I went to school six months out of the year and worked the other six months in a technical job. This turned out to be a good combination. I learned a lot in my classes at the university, and I was able to use what I had learned in my job. Similarly, the new skills I learned in my job helped me appreciate what I was learning in my classes. I worked hard and competed for the opportunity to study further. I was able to go to Germany for a year as a Fulbright scholar and study at the University of Göttingen, where some of the physicists I had read about taught and did research. I received my Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in 1966. Of the many different types of physicists, I am called a ”theoretical physicist.” I use mathematics to describe the atom and how it works.
Imagine trying to figure out a jigsaw puzzle given only a few of the pieces to begin with. What picture will finally emerge? This is what I do in studying atoms. Atoms are everywhere, but they are too small to be seen individually. In fact, there are more than a billion atoms on the period at the end of this sentence. Imagine trying to study just one atom on that period. This is the challenge that I am interested in. Because physicists cannot see the atoms, sometimes the only information we have about them is the pieces that come out when we smash two atoms together. I try to predict what will happen, and then use that information to understand how the atoms were put together to begin with. Because I only have pieces of the puzzle, it can be very difficult. I don’t even know if I have all the pieces.
Physics is the study of how nature works. What are the forces that make atoms move and form molecules? What keeps an atom together? What are the rules for our universe? How do stars form? These are the kinds of questions that I work on. I try to understand nature by using equations to calculate what happens when atoms collide. Sometimes it takes very large computers to figure out a problem. Other times we can do the calculation without a computer, just using logical thinking and carefully talking out an idea. I also help people design how they will do their experiments so that their measurements will yield the most information for us to use.
I work at a university, so I teach undergraduate and graduate students about physics as well. I also help high school teachers sponsor a high school physics competition every year. One of the neat things that our physics department does every year is put on a physics phun night where the public comes to watch demonstrations of experiments. We draw a large crowd of people who want to see someone’s hair stand on end, or wonder how holding a spinning bicycle wheel can make a person turn around. The best part of my work is helping students and others learn about the world we live in.
Back to Team
To this day, living in Northern Arizona makes it difficult to ignore the manifestation of natural phenomena and not contemplate how such wonders come to be. I am one who has always been curious. However, my curiosity about nature did not blind me to the status of the Mexican American population at the time. Growing up in the Southwest in the mid-1900s I became aware that a colonial mentality existed, left over from the U. S.-Mexican war of the 1840s, a war that resulted in a loss of half of Mexico’s land to the U.S. Although my parents immigrated to the U.S. after that war, even the Mexicans that had resided in the Southwest and their descendants were treated as a conquered people, viewed as second-class citizens. Use of the Spanish language was an easy marker for discrimination. I experienced numerous instances of discrimination. My elementary school was segregated, reserved only for children of Mexicans like myself. Though we spoke Spanish at home, I easily mastered English. In elementary school I found myself attracted to mathematics, music and spelling. These subjects have a strong analytic content requiring less mastery of English and may have been the reason I gravitated toward them.
High school was difficult because I had to socialize into the main stream. This resulted in being subjected to overt discrimination. An extreme case was the principal, who told me that I had to settle for second place after I called to his attention discrimination tactics used by a teacher. On another occasion he told me, ”Mexicans don’t do science.” Eventually I was able to reconcile Anglo community values with those of my Mexican upbringing. Engaging in competitive sports presented a relief throughout high school. I was one of possibly two Mexican Americans that did well in science and mathematics, as well as in English in high school. I was editor of the newspaper during my senior year, won the school’s American Legion oratory contest two years in a row and took second prize in a national art poster contest. My high school transcripts show two tracks of study, one that prepared me for semi-skilled labor and the other for college. Mexican American students were not viewed as destined for a college education.
Upon high school graduation, I enrolled at Northern Arizona University in 1950. A scholarship paid tuition and staying at home minimized my expenses. Expenses were critical, much as it is today among too many Hispanics. I was the only Mexican American in mathematics and science college classes. Nevertheless, I was able to complete my bachelor’s degree in 1954 and then began my graduate studies with support of a teaching assistantship in graduate school.
As a graduate student at Oregon State University and a post doctorate at Cornell University, I merged my lifelong interests in chemistry and physics and continued to build a competency in mathematics, which underpins all of science. Calculus and differential equations are fundamental for the precise formulation of physics and chemistry. Mastering mathematics is a continuing process. Entrance and success in college begins with the study of algebra, geometry and trigonometry in high school and continues without end. The last formal courses in mathematics I had were in graduate school, vector spaces that help describe molecular structure and differential equations that describe the motion of waves. In physics, this mathematics explains motion and energy exchange; in chemistry, how chemical bonds are formed to accommodate structure, molecular stability and energy content.
I found research a pleasant challenge particularly since it required making original contributions. For my master’s degree, I found how the unrestricted motion of a particular molecule in the gas phase is modified when incorporated into a crystal. Such results are fundamental to new discoveries, such as predicting outcomes of chemical reactions and syntheses of chemicals. For the doctorate, my original contribution was to show that light passing through a carefully designed ultrasonic field in a gas can be used to measure exchange of energy when molecules collide.
After a successful period in the corporate world and a decade as a professor of physics, I became a program manager with the Atomic Energy Commission in 1974. This Commission was superceded by the Department of Energy. As a result of an agency-wide competition, I was awarded a 12 month resident Sloan Fellowship in 1977 that allowed me to earn a Masters in Management Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. As a program manager for atomic, molecular and optical physics, I supervised and managed the disbursement of as much as 10 million dollars a year to U.S. scientists. This duty involved receipt of proposals, managing their evaluation and funding the more meritorious ones. Monitoring these projects provided me a vicarious living since the scientists invariably reported their new findings to me before they were submitted for publication. I found this role an exciting one. After 25 years of program management, I became a science advisor.
Realizing that so few minorities were following scientific careers, I helped found SACNAS in 1973 and served as one of its presidents. I sincerely hope that those days of blatant discrimination are far behind us. Nevertheless, even when others think less of us, our own inner strengths along with our education and organizations like SACNAS aid us to conquer adversities.
Back to Team
According to Lakota belief, the start of each person’s existence begins among the millions of stars that stretch across the night sky to form the Milky Way. We journey through this trail of stars until we reach the southern end, where we are asked by Maya Owichapaha, the grandmother, to select our life story. We choose our story knowing there will be good times full of joy and love, and hard times when we will experience pain and loss. But it will all cumulate to create purpose in our lives. Birth marks the moment each one of us starts the process of learning why we are here.
I am here as both a Native and an environmental scientist. As a Native scientist, I use more than a millennia of environmental observations by my people to understand how the four elements—earth, air, fire, and water—interact so that I can bring harmony to the environment. As an environmental scientist, I draw on a wide range of scientific disciplines to understand the environment and the many interactions that take place on a physical, chemical, and biological level.
I’m also a mentor who helps young people develop a connection between their culture and traditional science. I believe this connection is key for allowing young people to draw on a variety of different perspectives in order to create a sustainable world for all living things.
As a child, I never thought I would become a scientist or mentor. In fact, I never envisioned a life for myself outside that of my family’s ranch and farm in rural South Dakota. But staying at home was not to be part of my life story.
I’m Lakota and Euro-American. At an early age, I was adopted into a loving family that grew to consist of my mother, father, brother, sister, and me. While growing up, home was the sweetest place on earth. I adored all that I considered home–my family, the big open grassy spaces, and the vast sky high above.
It was outside of my rural life where I struggled, especially when I started attending a high school 25 miles from my home in a town called Chamberlain. I felt like everything about me was different from my peers—the way I wore my clothes and styled my hair, even the way I spoke. I didn’t have the social skills to cope and, as a result, became painfully shy.
I remember being stricken with panic the day my father asked me to pick up a college application from my guidance counselor. I didn’t understand why I needed one because my parents didn’t go to college, and I assumed I wouldn’t either. But I respected my father and did what I was told. My body was tight with anxiety when I walked into the counselor’s office and asked for an application. Although I don’t remember the counselor’s name, I do remember what he told me: “Jacquelyn, you’re not college material.” I walked out empty-handed.
When I told my father what happened, he said, “You return to the counselor’s office and ask again for a college application.” The next day I got that application, but I wasn’t convinced that I was going to college. I was working in the field with my father when I asked him why I should go. “Jacquelyn, you must get an education,” he said. “Not because it makes you smarter or better than anyone else. Nothing could be farther from the truth. But it will give you credibility in a world different from this one. And then you can give back.”
With my father’s words in mind, I went to the University of South Dakota in Vermillion. However, I didn’t know how I was going to give back until I started studying the growing rates of alcoholism affecting communities close to where I grew up. This concern guided much of my early academic and professional career as I sought to understand addiction from a psychological and physiological perspective.
I received an undergraduate degree in psychology and one in allied health science, and then a master’s degree in educational psychology and counseling. I was denied acceptance to the university’s doctoral program because of a lack of “real world” work experience. To get that experience, I took a job as a curriculum development and training specialist with the Aberdeen Area Tribal Chairmen’s Health Board, which works to improve health services for Indian people living in South Dakota, North Dakota, Iowa, and Nebraska.
In this position, I contributed to research that examined the prevalence rate of children born with alcohol-related developmental disabilities. Even though I was working with issues of alcoholism, I noticed that the healthier the environment, the healthier the people who were living in it. The knowledge of balancing the needs of people with the needs of our natural environments is paramount in Tribal societies. I realized that for our Indian children to be happy and healthy, their education must be grounded in this knowledge. Their education must connect back to their environment and culture. We can’t expect our children to be stewards of the land and each other without an education that includes learning outside on the land that they will care for, alongside their community.
After working for a year and a half, I returned to the University of South Dakota to pursue a PhD in education and psychology. I was close to completion when I realized the program wasn’t for me. I really wanted to manifest my realization that science education must connect the environment and culture, so I went back to the University of South Dakota, where I earned a doctoral degree in environmental science and educational administration.
Today, I work as the director of the Indian Natural Resource Science and Engineering Program (INRSEP) at Humboldt State University in California. The program supports North American indigenous students pursuing higher education degrees in the sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). My role includes academic and cultural counseling and mentoring INRSEP students as they integrate the working knowledge of Indian communities with Western science. Our purpose is to ensure a culturally strong Native scientific workforce to meet the challenges and opportunities of our nation’s future.
Every day, I help my students make connections between their cultural understanding of the environment and what they are learning in traditional science classes. I do this by sharing openly everything that I have learned about science and life. I want my students to dream big and succeed. I want them to become leaders so that all of humanity can benefit from their ability to draw upon the power of culture and science to understand our environment and keep it healthy. Through my students, I have found a way to give back, and I have found my life’s story.
Back to Team
I was born in 1962 in Kingman, Arizona. Kingman is a very multi-cultural community, and has a large mix of Hispanics, Native Americans, and Anglos. I am a mix myself; my mother is Navajo and my father is Caucasian.
During the time I was raised, Kingman was such a little town that there were not a lot of career opportunities for women, and girls didn’t see examples of women who were doctors, lawyers, engineers, and scientists. Many girls, including myself, struggled with this lack of role models. However, I received a tremendous amount of encouragement from my parents who were both teachers. They showed me that an education could take me far.
Growing up in Kingman had its advantages too. In a smaller community you can really excel, even if you aren’t the smartest person in the whole world. I was a good athlete and I was the valedictorian of my high school class. The confidence I gained in my hometown gave me courage through my entire education.
After high school I went to Yavapai College in Prescott, Arizona where I played basketball. It was at Yavapai where I first fell in love with chemistry. I had always loved math and had decided to study engineering. While taking my standard science requirements, I took my first chemistry class. I had an incredibly enthusiastic chemistry professor that really made the lectures and labs come alive. Even though I loved chemistry, the class was still very hard for me. I actually went to my professor to tell him I needed to switch classes to take something easier. He said, “Oh no you don’t!” He was able to show me how to take a step back and ask for help, instead of saying, “I quit!”
As I continued with my education, however, I learned there are times when you truly have to give some things up. For example, when I went to New Mexico State University to get my B.S. in chemistry, I thought I would continue playing basketball. I quickly saw that basketball, on top of my classes and labs, was going to be impossible. Quitting basketball was a hard decision to make, but it was an important step in preparing for graduate school, where science had to be my entire focus.
Although I stopped playing competitively, basketball was still a part of my life, and in fact, taught me a lot about being a chemist. All of the discipline, determination, and patience that it takes to learn a sport are the same things it takes to succeed in science. The bottom line is that it takes hard work and focused time to improve. Neither science nor basketball is something that you can do haphazardly and succeed.
That determination was necessary when I started graduate school in chemistry at the University of Arizona (U of A). Graduate school was truly a test of perseverance, not just because the material was challenging. As I advanced into higher-level math and science classes, I noticed that there were fewer and fewer women and people of color. I got used to saying to my lab partners, “You know, a woman can actually do the same things as you!”
While at U of A, I found myself struggling, like when I was a girl, to find a female role model. There was a woman chemistry professor that I greatly admired. However, while she was very brilliant and successful, it seemed like she was “married” to science. I realized that for me to be happy, I needed to have another life besides chemistry. I am now married and have three children. Times have changed. People realize that having a family doesn’t make you less productive. In fact, having a family helps me stay more focused at work because I know I can’t waste time!
After earning my Ph.D. in 1990, I spent twelve years as a research scientist at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (INEEL), which is operated by the Department of Energy. I study surface chemistry, which is the chemistry right where air or liquid meets a solid. At INEEL, I studied how waste metals like uranium and plutonium that were used in weapons production interact with the environment, mostly at the surface. Our research tries to understand all of these interactions so that better clean-up strategies can be developed.
Currently I am a professor of chemistry at Northern Arizona University. Teaching provides me with a way of interacting with students who are just getting started in science. Hopefully I am able to show students that a Navajo woman can be a mother, athlete, and scientist. I try and give my students the same advice my chemistry teacher gave me a long time ago, “Don’t sell yourself short, test your limits and try the impossible!”
Back to Team
My mother is from the little mining town of Jerome, Arizona and my father is from Rosales, Chihuahua, Mexico. I have four sisters, one older than me, three younger than me. I grew up in Juarez, Mexico which is right on the border. My culture derived mostly from Mexican values, because I had a lot of family around me. However, I was greatly influenced by U.S. culture, since the two countries are only separated by a river. As time went on, I was more exposed to U.S. culture, and during my graduate school years, Mexican-American culture made an impact on my life. I think my experience in coming from a more Mexican cultural environment has allowed me to understand that some of the perceived differences between Mexicans and Mexican-Americans are not really there at all, and that we come from the same origin and have much in common.
My parents constantly encouraged me when I was growing up, so I always thought I could do anything I set my mind to. My parents never finished grade school, and my father by profession was a barber. Financially, it was sometimes difficult with five children in the house, so I started working while I was in high school to help pay for some of my expenses. I worked as a painter, a railway worker, and a gas station attendant. I also spent a lot of time playing sports.
I was always good at mathematics, and I decided to go to college right after high school. I attended the University of Texas at El Paso where I earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics. I attended Stanford University for my master’s degree in statistics, and earned my Ph.D. in statistics from University of California, Berkeley. I am currently Professor of Mathematics at the University of Texas, El Paso. There are two very different aspects to my job. One is teaching, which I enjoy very much. I always want to know about the new ways that young people see the world. As a teacher, I have the ability to affect their lives, and they also affect mine. The second part of my job is research. I especially enjoy working with undergraduates and graduate students on research projects. Students sometimes need some college level work before they have the background to do research. But there are many opportunities for a student to get involved if this is what they would like to do.
With statistics, people have the ability to impact policy decisions by interacting with public health officials and government agencies to better understand some of the problems in society. Statistical techniques are used in designing studies in clinical research, air pollution control, quality of manufactured products, and other areas such as engineering, physics and chemistry, and the creation of new materials. So I do not only work with other mathematicians and statisticians, but people who do many different kinds of important work. This is one of the best things about my job.
Right now I am working with the National Parks Service, looking at pollution data, specifically to try to see if the Clean Air Act passed twenty years ago is helping to keep the air clean in national parks. We have been trying to find out if the situation has gotten better, worse, or if it has stayed the same. The problem is complicated because the pollution in the national parks does not come from the parks themselves, but comes from the surrounding cities. I work with people in materials science (metallurgy) and we look at the properties of these materials in terms of corrosion properties, strength, and other qualities. I am also working on a problem which has to do with mapping certain genes in the human genome and trying to find out where they are, and whether a particular gene has an impact on any specific physical characteristic of a person. We are trying to tell from these genes whether a person has a chance of getting a certain disease in their lifetime.
I think statistics has potential use in any area of investigation. For students who are interested not only in mathematics, but have diverse interests in the other sciences, statistics could be the area which would give them the opportunity to interact in a wide range of scientific fields. My career objectives at this point are to become the best researcher that I possibly can, and to have a positive impact on as many minority students as I can. The best way I have found to meet my goals is to pursue them with hard work and perseverance.
Back to Team
My family comes from the La Jolla, Pauma, and Rincon reservations, and my tribes are the Luiseño and La Hoya. I grew up in an urban area of Ventura County in southern California called Camarillo. I am about 3/8 Native American, and what I know about Native American heritage came from my grandparents. The two things I remember most are going to pow wows when I was a kid, and going to the county fair to make and sell fry bread.
I did well in school, and I had a good life growing up. I remember that I was always interested in biology, especially marine biology. Later on I was fascinated by developmental biology– the idea that a single cell could become an entire organism fascinated me. There was one high school teacher, Mr. Smithback, who really ignited my passion in the field of biology. One requirement for his class was that we each had to gather about fifty bugs. Biology soon became my favorite subject. I saw Mr. Smithback years later when I had just gotten my Ph.D. from University of California, Los Angeles. I told him that he was the most significant person as far as getting me interested in science, and that made him very happy. That’s why I do what I do today. It wasn’t until college that I settled on neural biology, which is the study of how brain neurons (cells) work. I didn’t realize that I was going to be a neurobiologist until near graduation.
In my final year in college at Oregon State University, there was a professor named Phillip Brownell who taught animal physiology. I wanted to go to graduate school, but I had doubts at the time because I thought I wanted to get a job and start earning an income. Professor Brownell was teaching a graduate level neurobiology class that entailed reading significant research papers and discussing them. Normally everything was taught from a text book, but reading actual research papers was great. There was also a serious lab course where we recorded responses from nerve cells. My first electrical recording from a neural cell, from a sea slug (who are close to us in many ways), got me hooked on neurobiology. From that day on, I knew that I wanted to go to graduate school and that I wanted to study the brain.
Today I am a principal investigator at the National Institute of Environmental Health Science, that’s one of the several institutes at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Washington, DC. The NIH is the largest biomedical research organization in the world. It is part of the US government and the US Department of Health and Human Services. We are one of the institutes which specializes in how the environment impacts health and human conditions. We do research to find out how to reduce the occurrence of diseases caused by problems in the environment. We also want to find out who is at risk for diseases, and if age or our genetics have anything to do with whether or not we get these diseases. In my lab, my research assistants and I want to see what possible effects the environment may have on nerve cells in the brain.
Most of the communication between nerve cells, like thinking in the brain, for example, is electrical activity, similar to an electrical current in a wire. Instead of electrons moving though, there are ”ions” which are charged molecules that exist in salt solutions. We study the properties that regulate this electrical activity, as the basis of all neuronal-muscle communication within the body. We have very sophisticated devices which help us measure electrical currents in cells. What is the regulator of these electrical currents? Some regulation goes on at the level of intracellular factors based on the metabolism of cells, and sometimes there are outside factors such as compounds released by other nerve cells, such as neurotransmitters or hormones which will effect the activity of the nerve cell. We study nerve cells which may be affected by the environment or by intracellular relationships.
Back to Team
Transition has influenced where I am today, and it defines the work I do. The major transitions in my life were difficult at the time, yet they fostered my success and ability to learn, to adapt, and to be resilient in any situation. And here I am today, working at DuPont to help the company make and sell next-generation high-performance materials.
I was born in San Pedro, California—a Mexican American community where everyone spoke Spanish. When I was 10 years old, my family moved to Indianapolis, Indiana, because of my father’s job. I was the only kid with a Spanish name in school. I didn’t know anyone outside of my family who knew my language, culture, and traditions, or who knew how to say my name correctly. I was in culture shock.
While my experience in Indianapolis was tough, in the end, I am grateful because it made me a very resilient person. I learned how to assimilate to the non-Hispanic culture and to feel comfortable in environments where there are few people like me—like corporate America and my current job at DuPont, where there are very few underrepresented minorities.
As a young person, I didn’t intend to work in industry. I actually had my heart set on becoming a naval officer. I always enjoyed science, chemistry in particular, but that might have been because I had a couple of fantastic chemistry teachers in school. I enrolled at Purdue University, a great local school that had an excellent science and engineering reputation, as well as a very prestigious ROTC program. Neil Armstrong, Gus Grissom, and many others had graduated from their ROTC program. I majored in chemistry and was accepted into the ROTC program, which covered most of my tuition and living costs.
Being in the ROTC program gave me an atypical college experience. While most students have a lot of freedom and few responsibilities, the ROTC program was incredibly structured. We had weekly uniform inspections, flag raising and lowering duties, and drill practice. If your grades dropped, you were forced to endure 20 hours of supervised tutoring every week. The program gave me excellent training and discipline, and I was eagerly working toward a leadership position in the navy.
Then in my final year, I was medically discharged from the ROTC program and told that I was ineligible for the navy. I was devastated and had no idea what I was going to do with myself. I had spent all those years training to be a naval officer. I was faced with another unanticipated transition, one that would lead me to where I am today.
I had been doing undergraduate research for a professor at Purdue, and when he found out I was ineligible for the navy, he really pushed me to go to graduate school. Since I really liked research and was in the process of figuring out the type of career I wanted to pursue, I followed his advice and began applying to several chemistry PhD programs. I applied to several really good schools and got accepted, and decided to stay on at Purdue in my professor’s lab because he was so supportive and interested in seeing me succeed.
He then led me to the next major transition in my life: moving to Alberta, Canada, where it was winter 9 to 10 months out of the year. It was so cold, with temperatures dropping to negative 60 degrees or more with the windchill. I had already completed many of my graduate requirements, so I was granted my PhD from Purdue. I spent the last two and a half years with my professor at the University of Alberta. Living that far north was really tough, but it was a great experience because it made me more flexible. It made me more open-minded to trying new things and gave me a different perspective on my views of the world.
From Alberta, I went straight to DuPont Central Research and Development. I was always interested in going into industry rather than academia. As a PhD student I synthesized small molecules and studied them. In industry you focus on applying science to solve problems that ultimately improve the human condition. At DuPont we have invented and commercialized many new materials and products that make our lives safer and easier. For example, for my first four years at DuPont I worked frequently with plastics. We make these really high-performance plastics that can endure incredibly high temperatures for use in aircraft engines and power plants. And we’re always trying to push the limit. By enhancing wear and friction properties of these super plastics we will have a huge impact on energy conservation around the globe.
I also just love the big corporate culture that highly values a work / life balance. I love that I don’t have to take my work with me. Of course there are times when I put a lot of extra hours in, but this is not the norm. And DuPont is very supportive of that, so that their employees don’t burn out. I’m married with two young sons, and I get to spend time with them and pursue other interests.
Working at a big corporation has also afforded me diverse job experiences. After four years of being a principal investigator in Central Research and Development, I am now training to work on the marketing side of the business. The idea is to marry my technical background and scientific understanding with marketing to drive innovation. Now I work with business data instead of science data and focus on DuPont’s toughest marketing challenges instead of our toughest technical challenges.
Much of my success is a result of the joint influence from my mom and dad. My father is a strategist, a big-picture person, while my mom is great at the tactical day-to-day things. My dad is a phone man; he would always talk to me about being a scientist or engineer. My mom stayed home with me and my siblings and taught us how to get things done on a daily basis. That combination was very successful for me and for my brother and sister. My parents have always been the rock that supports our foundation. My brother recently defended his dissertation in history, while my sister recently began her second year of a PhD program at Notre Dame. My parents did something right!
At a very early age, my parents also taught me I could do anything I wanted, and this made a huge difference. I never questioned whether or not I could complete the PhD, become a scientist at a top-notch research facility or become a marketer. When I tell people I have a PhD in chemistry, some say, “Oh, you must be really smart!” But my success has nothing to do with that. Almost anyone has the ability to become a scientist or engineer if they’re willing to do the work and go through the training. Academia and research can be really tough, but having the ganas (Spanish for willingness, desire, determination) is what’s most important. If we could get rid of the whole attitude about how someone must be really smart to be a scientist or engineer, then we’d have a lot more scientists and engineers which we really need!
Back to Team
Growing up in a home filled with alcoholism, domestic violence, sexual abuse, and mental illness, I can identify with the organisms called extremophiles that live in harsh environments like Antarctica or hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the ocean. I am truly a survivor of extreme conditions.I grew up in a small town near Olympia, Washington. Home was always a violent and unpredictable place, so school became my safe haven and I excelled in my studies. I participated in student government, wrote for the school newspaper, participated in the speech and debate club, and played all kinds of sports. I also had the unique opportunity of sailing around the world in a small boat, with my father. He was not a rich man, but he was creative. For three to five months a year, for seven years, we sailed to exotic ports around the world. At the end of each summer, we anchored the boat in a foreign harbor, flew home on military planes, and I returned to school. The following year, we picked up the boat and continued our journey around the world. Over the years, we sailed to Hawaii, Tahiti, American Samoa, Australia, Israel, Algeria and Gibraltar. Sailing the world inspired me to become an ocean scientist like Jacques Cousteau.
Even though I wanted to be a scientist, or possibly a medical doctor, I started at the University of Washington in Seattle and decided to major in Philosophy. I discovered Philosophy in the dark and dusty stacks of the library, where I started reading Plato and Socrates. When I began college I asked my professors how I could balance my love of philosophy with my passion for science. They recommended that I pursue my zest for philosophy while taking the minimum pre-medical school requirements. They said that once I started studying science at advanced levels, it would be hard to find time for anything else.
When I entered graduate school in biology at the University of California, San Diego I found out how right those professors had been. Graduate school was rigorous and demanding. It was also the first place I encountered discrimination for being a disabled Native American woman. Because of this discrimination, I began to doubt my abilities and myself. I felt insecure and unintelligent. Feelings of self-doubt were complicated by increasing feelings of depression, a dark and ever-present stranger that walked with me most of the time. Ironically, the many challenges of racism, sexual harassment, disability discrimination and mental illness (bipolar disorder), helped me to cultivate a sense of strength and self-worth.
Without knowing why, I kept finding myself in the role of victim. Bad things happened to me, but because of the trauma and abuse of my childhood, I was unable to defend myself. Over time, I learned to fight the discrimination I faced in graduate school. I learned to say proudly, “I am a disabled, Yaqui, two-spirit woman scientist. I am also a survivor.” I came to understand that I am strong and that I deserve to be treated with respect. I learned to take back the power that was taken from me at a very young age.
Part of regaining my power was in the diagnosis and treatment of my mental illness. I have a service dog named Wasabe, and he has facilitated much of my healing. In case you don’t know, a service dog is trained to help people with disabilities. There are physical disabilities like blindness and hearing loss, and psychiatric disabilities like depression and post-traumatic-stress disorder. Wasabe is able to sense when I need to take medication and he helps me when I feel depressed by being my constant and loving companion.
Through many years of education and personal healing, I earned my Ph.D. in Biology in 1999, nine years after I originally entered graduate school. In graduate school I studied genetics and my research was about how to create rules or policies for the development of new drugs. After graduate school, I started working as a program officer at the National Academies of Science (NAS) in Washington D.C. At NAS, I manage committees of scientists and scholars who advise the American government on matters of science and technology policy. I use my degree in philosophy as well, because I am interested in not only science, but also how we apply it to our lives, and the impact it has on our society and culture.
I am excited by the work that I do at NAS, and I know that it is working hard at school that got me here. My education has completely changed my life in a very positive way. It has broadened my world-view and allowed me to celebrate human diversity. It has taught me that I can achieve anything I put my mind to.
Back to Team
One of the hardest transitions in my life was leaving home to go to college. I am the youngest of five children and was raised in a Mexican-American farming community on the outskirts of Stockton, located in the Central Valley of California. Traveling 50 miles to attend the University of California, Davis, felt like a whole world away.
I am the second person in my family to go to college, following in the footsteps of my older sister. My grandparents, who emigrated from Mexico, were illiterate and my parents never made it to high school. In the early days, my mother worked in the fields to earn extra money that was necessary to support our family. On weekends, we would join her to pick tomatoes, cherries, walnuts, or whatever else was in harvest. I come from a family of very strong-minded women who possess an incredible work ethic.
As early as elementary school, I sought refuge in academics and had supportive teachers. I would finish all my schoolwork for the day by 10 a.m. and then, because I was bored, became disruptive in class. The teachers didn’t know what to do with me, so they sent me to the principal’s office. The vice principal, Mrs. Astorga, had me doing all sorts of tasks to consume my time and to keep me out of trouble. I’d help tutor the kindergarteners or I’d do more reading. Ultimately, Mrs. Astorga became one of my first role models and biggest advocates.
While I was in middle school, one of my teachers realized I had an interest in science and she introduced me to her father, Antoni Oppenheim, who was a professor of mechanical engineering at University of California, Berkeley. In high school, I continued to develop an interest in science and Professor Oppenheim took an interest in me when I told him how much I liked science, and he helped me obtain a summer internship at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBL). During those summers, I lived in a cottage next to Professor Oppenheim’s house in North Berkeley and I was exposed to a life that I hadn’t seen before—the life of a professor—and I thought this is what I want to be.
Inspired by my research experiences at LBL, I decided to pursue a PhD at the University of California, San Diego, which has one of the best Pharmacology Departments in the country. At UC San Diego, I studied signal transduction, which is the process by which extracellular stimuli transmit information to cells so that they respond with the appropriate behavior such as movement, contraction, or cell division.
Some of the most important skills I’ve learned came from training during my PhD. I gained academic skills of course, but I also learned critical thinking and how to tackle a problem at its most fundamental level. That is a skill you can use in all aspects of your life: how to think deeply about a problem and then figure out how to solve it.
After completing my PhD, I trained as a postdoctoral fellow at UC San Francisco. I then accepted a faculty position at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill in 2000, and then decided to return to UC San Diego in 2008. The goal of my current research is to understand the mechanisms by which proteases such as thrombin elicit cellular responses to regulate endothelial barrier permeability and cancer progression. Through my years of training, education, and research, I began to realize that I was just as smart and capable as my peers. Despite my very different upbringing, the scientific playing field was now level.
While I cannot offer a clear path for students to follow to succeed in science, hard work and great mentors can make a difference. Students need to seek out and find access to as many educational opportunities as possible. At the same time, students need great mentors who can provide them with guidance. Keep in mind that mentors come in different forms and serve many different purposes. One mentor might help you better balance your personal life—my sister and mother are role models and mentors for me in this way—while another mentor might be a scientist who acts as a career or research role model. Crossing paths with the right mentors can have a profoundly positive effect on the course one follows.
Back to Team
I was born in Mexico City, Mexico in 1951, and I have one brother who is ten years younger than me. My father is from Spain. My mother is from New York City, but her parents were from Austria. Neither of my parents ever finished high school, but there was always an admiration for music and art around our house; however, there didn’t seem to be anything to do with science. I found science to be very satisfying because it was a way of understanding the world around me. Being very curious about why things happen as they do, studying science was perfect for me.
In Mexico City where I attended two bilingual private schools until the ninth grade. For high school I went to a Jesuit military school. I was undecided about what I should do when I finished high school, at that time being equally interested in both philosophy and chemistry. I took a job as a truck driver in my father’s business, hoping to use the time to consider my options. In 1970, I entered the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico in Mexico City as a chemical engineering student.
Chemistry opened up a whole new way of exploring the world, enabling me to understand it from a different level. I found that many of the professors in the chemistry department were rigorous and competent, possessing a profound love for the discipline they had chosen. Seeing the love that these professors had for chemistry, and the beauty of the material itself, I changed my major to chemistry after just one year as a chemical engineering student. In 1974, I received my Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry.
Though I had a degree in chemistry, I didn’t know exactly which direction to go when I graduated. I stayed in Mexico City and taught high school for a couple of years. Teaching high school students was a very rewarding experience, but I felt that I had to continue my education. I wanted to probe more into the depths that chemistry had to offer; and I knew that more schooling would need to be in my future to better prepare myself to be a scientist. When a cousin of mine, Sonia Lombardo asked met to help her carbon-14 date some of the pyramids in Cacaxtla, Mexico for part of her doctoral thesis, I discovered my true calling. Using chemistry to find out the age of something was a fascinating notion to me. In 1978, I was admitted into the University of Michigan where I eventually earned both a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in geochemistry.
After I received my Ph.D. I was lucky enough to find a job right away as an assistant professor at the University of Miami. Then in 1983, I accepted a position at The University of Arizona in the Geosciences Department, where I am a full professor of geochemistry. I also served as head of the department; and in 2000, I was appointed Dean of the College of Science. As head of the department I made decisions that determined the direction the department would take in the future. I am very interested in higher education, and I want to open more opportunities for all students to get a good education in the geosciences. As a research professor my duties are completely different. In addition to teaching a variety of both undergraduate and graduate courses, I also direct a research operation where I oversee the research of postdoctoral and graduate students.
Of course, a geologist’s laboratory is the world, and I have had the opportunity to travel extensively as I have carried out my research. We are very interested in how the earth acts chemically. The chemistry behind the eruption of a volcano is certainly interesting, and understanding it could help us save lives and property. We are also interested in how the earth evolved chemically. Specifically, my research delves into why certain deposits of elements are accumulated in particular places on the earth. For example, in Arizona there is a high abundance of copper that you just don’t find in other places. What interests me most is when these deposits were formed over the course of the earth’s evolution, and I use chemistry to determine the age of rocks and materials near these deposits.
I think it is important to try and make a difference in the world, and I feel the only way to do this is to excel at what one does. Try to do something that has social impact, and push yourself to do well. Remember that what you do affects others, so try to do something that will enhance the well being of all of those around you.
Back to Team
I grew up in Omaha, Nebraska in a mixed heritage family. My father is Mexican-American, and my mother is German-American. I have three brothers and one sister, all younger than me. There were few Hispanic students in my elementary and high schools, so my exposure to Latino culture came primarily from my father and my grandmother.
Growing up, I did not feel as though I had any large obstacles to overcome. I did well in school and my family environment was always supportive. The difficulty I did experience was financial. My parents couldn’t afford my Catholic high school and college education, so I had to work to pay for my tuition. This experience taught me how to manage my time between working and going to school. I valued and appreciated my education even more because I had paid for it.
Originally I wanted to be a veterinarian; but it was my eighth grade science teacher, Ms. Bruckner, whose enthusiasm for science motivated me to pursue meteorology as my field. In Nebraska, severe storms occur frequently each year. I particularly remember a tornado that occurred on May 6, 1975 near our house in Omaha, Nebraska. That tornado, the costliest tornado in United States history, caused over one billion dollars of damage to our city. This display of the awesome power of nature also increased my interest in weather.
I knew that I wanted a Ph.D. even before I started college. One of the reasons I went to graduate school was to increase my opportunity to get a job doing exciting meteorological research. More importantly, I wanted to learn as much as possible to become a successful scientist. I did well in my undergraduate years of college at the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO), and later at the Metropolitan State College of Denver, although working while I attended school in order to support my education was hard. I pursued my graduate degree at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. The transition from a four-year college to a large research university was difficult for me. There were times that it was so tough I actually considered leaving school. However, the values I learned from both of my parents, and the continued support I received from my family and friends, carried me through the difficult times, enabling me to be persistent and complete my Ph.D. when I was 28 years old.
Currently I am a research meteorologist for the University of Oklahoma and the National Severe Storms Laboratory. My main responsibility is to study hazardous weather. More specifically, I study ice storms, storms during which falling rain freezes as it hits the ground causing a dangerous accumulation of ice. Some of you may have hit these patches of ice on the road and know how dangerous they can be.
I have compiled national statistics on where and when freezing rain occurs to help meteorologists predict these storms accurately. However, statistics won’t tell us why an ice storm occurred. From the results of a previous study, I found that freezing rain occurs less often along the western shores of the Great Lakes than at locations farther away from the lakes. Because of the complexity of weather, meteorologists create computer models to help understand the physical processes that occur during a particular phenomenon. However, due to the atmosphere’s complexity and limited computational resources, these computer models ignore certain aspects of the problem, and may over-emphasize other aspects. Nonetheless, the computer simulations provide us with key information. Using data from computer model simulations, coupled with a knowledge of how scientists believe the atmosphere behaves, I hope to explain why freezing rain does not always occur near the western shores of the Great Lakes. When I believe I understand why this occurs, I will publish my results in a scientific journal, such as Weather and Forecasting, making my results available to the scientific community and the general public. It is my hope that my research eventually helps to minimize the death toll and destruction of property from winter weather events.
In order to be a scientist a lot of time and money is invested in earning the necessary university degrees. It is important to truly love what you’re doing. Explore your options. If you are in high school or college, many opportunities exist that allow you to explore if a career in science is for you. For example, there are science camps for high school students and internships for college students. Take advantage of these opportunities if you can. Become better educated about your career choices, and don’t be afraid to rely on others to help you achieve your goals. Know that school and life can be difficult at different times. By being confident and persistent you can get through many things. Keep mindful of your goals and believe in yourself. These things will help you get through those tough times.
Back to Team
I was born in the mountains of Las Vegas, New Mexico in 1950. We were a family of nine living in the barrio in one of the few houses without natural gas. Because of this, I remember that every weekend my family would go out to look for wood to heat our house. As the third oldest child, I had a sense of responsibility to help raise and provide for my younger siblings. In the sixth grade, I would wake up at 4:35 a.m., go to work mopping floors at a nearby bakery, return home, go to school, come home to do chores, and not go to bed until my homework was completed. I knew what is was like to be hungry, and not just for food, but for material things as well.Education was always important to my parents. Even though they both had minimal schooling, they knew that getting a college education would prepare us children to do anything. My transition from elementary school to junior high school was very traumatic. My father sent me to the junior high on the east side of town where the privileged children went to school. It was very different from the west side elementary school that I was used to. I compare it to being thrown into a fire. After surviving the first term there, I knew that I could make it despite the many obstacles ahead of me. Although I had no clue about what I wanted to be when I grew up, I knew that when the time came, I would be able to leave town and go to college. My advice to any middle school or high school student is first, don”t allow yourself to be consumed by ”looksism” and Hollywood images, secondly, read to find out what is going on, and thirdly, don”t let yourself be taken advantage of.
When I began college in 1969 at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology (NM Tech) in Socorro, New Mexico, I quickly realized that I had a challenge ahead of me. Though I had taken all the high school science courses available, they had not provided me with a good foundation. However, what saved me at NM Tech was that my high school had prepared me well in English and in mathematics. I took calculus during my first semester of college (against the advice of my advisor) and did well. I received my first Bachelor of Science degree in mathematics in 1973. With a tremendous amount of studying, help from university faculty, and opportunities to work in a laboratory, I was turned on to studying science. I found my upper level biology courses were exciting. I had found my calling and was awarded my second Bachelor of Science degree in biology at NM Tech in 1974. I went on to earn my Ph.D. in microbiology in 1978 at the University of Kansas.
Throughout my education, I encountered many obstacles, including the feeling that I didn”t fit in. I felt alone because I was one of the few Hispanic students at the university, plus I felt that I had a lot to learn before I could catch up to my peers. However, I was lucky and always had at least one teacher who recognized my willingness to work and took an interest in me. Those teachers helped me out and made me feel equal to the other students. I remember that there was one time when I almost had to drop out of school because I didn”t have enough money to pay for my college tuition. The physics professor, for whom I had been working, offered to pay my tuition so that I could continue. Even though I found the money, I truly appreciated the gesture.
In 1991, I became a professor in the department of microbiology at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio, Texas. In my laboratory, we study a parasite that causes a sexually transmitted disease that puts humans at a greater risk for catching the AIDS virus, HIV. The goal of everyone who works in the lab is to develop a vaccine and a diagnostic test for this disease. We have already isolated antibodies against the parasite and these are being tested right now by several pharmaceutical companies.
Back to Team
If you had asked me twenty years ago about how being part Chippewa had influenced my life, I probably would have told you it hadn’t. But as I have had more contact with my tribe, the Fond du Lac Ojibwe , and read more about my family history, it seems like a lot of my world-view and attitude about women’s independence and intelligence is in fact a reflection of how the Chippewa culture operates.
My feeling that women are able to do anything also comes from my parents. I grew up during the 1950s and 60s when the idea that women were just around to get married and have kids was pretty common. However, from a young age, my parents treated me as though I was going to be a member of the workforce. They also helped foster my early interest in science by taking my brother, sister and me to junior scientist meetings and to visit museums and power plants.
When I was a kid, science and technology was definitely on the minds of the American people. America was in the middle of what was called the “Space Race,” which grew out of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union (now Russia). The race to develop rocketry and space flight helped cultivate a focus on science and technology that resonated throughout the country. In my school district, students with any talent for science were grouped together and we were particularly encouraged to pursue higher education in the sciences.
My early introduction to science and the subsequent encouragement by my teachers led me to attend the University of California, Davis where I majored in chemistry and biology. College was a big transition. In high school we received individual attention from teachers; in college there were just the “teeming masses!” I didn’t do as well in the classes where there were hundreds of other students and multiple-choice tests. But when I got to the smaller courses where I was able to interact with the other students and the professor, I did much better.
I entered college with the goal of becoming a physician. However, towards the end of my sophomore year, I realized that to obtain the necessary letters of recommendation to get into medical school, I needed to have more contact with my professors. I got a job in my advisor’s lab where I had the opportunity to work on my own experiment and I became hooked on research. I really liked the independence of lab work where I got to think of what to do and then do it!
While the transition from high school to college was challenging, my move to Baltimore, Maryland to attend Johns Hopkins University was even more difficult. I had never lived outside of California and found the culture of the east coast took a lot of getting used to. I decided to give it a chance and after six years I earned my Ph.D. in 1980.
It was in graduate school that I started working with x-ray crystallography which is a technique used to create three-dimensional models of proteins. X-rays are the same kind of radiation as visible light, but have a much higher energy. When sunlight hits a crystal and the light diffracts into rainbows; it is similar to when x-rays hit a sample that has been crystallized, they diffract into a pattern. This pattern is different depending on how the atoms are arranged around it. From this pattern you can work backwards to calculate the atomic structure of your sample.
In my current work as a research scientist at Duke University Marine Laboratory , I use x-ray crystallography to study proteins in the blood of horseshoe crabs. Instead of being red, like human blood, horseshoe crabs have blue blood. Hemoglobin is the protein in human blood that carries oxygen between the lungs and the tissues. Hemoglobin is made up of iron and is responsible for the red color of our blood. On the other hand, instead of hemoglobin, horseshoe crabs and other arthropods contain hemocyanin, which is made of copper. It is the presence of the copper, which makes the crab’s blood blue. By researching how oxygen is transported by hemocyanin, I am attempting to provide the basis for further understanding of oxygen transport in humans.
My scientific work has taught me lessons that I value in all areas of my life, specifically about independence. The ability to set goals and work independently is an important skill to have, especially if you don’t always like being told what to do! But, science has also taught me about flexibility, and the fact that you always have to be able to change your mind. For example, you may come up with a hypothesis, but your experiments may not show the results you expected. When this happens you have to be able to admit you were incorrect and move on! Most of all, my scientific work has shown me the importance of pursuing what you love.
Back to Team
The greatest inspiration for my career as a geologist was the relationship my family and I had with the land while I was growing up. I was raised in rural New Jersey, but my life was not what you would expect. I’m a Lenape (Delaware) Indian, and I lived with my parents in a community of Lenapes. We were farmers, hunters, and trappers, so we had to watch the weather cycles, the tides, and the comings and goings of insects because of the effects that these forces of nature could have on the crops and animals that we fed on. Living closely with the land tuned me into what seemed like amazing mysteries of nature and made me very curious. I wanted to know the scientific explanations behind what I observed as a child. So years later, when I went to West Virginia University, I started taking science classes. In school, I found out that I could build a career on investigating questions about the Earth so I decided that a job in the sciences was what I wanted.
It was a big deal for me to go to college because no one in my family had gone before. Many of my guidance counselors or teachers thought I couldn’t do it, and I didn’t receive much encouragement. I faced a lot of discrimination in high school—sometimes people didn’t even believe that I was Native American. They didn’t believe that Native Americans ever lived in New Jersey, even though that’s where the Lenape have always lived. This denial of my cultural background was very difficult for me because being Native American is such an important aspect of my life.
Fortunately I had role models like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who taught me that I had the right to excel and that I could excel, even if people didn’t accept me for who I was. Part of what I had to overcome was the feeling that I needed to blend in and not make waves. If you’ve faced a lot of discrimination, what you often learn is that life is easier if you blend in as much as possible. But excelling in school means that you stand out, which can be pretty uncomfortable for people who don’t want to draw much attention to themselves. However, when I got to college, I felt like there was much less racism than in high school. That’s what I love about universities. They’re about ideas and about how hard you can work and how clearly you can think. As a professor at Purdue University, I try to make sure the quiet students have the same opportunities as the students who are more comfortable with standing out.
I always knew I was lucky to be able to go to college, and I also knew that I wanted to have a career that would let me help my community. I felt like I had to make the most of my opportunities because there were many Lenape kids who never got to go to college. I decided very early on that I wanted to be a professor, so I got my Master’s at Indiana University, and finally my Ph.D. at the University of Rochester in Rochester, New York. In between, I worked for Chevron Oil because I wanted to know about what kinds of jobs geology students could get after college, so I could be a better teacher.
Now that I’m a professor, I have the chance to take my students to places they’ve never been before. My own connections with nature are so important that I want to expose my students to similar opportunities. Some of them may go on to help make decisions about natural resources and other environmental issues, so it’s very important to me that they have an appreciation for the land. Sometimes, we fly into very isolated parts of Alaska for two or three months. That’s an amazing experience, especially for students who have grown up in cities, because it’s really a completely untouched ecosystem. We’re not at the top of the food chain, we’re drinking water that hasn’t been treated with chemicals, and we’re living with wildlife like caribou and grizzly bears. Experiences like this make me appreciate the Earth and its resources as a gift, and it makes me want to help my students learn to appreciate this gift and take care of it as best we can.
One way we can take care of the gifts we find in the Earth is by knowing their history. In my current research, I work with sedimentary rocks, which are rocks that form at the surface of the earth. By looking at these types of rocks, I can read the history of the Earth and find out things like when periods of global warming and global cooling occurred, and what effects those temperature changes had on life on Earth. This allows us to better predict the effects of the current global warming trend on plant and animal communities.
I also enjoy helping people, especially Native American communities, make decisions about drilling for oil and natural gas; locating wells for drinking water; and safe locations for landfills. Native American reservations often have many valuable natural resources, but sometimes the ways they are extracted can destroy the land or places that are sacred to that community. I think that it’s very important that there are Native American geologists so that Native American communities who are struggling with environmental issues can use their own people to make informed decision that will allow them to grow with technology but also keep their culture.
Throughout my life, I’ve had to balance my love of the Earth and my Native American heritage, which is closely tied to the land, with the necessity of using natural resources for modern life. I believe that it is possible to achieve this balance and to do so in a way that will benefit everyone. But to create this balance, we need people who care about more than money. We need people who love the land and who care for all people, to help make these decisions in intelligent and culturally sensitive ways.
Back to Team
My name is Lee Anne Martinez. I was born and raised in Lake Arrowhead, California. My father is Mexican-American and my mother is Anglo. My father was a Spanish teacher in a small town school, but he had grown up as a migrant worker. During my childhood years, we visited the barrio often, but my father had decided to move to Lake Arrowhead. He wanted my five brothers and sisters and I to grow up in a more sheltered environment.I have often thought of the struggles he went through to make a living and support the family. Many times in my life I have faced challenges being among the first women doing what I am doing. I have been a life guard, a back country ranger and a firefighter, and when I was hired I was the only woman in the biology department where I am now. Because we lived in the mountains, I developed a great interest in nature. Even though our school was small and did not really emphasize high academic achievement, I always had time to walk in the woods and observe nature, which made me happy. My father also used to fix things around the house a lot, and I used to help him. Mechanics and experimentation were things that always interested me.
By the time I was in seventh grade, I was the top student in my science class. After high school I attended the University of California, Santa Barbara, which was quite a culture shock considering the small town that I had come from. I lived by a lake for much of my upbringing, so at Santa Barbara I decided to major in aquatic biology. After I earned my bachelor’s degree, I went to graduate school at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where I earned a master’s degree in biological oceanography, and then on to Cornell University where I earned my Ph.D. in aquatic ecology. I spend much of my time now at the University of Southern Colorado teaching classes, such as ecology, evolution and environmental conservation. I also do research in the area of aquatic ecology. I study insects that live in streams. If you go to any stream and look under rocks, you will find many insects who live there, and you can observe how they avoid predators and find food. Many of the ”flies” that are used in fly fishing are mimics of insects that start out at an immature stage, much like a caterpillar, living under water for the majority of their lives.
A science education can be used to do many exciting things. One summer during my undergraduate days I worked on a project doing research on acid rain in the Adirondack Mountains with Brookhaven National Laboratory. This was one of the earliest acid rain studies conducted in the US. It was hard work, but I really enjoyed doing field research, and I decided that I wanted to continue doing that as a career choice.
Soon I will be leaving for Africa to assist people there in designing composting toilets. Anyone who has ever used an outhouse knows that if they are not properly designed they can cause a great deal of sanitation problems for the people who live around them. There is an alternative to that which does not require the use of water. Outhouses are used mostly because there is not enough water in supply to use what we think of as a conventional toilet. We plan to introduce what is called ”appropriate technology” there. If you build a toilet that is similar to an outhouse, except that it has flow-through ventilation, you can actually use the toilet to compost the waste and make new soil which can be used for agriculture. In Sweden, they actually use this kind of toilet in their summer homes. In many places in the United States, such as in national forests, these types of toilets are used. It has always been my goal to use my scientific background to help other people. I feel that this is much more important than becoming a famous scientist.
Make sure you take a lot of mathematics while you are in school, even if you do not think you want to be a scientist. There are many other fields you may want to get into which require mathematics. Also, do not let anyone talk you out of your dreams. If there is something you really want to do, you must do it. Even if you have a setback, try to bounce back from that. Did you know that Barbara Streisand was told that she couldn’t sing because her voice was too nasal, and that Albert Einstein failed a high school mathematics class? If that happens to you, take the class over again and keep going!
Back to Team
Growing up in the Navajo Nation sparked my early interest in science. On Navajo land, when you look up at the sky at night, it feels like you can see the entire universe. When I was a kid, I used to wonder what was up there and what the stars were about. I was introduced to science by my mother, who is a rug weaver. I would watch her take different plants, sands and minerals to dye or brighten the yarn. When I helped her, I was actually watching the work of a chemist and ethno-botanist in addition to the work of an artist, though I didn’t know it at the time. I would also ask her questions about the stars and she would tell me some of the traditional Navajo stories about the heavens. It wasn’t until much later that I realized there were parallels between Western science and the Native worldview of what our place was on the planet and within the universe.
I grew up in a small community called Naschitti in New Mexico. My biological father passed away when I was very young and my mother raised me and my three older brothers and three older sisters on her own. Although she didn’t graduate from high school, her experiences with school made an impression on her. She realized the importance of education and she instilled the value of it in us early on. I remember her telling us to get up and get ready for school every morning before she left for work.
By the time I was in high school, I had a full-fledged interest in science. I attended several summer programs in engineering and other sciences. After high school, I attended New Mexico State University, where I majored in industrial engineering. I was on a great track until I got to differential equations and calculus. One day, after the semester was over, I realized I didn’t understand how relevant calculus was going to be in my life, especially in terms of serving my community on a daily basis. I talked with my advisor about my interests and he told me that I should pursue a career that would be personally fulfilling. That’s when I decided that I wanted to become an academic or financial aid advisor in student services and work specifically with Native American students.
I finished my undergraduate work in child development and family relations at the University of New Mexico and I began to work as a financial aid advisor. I knew I wanted to get a master’s degree to further my career and I only applied to one school—the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Ferlin Clark, who is the president of Dine’ College, the Navajo Nation’s tribal college, had gone there and encouraged me to attend. At Harvard I earned my degree in administration, planning and social policy. When I graduated, I continued working in administration and financial aid at Dartmouth College. Eventually, I returned to Harvard University to work with the Native American Program. This spring, I completed my Ed.D. in higher education management at the University of Pennsylvania.
Currently, I am the director of minority training in bioinformatics and genomics at Harvard University. My position allows me to combine my education in college administration with my appreciation for science and my desire to help minority students. In my position, I find resources at various institutions so that an undergraduate, post-baccalaureate or even a Ph.D. will have a fulfilling academic experience. Sometimes a minority student may be the only student of color in a lab. It’s important to be able to connect these minority students with each other in a department or university so they don’t feel so isolated. I also work with scientists to develop workshops to introduce genomics and bioinformatics to high school and undergraduate students.
For me, genomics and bioinformatics complement what my community has known about the world for centuries without erasing our knowledge. I have not allowed Western education to change my identity—my education only enhances who I am as a person. In fact, my education has led me to fully appreciate and understand even more the rich base of scientific knowledge in the Navajo community. I saw, through my mother’s work that we already have an idea of what science is about; it just has never been part of academia because all of our histories and traditions are passed down orally. In my work, I hope to bridge the Western and Navajo scientific traditions, since each complements the other. Other communities of color also have their own traditional bases of knowledge; it is just a matter of finding what the connection is to modern science and moving forward with this enhanced worldview.
I hope that I can serve as an example for other Native American students: You can be Native American and attend a school like Harvard. You can study sciences like genomics and bioinformatics without forgetting the traditions of your community. The balance between old and new, tradition and science, is one you must set for yourself.
Back to Team
I was raised to have respect for everyone, but to be in awe of no one. I was taught that I was responsible for my own life and that no one had the right to keep me from pursuing my dreams. Currently, I work as a radiation biologist at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the town that I grew up in. It was a funny thing that got me interested in science. When I was a kid there was a movie that came out called THEM where ants had been exposed to radiation and grew to be huge. That got me to wondering if ants could really grow that big! We had a lot of ants in our yard and I used to mix various concoctions to make them grow, but they never did.
High school was really easy for me, because up until then I had gone to Catholic schools and the nuns were very strict about coming to school prepared. When I was going through school we were rather poor, so I had to work every day from the time I was 14 years old until I graduated from college. I worked up to three jobs at a time during the summers. I did this so that I could get an education and have a large degree of control over my own life. Since I had no role models growing up, I went to the public library to read about science and scientists, such as Louis Pasteur, Niels Bohr, and Marie Curie.
I was the first person in my family to go to college. When I got to the University of New Mexico, I wasn’t sure what I would major in but that changed in the second semester of my sophomore year. There was a professor there named Gene Rypka who acted as my mentor. He helped me to choose what classes I should take, and while I didn’t have the best grades, I still knew I could do well in school if I had direction. I decided to major in biology. I earned my bachelor’s degree in biology but took lots of courses in mathematics, chemistry, physics, philosophy and foreign languages. When I graduated I worked as a technician in a radiation biology research lab. This work interested me and I decided I would apply to graduate school. I received my graduate degree at Colorado State University. I did very well in graduate school, finishing first in my class for both my master’s and doctoral degree programs.
In my work, I’ve studied the natural radiation environment of the deep oceans, using biology, chemistry, and physics. From what I learned in graduate school, I’ve been able to do all kinds of work, from cancer research to oceanography. I felt that the more education I received, the more freedom I would have in my career. I want to pursue my own interests and ideas. I want to understand nature by asking my own questions.
I serve on three international commissions on the environment of the oceans. I’ve had an opportunity to travel all over the world and collaborate with some of the best scientists. I have close friends and colleagues in the U.S., Canada, Central and South America, Europe, the Middle East, the former Soviet Union, Japan, China and Africa. From my cultural background I am attuned to differences, as I was taught not to assume that my cultural values are better than those of the countries I visit. I’ve become a citizen of the world.
Radiation biology encompasses studies from the molecular level to ecosystem studies. I am working to understand more about the environment of the deep oceans of the world, and how men can affect our environment both positively and negatively. Right now I am working on a project studying the pollution of the Arctic Ocean by radioactive releases from the former Soviet Union. All the Russian rivers run north, so any pollution in the river system eventually ends up in the Arctic Ocean. Ask your teacher why this is! My coworkers and I are also concerned with the transport of radioactive materials across the oceans to Alaska and how it affects ocean life. We are also collaborating with Japan, where a lot of seafood is eaten. The people there are very concerned about the quality of their food supply. We are using computer codes to estimate the risk people are exposed to. We will then try to create a model to understand that risk.
My advice to you is always try your best with whatever you do. You will always be happy with yourself if you know you have tried your hardest. Be your own advisor because you are the only who who has to live with the decisions you make.
Back to Team
I was born and raised in Sacramento, California, and I have two younger brothers and a younger sister. My parents are from two small pueblos in Zacatecas, Mexico. My mom is from Jalpa, and my father is from Tepechitlan. I believe that because my parents were immigrants, they were cautious in allowing us to fully participate in American society. We were not allowed to play outside unless they were home, which was not until late since they both had to work. I was given permission to sleep over at just one friend’s house, and then only after her parents met mine. As a child and into my late teens, I tried to assimilate into the majority culture. In my attempt to be like everybody else, I stopped speaking Spanish, and took it as a compliment when individuals told me I was an ”exception to my race.” It was not until college that I understood the discrimination that minorities often experience in this country. At the same time, I rediscovered the richness of my cultural heritage, and truly began to appreciate the many gifts my Mexican parents bestowed upon me.
It was the media portrayal of prominent scientists that first sparked my interest in the sciences – distinguished men with wild white hair, running around the laboratory in white coats. I remember wanting to participate in the discovery process that allows one individual to be the first person in history to know something, and then to share that knowledge with humanity.
I attended an all girls Catholic high school where there were no physics classes and pre-calculus was taught for the first time the year I graduated. When my teachers discussed the biochemical process of the cell, an all encompassing black box was drawn on the board to represent a chemical occurrence that we were to accept on blind faith. I wanted to know what was in that black box.
It was not until college, while attending Stanford University, that I was truly able to pursue my scientific curiosity. One of my biochemistry professors had figured out a specific biochemical process that happens in the cell. He demonstrated how individual electrons were moving from different molecules, allowing a biochemical process to occur. Being able to understand basic biological phenomena at a molecular level fascinated me. This was the first time I heard a professor explain what was inside one of those black boxes commonly drawn on chalk boards, and I wanted to be a scientist who uncovered the contents of those black boxes.
While an undergraduate student, I almost changed my major to liberal studies out of sheer intimidation and low grades. This was not due to a lack of intelligence, but to an inadequate preparation at the high school level. Furthermore, I was very active in the Chicano community at Stanford, and I was concerned that a major in the sciences would not best benefit the Latino people. Towards the end of my undergraduate career I began to receive better grades in my science courses, and assisted in a couple of research projects. Still, I continued to question if I should become a scientist. Serving my community was of the utmost importance to me. Moreover, I did not see any other Latinas in science. It was not until one of my professors pointed out that as a research professor I could indulge my fascination with science, while serving my community as a role model for women and minority students, that I decided that science would be my path. After receiving a bachelor’s of science and a master’s of science degree in biological science from Stanford University, I continued my education at the University of California, Berkeley and received a doctorate in biochemistry. I finished my training with a post-doctoral fellowship in the department of molecular pharmacology at Stanford Medical Center.
Today, I am a research professor of microbial genetics and molecular biology for the department of biology at San Francisco State University. In my laboratory we study the molecules that govern the ability of a bacterial cell to move towards food and away from toxic materials. The specific bacterium I study is Bacillus subtilis, a common soil bacterium. In fact, a few years ago some scientists discovered a piece of amber from the Jurassic period, and when they broke it open, they found bacterial spores. The spores were germinated and found to be those of Bacillus subtilis. We study this bacterium’s gene expression, and try to understand it at a molecular level.
I am very proud of my Mexican heritage and it is an integral part of who I am. I am not just a scientist and research professor, I am a Chicana scientist and research professor. It is very important to love what you do. If you have a passion for science do not let anything get in your way. Go after that goal! In my experience it is never the ”brightest” student that makes it, but the one who ”wants it” the most.
Back to Team
There are two things that have defined me through my entire life; never being afraid to try something new and being an optimist. Much of that fearlessness comes from my upbringing. My father brought us to the U.S. from Cuba, where he had been a political prisoner. We moved to New Jersey, learned to speak English and eventually were granted political asylum, putting me on the path to citizenship. This was a gift that I do not take for granted, because in our current times those privileges are being challenged.
Senior year in college I earned the American Chemical Society Student Award. At the award ceremony I heard the famous medicinal chemist Leo Sternbach talk about his discovery of benzodiazepines, a class of medicines that transformed the lives of people suffering from anxiety and depression. At that moment I knew I wanted to earn a PhD and be a medicinal chemist.
For my PhD thesis project at SUNY Stony Brook I used organic synthesis, computational chemistry and crystallography in equal parts. I continued my work as an NIH Postdoctoral Fellow at The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and The Scripps Research Institute. Up until that point I had the naïve notion that exciting science only took place in academia, but at Scripps I was exposed to the biotech and pharmaceutical world, where the medicines being created could help people in a shorter time frame. I wanted my work to have that impact and I realized that the techniques I had honed over the years were the perfect foundation of structure-based drug design, a field that uses knowledge of 3D protein structures to create drugs that specifically target a given disease, with the goal of minimizing side effects.
My first job was as employee number one at Kinetix Pharmaceuticals, a company founded by Dr. Nick Lydon who pioneered the development of a new type of anti-cancer drugs targeting a class of proteins called kinases, whose function can go awry and drive cancer growth. At Kinetix we applied structure-based drug design and wrote some of the earliest articles on the design of kinase inhibitors. There are now over 30 approved kinase inhibitor drugs today that treat a variety of cancers and other conditions.
In 2005, I joined CHDI, a nonprofit research foundation exclusively dedicated to developing therapies for Huntington’s disease (HD). Shortly after I took my job as Director of Medicinal Chemistry, I watched a video of a little girl with juvenile HD, who couldn’t blow out her birthday candles because HD made her shake uncontrollably. As a mother this affected me deeply. Wanting to find medicines that can help people suffering from HD has been my goal and defined my career since that day.
Here’s where my optimism comes in again. I believe that what I do today will soon benefit the lives of people with HD. I find my work incredibly fulfilling, even though my life as an HD scientist and mother of three school-age children has had its share of challenges. I’ve had to rely on my support system of family, nannies, and friends. But I have also learned to live life mindful of where I am and what I am doing at that moment. Just as important as our scientific questions are the ones that ask, “What is most important right now? Today? This week?” Being a mother has never been in conflict with being a scientist for me, though I don’t take for granted the mother-scientist who came before me. On the contrary, it’s a central part of who I am, and I feel stronger as a scientist for being able to tackle the needs of a family and the needs of my work.
At this stage in my career it is important to me to set the stage for women in STEM so they know that it is possible to be a scientist with a family. When you’re from a traditional culture, women are inhibited by the role models they see. I have a family, I am an active volunteer in my children’s schools, and I am an active participant in my field of research. I want to contribute to changing the picture of role models our young women see.
I have been fortunate to have had good mentors in my life. We need to continue to support young women in STEM. Someday, they could grow to become a medicinal chemist, working on a cure for cancer or Alzheimer’s. But they won’t have to work on HD, because those medicines are coming soon!
Back to Team
The Creator has a path for all of us, but sometimes it’s hard to find and navigate that path. Mine was full of obstacles, twists, and turns. Growing up, it was impossible for me to imagine the beautiful and peaceful life I lead today.
As a child, I was trapped in a caustic household, enduring endless violence and hardship. My father hit me so much that I ceased to feel the pain. My mother lived in constant fear. My brother fell into hard drugs. I didn’t believe that a loving family was possible. I remember sleeping over at a friend’s house and hiding in their hallway closet, listening. I thought their good behavior and tranquil household must be an act they put on for visitors because it was so vastly different from my “normal” experience. But it wasn’t an act at all—I just lived in chaos.
As awful as my experience was, my father’s violence molded me into a strong and resilient woman. I knew that no situation would ever compare to what he put me through. My mother didn’t have an education and was too poor to leave my father. When I was in fourth grade, my mother told me, “If you stay in school, Linda, you won’t ever have to put up with living like this.” I was determined to forge a path to freedom, and I knew excelling in school and having a solid career would take me there.
After finishing high school, I went to California State University, Long Beach (CSULB), to study health sciences—a subject that was not only interesting to me, but that would also allow me to do meaningful work in the world. At the time, I had never dreamed I would pursue higher education all the way to a PhD level. And I surely hadn’t dreamed I would be educating Indian communities across the country! The immediate struggles along my path were too great for me to imagine the future. But I know now that hardship was worth it.
CSULB had the lowest tuition in the area and was close to home, but I refused to live in my childhood house. During my undergraduate years, I had to work four jobs just to support myself. I did everything from working at Taco Bell to coaching gymnastics. None of them had decent salaries, but collectively they helped me get through.
During that time, my life path took an amazing twist: my mother finally left my father and remarried—to a man who was the opposite of all that my biological father embodied. My stepfather was a wonderful, warm, and loving presence in my life. He was kind and considerate, loved me unconditionally, and accepted me for who I was. He was an incredible role model who allowed me to trust and feel comfortable around men. I have him to thank for my successful marriage today. Losing my stepfather to cancer early on in my career helped guide my path to doing cancer research, education, and prevention in underserved communities—a path I was already well on my way to traveling.
After finishing my undergraduate degree, I applied for a health sciences master’s program at the University of California, Los Angeles. I was getting very tired of student life, particularly because of all my side jobs, so I firmly set my mind on finishing graduate school as quickly as possible. I worked incessantly, finishing my master’s in one year and then continuing on to earn a doctorate in public health (DrPH), which I finished in 1974 after only two years.
While I was completing my MS, I was recruited to teach health sciences at CSULB and continued teaching there during and after my doctoral studies. Fifteen years later, I was a fully tenured professor and had taught everything on the health sciences curriculum. I had an amazing array of students there and a wonderful experience as a teacher—a career I might have continued if new opportunities hadn’t branched my path yet again.
While teaching, I was also working at an American Indian health clinic in Compton, one of the first urban American Indian clinics. We had young women coming in with cervical cancer but we didn’t know why they were getting sick. We received a National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant to develop background surveys that would help us learn what might lead to cervical cancer in young women. The grant also provided support for developing a needs assessment for cervical cancer intervention. During this time, I was recruited by the NIH to create their Native American Cancer Research Program at the National Cancer Institute.
I retired from Long Beach and stayed at the NIH for two years as an IPA and then two years as a cancer expert. Working at NIH was a great experience for learning how the institutes work, but I spent most of my days doing research. I missed teaching and working with people. (And my partner was still back in the West.) I was recruited for and got a job in Denver working for the AMC Cancer Research Center. While it was a good job that allowed me to work with the Denver Indian Center, I began to realize how much I needed to start my own nonprofit.
After four years with AMC of dedicated work and grant writing, I founded the Native American Cancer Initiatives, Incorporated (a small for-profit business). Then in 1999, I started Native American Cancer Research Corporation (NACR), a nonprofit corporation. We work to reduce cancer incidence and to increase survival among Native Americans by supporting culturally competent cancer prevention, health screening, education, training, and research. Some days, I drive down to the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless to do cancer education workshops for the homeless. Other days I might travel to American Indian communities to educate people about cancer—what it is, how they can deal with it—with hopes of reducing the stigma about it. We also arrange culturally relevant genetic education workshops, called GENA® (Genetic Education of Native Americans) at reservations and academic conferences throughout the country, including the annual SACNAS National Conference. Other days I work from the home office where I am a phone queen, with literally eight hours straight of conference calls or webinars. Some of our projects accomplish simpler, but equally important, tasks like providing transportation from clients’ homes to their cancer treatment centers or providing them with education about cancer programs, support groups, and treatments that might be available to them. For others, our programs provide trained Native Patient Navigators to help patients and their families through the cancer experience. Our work with cancer survivors is among the most rewarding work I have ever done.
For a long time my husband and I worked out of our home in Pine, Colorado. As the nonprofit grew, we built an addition. We also rented a small office in Denver beginning in 2003. Half of our home is offices and conference rooms. Finally in 2007, NACR grew enough that I could hire a full-time executive director, Dr. Brenda Seals (Eastern Band Cherokee).
I love my life with my husband; I love my work with NACR and the challenges and adventures that each new day brings. While we’ve never had children, we’ve raised many students during the 18 years I worked at CSULB. We frequently had two to three students living with us at any given time, some from my teaching years, other whom I’ve met while traveling or at conferences. One student even stayed with us for eight years! I know what it’s like to struggle and face adversity, and we do what we can to help these young people and ease them along their personal and professional paths. No matter how great the challenge, it’s possible to rise above it and do important and meaningful work in this world. Native American communities in particular need young professionals who understand our communities. Their fresh innovative minds will help us find better and more culturally sensitive treatments and cures, which we so greatly need.
Back to Team
Some say chemistry is a mature science, that it is passé, and everything that could be done in the field has been done. But based on all the beautiful chemical discoveries I’ve seen in my life and the ones my research group continues to make in the lab, I know this is not true. Chemistry is a wide-open frontier, and your imagination is the only limit. We can make trillions of new substances and materials never made before, possessing interesting and unique properties, some having practical applications.
We moved from Cuba to Puerto Rico when I was almost 10 years old, when my father sensed the political changes that were happening in Cuba. The move was hard on everyone because in Cuba my father was a famous comedian, which meant we were very affluent, kind of “spoiled rich kids.” We had maids and even air conditioning—in the 1950s!
In addition to the drastic adjustments my family made financially, the move was also challenging because the school system in Puerto Rico was not as advanced as Cuba’s at the time. Based on test results they put me in 6th grade, skipping 4th and 5th. I was good at many things, but science was my favorite. In high school, a few teachers began telling me I was a gifted student and that I should go to the United States for school. But in an all-Hispanic environment in Puerto Rico, and my father not into academics, neither he, nor anyone else, were in a position to guide me to apply to top U.S. universities. In those days, most Puerto Ricans didn’t go to the United States for school.
After high school, I went to the University of Puerto Rico in Río Piedras. I rushed through my undergraduate chemistry degree in three years and then completed a PhD in three additional years, publishing nine academic articles along the way. Although I was a successful chemistry student by every measure, for a long time I thought my success was based on luck. I kept thinking, “I am just a lucky guy.” I had some encouragements, but very little guidance or mentorship at the time.
Leaving Puerto Rico after my PhD was perhaps the hardest transition of my life. I got a postdoctoral offer at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. While I loved my experience at the university, living in one of the coldest parts of the United States was hard. One morning I woke up and it was -27 degrees Fahrenheit! I kept thinking, “This is not right; it’s just too cold!” I was shaken, not just from the cold, but my confidence was also faltering. Here I was, the little Cuban from Puerto Rico—would I be able to compete with the best of the best in the U.S.?
At one of my lowest times, I finally experienced an important mentoring moment that made all the difference in the world. George Rubottom, one of my former PhD thesis committee members was spending the summer in Madison, so it was comforting to have someone there whom I knew and respected. We had a conversation one day, and I expressed my anxiety and fear that I wouldn’t be able to succeed there, that I would fail, a reflection of my deep-rooted insecurity. I remember what he said to me as if I am hearing it today: “Echegoyen, hear this carefully. You are as good as or better than most of the people here and you will do as well as you did in Puerto Rico.” Just that one phrase changed everything for me. I went home that night with renewed confidence and had an incredibly successful year, publishing many high-impact articles in the following months. I realized that mentorship doesn’t have to be lifelong or complicated or involve a lot of effort: just one phrase said at the right time can be crucial to propel a young scientist forward. At that point, I started to realize that my success thus far had little to do with luck; it had to do with who I was as a person, my knowledge, passion, and work ethics. It was me succeeding—not just luck.
Throughout my career I have worked in industry, government, and academia. But actually doing chemistry has always been the most exciting and rewarding work for me. Now, as the Robert A. Welch Professor of Chemistry at the University of Texas at El Paso, my research group does physical organic chemistry. In marrying physical and organic, we make compounds that never existed before and measure their interesting properties. As I tell my students when they succeed in preparing the first few milligrams of a new compound, “You’re holding the world’s supply of that compound!” It’s a wonderful feeling of having created something that does not exist in nature and has never been prepared by anyone before.
My team works mainly with carbon, a common element, to create new compounds—particularly for solar energy and lighting devices—hoping to increase the efficiencies. But my research relies heavily on a discovery made in 1985 by a team of scientists at Rice University. Using a laser vaporization system with graphite resulted in carbon atoms clustered in groups of 60 or 70, forming incredibly stable cage-like fused ring structures. Only later did they realize that one of the new molecules identified, C60, was an identical replica of a soccer ball, 1 nanometer in diameter!
The structure, known as a buckminsterfullerene, or a buckyball, launched a revolution in our understanding of carbon, and the scientists won the Nobel Prize in 1996. Buckyballs led to the discovery of carbon nanotubes and later to nano-onions, concentric multilayer buckyballs. A nanotube is just a graphite sheet rolled up to form a tube, but it is 100 times stronger than stainless steel and extremely light. Depending on how the carbons are aligned, some nanotubes act like metals and conduct electricity. They have become important materials of the nano revolution and have applications in anything and everything, especially materials science and electronics. But the discovery of C60 also has potential biological applications, such as anti-HIV drugs and many others.
Amazing how you can create a scientific revolution serendipitously! Before 1985, textbooks stated that carbon existed in only two forms, diamond and graphite. But we now know this is not true! There are many forms of carbon and even more are waiting to be discovered. The Rice team’s discovery truly opened up the wonderful world of carbon.
I am enamored with the symmetry of carbon chemistry and the different properties you can create. In my lab, we have stuck to working with buckyballs, but we put different molecular clusters inside the balls, essentially making buckyball nano-maracas. These clusters change the properties of the carbon cages, generating materials that are potentially useful in solar energy applications.
Young scientists need to keep their eyes open to serendipity—amazing discoveries sometimes happen by chance. Often the people in my lab will try something and fail to achieve the desired outcome. They tell me the experiment didn’t work. But I tell them, if a reaction occurred at all, then it did work, you have something new, even if it isn’t what you were originally looking for! That is how the first buckyball was found, accidentally. Young scientists need to be open and ready to interpret something they are not expecting, to be ready for those serendipitous discoveries! How many unexplained experimental results are sitting in drawers that could be life changing or even Nobel Prize winning?
Back to Team
My name is Luis Perez Villarreal. I was born and raised in East Los Angeles. It’s a unique cultural experience, being of Mexican ancestry and growing up in Los Angeles. For example, in one context you feel foreign, yet in another you feel native. Growing up, we often felt as if we spoke a foreign or prohibited language, that we represented a culture that wasn’t part of the mainstream.
I started going to school when I lived in East L. A., in City Terrace. At the time, my father was buying old houses, fixing them up, then re-selling them for profit, so I ended up meandering into the San Gabriel Valley from East LA, going to eleven grammar schools in the process, eventually ending up in the El Monte/Pico Rivera/Whittier area. I also went to three junior high schools and five high schools. My childhood friends were forever changing and my childhood environment was always in flux. This type of lifestyle can make one very adaptable.
Getting through school wasn’t too difficult. The main obstacle I had to overcome was a general lack of any role model in my family who had gone to college, or even high school. Graduating as a competitive student, one who was able to attend and do well in the University of California system, was an entirely different matter. I don’t think many of my fellow graduates found themselves in this position. For example, out of the 350 students in my graduating class, I was the only one to receive a postgraduate degree, a very small percentage by any standard. Even our valedictorian flunked out his first quarter at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). I knew at the time that my chances for success at the university were not great, so I took a different route. I decided to go to a community college to catch up.
It wasn’t until I was already a senior undergraduate at UCLA majoring in biological chemistry and already involved with some research, that I thought about graduate school. I remember the day an instructor took me aside and asked me what I planned on doing after I graduated. I told him, I don’t know, look for a job, I guess. He told me to consider graduate school, but I wasn’t sure I could afford the tuition and other costs. That is when he pointed out to me that there is often funding available for students. It sounded like a great deal, so I applied!
My job as a scientist now at University of California, Irvine is to learn how viruses and molecules of viruses work. I’m particularly interested in how you program biological things. I am also interested in how you can write programs to re-engineer what cells do in an organism, like gene therapy.
It is important that men, women, and people of many different ethnicities be involved in research, because the kinds of scientific questions one asks have a lot to do with who they are and where they come from. People from different cultural backgrounds have much to contribute to scientific research. I think a mistake many students make is establishing too early on what they think they should be, without knowing where their true interests lie. With regards to a person’s future, I think the long, difficult road usually takes you to the top. The short, quick road will take you to the bottom. It’s better to take five years in college if you need to, for example, than to breeze through in four years with all C’s. Your career options will be much better for it, too. When considering career choices, look at the things you find unendingly interesting. That will be the best kind of career for you to pursue.
Back to Team
I distinctly remember being told by a non-Puerto Rican college professor that I shouldn’t continue with my graduate studies because I “was wasting the federal government’s money.” It stung me emotionally but I had the resolve to not let this discrimination affect me. Instead, experiences like this one and others that left me feeling as if I was caught between two worlds have made me even more determined to succeed in my career as a female physicist.
I was born in Bethesda, Maryland and moved to Puerto Rico with my parents and twin brother when I was five. My parents were both Puerto Rican and chemists, so growing up in the world of science became like second nature to me. You may think it odd to have a mom who is a chemist, but in Puerto Rico it’s very common for women to pursue academics and careers in the sciences such as biology, chemistry, and engineering.
Growing up and attending high school and the University of Puerto Rico was a positive experience because of the similar cultural background I shared with others on the island. However, returning to the U.S. in my 20s during the early 1980s proved to be a challenge. Even though Puerto Rico is considered a commonwealth of the United States (we are born with American citizenship), discrimination still prevailed twenty years ago. Having taken the lead from my parents, I fought hard against this discrimination, particularly while working on my Ph.D. at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.).
I can’t imagine an environment more different from the tropical island of Puerto Rico than New England. Not only were there few minorities at M.I.T., but also very few women. There were 68 students in my entering class for the Ph.D. physics program and only eight females. Out of the eight, six of us graduated with our doctorate in physics. Although I was born an “American,” as a female minority student I always had the feeling that my male professors were doubtful of my abilities. There never seemed to be any question that my male classmates could do the work. However, given the stereotype that Puerto Ricans are “lazy,” I felt that I had to prove myself all over again. This was terribly frustrating because I had already proven that I could do the work back home!
One of the reasons I decided to obtain my Ph.D. on the mainland was because the University of Puerto Rico did not offer a Ph.D. in physics nor the research opportunities in my field of liquid crystals. It was also important for me to have a career position in which I could make my own decisions. I couldn’t see myself always working under someone else who already had a Ph.D. Thus, I knew obtaining a doctorate degree was essential for me.
In addition to my work as a researcher in the Department of Materials, Science, and Engineering at the University of Maryland, College Park, I teach undergraduate and graduate level students as well as graduate level students who are working on research projects. I consider myself fortunate to be at this university because of its high level of diversity and a better-than-usual female student representation in the areas of science and engineering. The field of physics is wide open, and I encourage students to explore the many opportunities available in industrial companies, educational institution, medical centers, and government laboratories.
Currently, I’m also involved with a program in College Park that encourages K-12 students to explore areas of science and engineering. I believe that by being a minority woman, I am providing a role model for the students I’ve encountered, especially the girls. Teenage girls have the misconception that being a female scientist will prevent them from having a social life. This isn’t true! I also try to get across to students I meet, no matter whether secondary or college level, the importance of “balance” in one’s life. For example, I’ve spent most of my life playing the piano. In fact, I received my bachelor’s degree in music while at the University of Puerto Rico (and almost completed a second degree in chemistry). I know for me, having another interest was nice because it got my head out of just doing science-related studies. I don’t believe that one’s life can always be about work!
Back to Team
My father’s parents left Mexico during the Mexican Revolution. A family story says that my grandfather was almost killed by Pancho Villa’s soldiers, but when my grandfather told Pancho Villa that his name was Villa too, Pancho Villa let him go and said, ”Go to that new country and have lots of sons”. My grandparents had nine sons and three daughters. My mother’s family had been in Arizona and New Mexico for many generations. Her ancestors came from Spain with the conquistadors. One of my ancestors helped cure smallpox in Mexico. He would recruit orphans in Spain to go to the ”new country” and then one after another, vaccinate them on the ship to Mexico. Then he traveled from Mexico to California, vaccinating people along the way.
I have three brothers and two sisters, all younger than me, and I have over 100 first cousins and 16 nieces and nephews. I feel that I have always been very lucky. As a child, money was always in short supply, but we always had enough to eat, and lots of books. I became interested in science at an early age. I was influenced by my uncle, who was a chemist, and my mother and grandmother who both loved nature and plants. My parents both encouraged reading and learning. When I went to college, I thought I was going to be a chemist. I had read a story about Hans Seyle in Reader’s Digest. The work he did on the physiology of stress sounded fantastic. I asked someone at the medical school what I should major in to become a physiologist and he suggested chemistry. I had a hard time in freshman chemistry, and when I went to my advisor, he said that women didn’t belong in chemistry! Fortunately, I took a great class in developmental biology as a college sophomore, and convinced me to become a biology major.
I had always loved school, but in high school I was somewhat socially isolated. I didn’t become interested in dating until I was in college. In college, two things happened. First, I discovered the delights of social life, and second, I discovered college was not all I expected. I thought that all the classes would be interesting and all the professors fascinating. Of course, neither was true. I was an ”A” student in high school, but I started off college with very checkered grades. It must be said that I flunked organic chemistry the first time, but I got an ”A” when I took it again. For me, and I suspect for many others, the difficulty of the material is not what makes the difference between good and bad grades. Rather, it is discipline, hard work, and getting help when you need it that helps you get good grades.
Several of my professors in college said that I could be good at doing science. Going to graduate school also seemed like the natural next step. I had worked at different types of jobs, and I knew that I did not want to spend my time in an unchallenging work environment. By the time I had gotten to the end of my undergraduate years, working in a lab seemed like a wonderful life.
I believe that growing up in a large Mexican-American family taught me the value of collaboration and competition. Furthermore, my cultural background has made me more aware and sensitive to interpersonal interactions with my peers, students, and others. As a scientist, it has helped in collaborations. I think it is the basis of my strong feeling that students must be nurtured and encouraged.
The two most important things to me are first, that my job be interesting and challenging; and second, by doing my job, I make a difference. I want to be in a position where I can make it possible for exciting science to thrive, and as the associate vice president for research at Northwestern University in Chicago, Illinois, I feel that I am in a good position to meet my goals. I am also professor of neurology at Northwestern University Medical School. Before that, I was a research scientist for twenty years. I had the privilege and the pleasure of planning experiments that provided information about how things work. The underlying interest in all the work I did was the question of how a single celled organism becomes a complex creature. As I got older, I found that I wanted to think about science in a more global way. It gave me as much satisfaction to help another scientist find out how to get answers as it did to do my own experiments. Now my job is to help create an environment where other scientists can more easily do their work. I love my job and did not imagine when I was a student that I might one day have a job this satisfying and enjoyable.
Back to Team
I was born in San Antonio, Texas, but I grew up in Independence, Missouri. My father came to the United States from Durango, Mexico in 1910 and my mother is of German descent. Though neither of my parents ever went to college, they impressed upon me the importance of learning and making the most of educational opportunities. I was the first person in the family to attend college.The structure and organization of mathematics appealed to me at a young age. I was not a gifted student, though, so I had to work hard in school. Through the encouragement of a seventh grade teacher, Sister Mary James, I excelled in learning mathematics. She prepared a group of promising mathematics students, of which I was one, for a scholarship competition at De La Salle Military Academy. Under her tutelage, I won a scholarship to the academy, where I was able to take more mathematics courses. I soon discovered that the logical thinking necessary to do mathematics not only applied to mathematics; it was a method of problem solving that can be applied to every aspect of life, making humans no longer the victims of blind faith, fate, or memorized patterns.
I attended college at Rockhurst College in Kansas City, Missouri, where I studied mathematics, earning my B.S. degree in 1952. A professor of mine at Rockhurst, Father William C. Doyle, urged me to continue my mathematical studies. I began my graduate studies at Notre Dame in 1952, but was interrupted with a tour in the Army. I completed the masters degree in 1956. From 1957 to 1959, I taught at what is now Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. In 1961, I earned my Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), where I wrote my dissertation on topology. After completing my Ph.D., I taught at UCLA, Tulane University and then the University of New Orleans. In 1976, I joined the faculty at The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA), which has essentially brought me home. I am currently a professor of mathematics at UTSA.
My particular research interest in mathematics has been general topology, which includes the abstract study of mathematical properties like limits and continuity, ideas you encounter in calculus. I have authored or co-authored papers in this area which have appeared in well-known mathematical journals and which have been cited by other researchers in this area.
However, being a professor isn't just about doing research; I am also a teacher and I am very interested in helping others become educated, especially minorities and women. I noticed that very few minorities were actually completing studies in mathematics and the sciences. Something needed to be done to increase this number. In 1979, I founded the Prefreshman Engineering Program (PREP) at UTSA with help from other colleges and universities, and the U.S. Department of Energy. PREP is a mathematics-based academic enrichment program, running for eight weeks during the summer, aimed at middle and high school students. Students learn about mathematics, logical thinking, abstract reasoning, computer science, and the mathematical sciences. When it was initiated, the program was disparaged because it was thought that pre-college students wouldn't want to devote any of their summer to studying mathematics and science. In November of 1979, a San Antonio magazine published a feature story about my university in which an anonymous member of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board expressed his opposition to approving an engineering program at UTSA. He stated, "The Mexican American community is not where engineers come from anyway." These words were an insult to both our community and me; but I also viewed them as a challenge for both PREP and myself. PREP has been very successful, and it has been replicated as the Texas Prefreshman Engineering Program (TexPREP) on 25 college campuses in 15 Texas cities, and as Proyecto Access on 9 college campuses in 8 states outside of Texas.
PREP has been an overwhelming success where it has been initiated. It has helped minority and women students achieve a new level of competence in mathematics and the sciences, and has given them the tools and the confidence to go on to college and earn degrees in science, mathematics and engineering. The PREP program and I have received numerous awards and citations. For example, in 1997 San Antonio PREP received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring. In 1998, PREP was designated a La Promesa de un Futuro Brillante Program by the National Latino Children's Institute. In 1994, I received the Hispanic Heritage Award in Education. In 2000, I was inducted as Charter Member into the Texas Science Hall of Fame along with four astronauts and four Nobel Laureates. In 2001, I received the most prestigious award of the Mathematical Association of America, the Yueh-Gin Gung and Dr. Charles Y. Hu Award for Distinguished Service to Mathematics.
Back to Team
Growing up half-Crow Indian in northern Wyoming in the 1950s and 1960s wasn’t easy. I lived in a town that bordered a Native American reservation, and though I didn’t always understand things that people said or did, now I realize that it was a very unfriendly place and that there was a lot of discrimination. I spent a lot of time on horseback, which was the only real source of peace in my life. I found being outdoors very comforting, and later, when I went back to college, these early experiences inspired me to persevere so that someday I could work to preserve the land I grew up on and help other people learn how to be good caretakers of the planet.
I didn’t go to college until I was twenty-eight, after I had married a Navajo man, lived on the Navajo Nation for several years, and had three children. Life on the reservation was very difficult. I often felt like no one cared about what happened to my family and me, and the standard of living was very poor. But it was these circumstances that propelled me to change the direction of my life. For example, our water on the reservation was sometimes contaminated. I wanted to do something about it, so I entered the geology program at Northern Arizona University (NAU), with an emphasis in hydrogeology.
College was a challenge because my pre-college education had not prepared me very well. My math skills were so poor that I had to start at the very basic, lowest math class and work my way up through calculus. Another obstacle was that because I’m a Native American woman, some professors clearly thought that I wasn’t going to go very far. But I’m very stubborn, especially when someone treats me like a failure. Whenever a professor thought I couldn’t do something, I’d say to myself, “Oh yeah, you don’t think I can do this? Well, I’m going to prove you wrong!”
After I finished my degree at NAU, I received a scholarship from the National Science Foundation to study sedimentary discharges from volcanoes in the Earth Sciences program at Montana State University (MSU). I got my master’s at MSU, and then did research at the University of Washington (UW) in Seattle. While in Seattle, I met Dr. Anita Grunder, the woman who would eventually become my Ph.D. advisor at Oregon State University (OSU).
Dr. Grunder became a real source of inspiration for me. She’s hardworking and intelligent, and she raised kids and worked as a professor at the same time. This was important to me because I was also raising three kids on my own and trying to go to school. Being a single mom in school is difficult in many ways, but it taught me something—family is very important. Moving around so much for school was hard, and often we were poor, but my kids were always a huge source of inspiration. I probably would not have gone so far in school if it hadn’t been for them. I felt like I had to do something for their sake— that I had to do something to make the world better for them.
Fourteen years after I started college, I finished my Ph.D. at OSU.
I now work for the U.S. Geological Survey, studying climate change on the Navajo Nation, especially the movement of sand dunes and the levels of certain elements in the water. I want to investigate these problems using both the science I learned in graduate school and the Native knowledge that I have an interest in because of my cultural background. I talk with Navajo people about how the climate has changed over time and use that information to help answer questions about how and why it’s changing now. I hope that the Navajo people will use the information that I collect to inform the way they want to live in the future in a way that will allow them to keep their cultural traditions and ways of life. But, to maintain these traditions, they’re going to need scientists who want to live and work on the reservation. The future generation needs Indian people to be in the earth sciences, to be ecologists and geologists, so they can do these studies on Indian land across the country.
One of the most important things I learned over the course of my education is that who you are helps define how you look at the world and how you approach a problem. I believe that using traditional Native American knowledge is not just important from a scientific point of view but also from a cultural point of view. Traditional knowledge is what defines Indian people. It really depends on how you live on the land, what you do as a person, and how you treat the planet. We need people who approach problems from this perspective in the sciences so that we can learn—and hopefully teach others—how to be better stewards of the land.
Back to Team
I grew up in Laverne, California. I have two sisters and two brothers. Until I was two, my parents were farm workers, and traveled around southern California picking lemons. My background is traditional Mexican-American with a large Indian influence. My grandmothers and other relatives all lived within two blocks of our house, and that has made an impact on how I think about familial things. My great-grandmother was a curandera (healer). Her yard was basically a traditional medicinal garden in that most of the plants were grown for medicine and many from seeds her friends had given to her or traded. Because she lived next door, she had a big influence on how I think about plants and their uses. I have always liked to know how things work. Once I took my father’s roses apart. I was trying to see how the parts fit together and I ended up decimating his rose bushes. Now I get paid to do the same thing!
When I was growing up, being different was tough. I did not always run with my peers. I had different interests from them. I would spend all of my allowance money on books and puzzles. I didn’t belong to the typical Chicana group, but that was okay because my parents supported my interests.
When I was in school, I was considered weird because I was a good student and I was in the band. My freshman year of high school, I was taking typing, and I was getting a C. I went to my counselor and told him I needed to get out of this class to take more college preparatory kinds of classes. The counselor told me that if the Spanish teacher would take me in his class it was okay to change, but he said, ”Your kind of people need some kind of skill.” My older sister had really liked biology. She was about eight years older than I was, and we would talk about all the neat stuff she was learning. I took a lot of extra units in high school, so by my senior year, I only had one required course to take. I worked as a teaching assistant in chemistry and biology. That was neat because I got to test out all the lab equipment before the other students got to use it, and I got to prepare solutions, which was fun. Initially, when I got to college, I was going to be a biology major, but there was no such thing at my college. It was either zoology or botany, so I became a botany major largely because of the influence of an absolutely enthusiastic botany professor. He cared so much about his plants.
I attended Pomona College, which is a very competitive private college in the Los Angeles area. My senior year of college, I was thinking of graduate school but I didn’t know how I was going to afford to go. One day I saw this poster on the wall that said the Ford Foundation had doctoral fellowships for minorities in the sciences. Everyone else I knew was going to graduate school, and I thought, ”Well now, here’s an opportunity.” I applied for the fellowship on the spur of the moment and I got the money!
At one time I thought I wanted to be a physician. After I got my Ph.D., there was a time when I felt that what I was doing was not relevant to the population I wanted to affect, so I took all the classes I needed to go to medical school. I applied to medical school and got in. I ended up deciding against it. I realized that most of the people I wanted to affect were victims of their socio-economic status. They are poor and have diseases of the poor, which are often caused by stress. So I decided that I would remain a professor and would try to work in an institution where I could work with minorities. I decided to invest in the future that way.
I am currently a professor of biology at California State University-Northridge. I do basic research and I am the initiator of two programs, MARC and MBRS at CSU-Northridge. These programs provide research opportunities for students. In my career, I’ve learned it’s okay to be different, to pursue your interests. It’s a good habit to read, and talk about what you’ve read with other people. Sharing your ideas is very important in the long run. If you really want something you can have it. You are only limited by what you can imagine.
Back to Team
I am Cahuilla-Cupeno, and a great-great granddaughter of Antonio Garra, war chief of the Cupeno who led an insurrection against the invaders. I was born and raised on the Morongo Reservation in Southern California, and the texture of those years permeate my life in many ways. We lived in a small adobe house that my parents built. Our water came from a cistern and periodic irrigation. We used kerosene in our lamps and spent our weekends gathering the wood to burn in our stove. We had a battery-operated radio and could only afford to listen to one or two programs a week. I thought the rich people were the ones with indoor toilets and electricity.Very early in life I began to have vivid dreams, some of which were powerful enough to be called visions. These dreams talked to me about leaving the reservation, something of which I was very fearful. But they also spoke of coming back. The visions told me that if I did leave I would become someone. I remember those dreams/visions almost as vividly today as when they occurred.
I did very well in school. My mother often said to me, “You are lucky, the school fits your mind. Your brothers are smart, too, but the school does not fit their minds.” One of the deciding points in my life was having my eighth grade teacher come onto the reservation to see my mother. “Your daughter is very smart and should go to college,” she said. This idea fit with my dreams; so that day I started saving my money to go to college. I also played tennis in high school, and I was good enough to win the county championship in both singles and doubles. The college I chose was the University of California, Riverside. It was thirty miles and a world away from the reservation.
Although Riverside was then a small and friendly town, I found it terrifying and I was the only Indian at the University. I struggled to do things the way the white folks did. I still had no clear idea what college was, but I could tell that I needed good grades if I was to stay and continue my quest to become “someone.” I committed myself to working fourteen to sixteen hours a day on my classes. I spent my savings frugally, living on a monotonous diet and affording no pleasures. I lived in dread of failing. When I finally received my grades at the end of the first semester, to my disbelief I found I had straight A’s.
I changed majors a number of times, finally settling on psychology. I avoided classes like chemistry, biology and calculus because my biologist friends had assured me I wouldn’t do well in those “real” classes. However, when I was a senior I discovered I would need these classes for graduate school, so I took biology, calculus and a course on evolution. I loved them and did very well; but by then I was an experimental psychologist. I had started doing research as an undergraduate and had two publications by the time I entered graduate school, which was very unusual for the time. I did graduate work at the University of Iowa and obtained my Ph.D. from the University of California, Los Angeles.
I was trained as an experimental psychologist and eventually became what is called a cognitive psychologist. This discipline is concerned with how people think, learn, perceive (see, hear, feel), and remember. My specialty is very long-term memory. My research relates to questions such as how long learned-information is retained, and if it is retained longer if you study more. Though they sound like easy questions, the answers are complex.
I wanted to teach at a university and do research, but at the time I obtained my degree most university positions were closed to women. I spent ten years at San Diego State University and became a full professor. I was hired at the University of Utah, the first woman to be hired as a full professor. However, I never forgot those visions of returning to my people. During the day I taught psychology classes and did research. The rest of the time I was involved in the national Indian education movement of the 60s and 70s. I served on the founding board of the National Indian Education Association. Guided by the only powerful vision I have had since leaving the reservation, in 1986 I moved to Arizona State University, where I could work more closely with the tribes. I ran a coalition mandated to improve mathematics and science education for twenty tribes in Arizona. Recently I have moved to the University of Kansas where I work closely with Haskell Indian Nations University and the Haskell Health Center to provide science research opportunities for Haskell students in the laboratories of research scientists at the University of Kansas.
Back to Team
I was born in Laredo, Texas, second of ten children. I grew up in a large, extended family with over 80 first cousins. I believe that my Catholic Laredo upbringing shaped me not only as a person, but also as a scientist.
I was always interested in science and math and both of my parents encouraged this interest. When I was in elementary school some representatives from NASA in Houston visited my school. One man told us that NASA’s missions would seem like child’s play in comparison to what we would achieve when we became scientists. I remember feeling that he was speaking directly to me, telling me that I would become a scientist who would achieve something significant.
I first discovered my special interest in biology when I was in sixth grade. My maternal grandmother loved to eat rabbit and my father, who was a hunter, brought her wild rabbits. One time when my father was cleaning one of the rabbits that he killed he called me over. The rabbit was pregnant with two bunnies. I peered down at the babies, so perfect in shape under the membrane of the uterus. I remember thinking “I want to know how these babies come to be.”
My parents and grandparents were firm believers in education. There was never any doubt that I would go to college. The encouragement from home was important because almost none of my teachers seemed to notice me in class. I remember my frustration during fifth grade when boys were always called upon to provide solutions to math problems. However, when I was in eleventh grade my chemistry teacher took me aside and told me about a summer program for high school students interested in math and science. This program was sponsored by National Science Foundation and was held at several colleges and universities throughout the United States. He encouraged me to apply and he even proctored an entrance examination that was sent by one of the universities. My parents allowed me to apply to the program at the University of Texas at Austin (my father’s alma mater) and at Loyola University in New Orleans because it is a Catholic university. I was accepted at the Loyola program. My experience in that program was one of the most important in my life. The faculty and counselors challenged us to defend our career goals. (Most of us, myself included, said that we wanted to go to medical school, but really didn’t know why. Maybe it was parental pressure or the glamour.) The director of the program in particular demanded that we think about our futures in a concrete way and to prepare for them accordingly.
Upon graduation from high school I attended the University of St. Thomas in Houston on scholarship and then the University of Texas at Austin, where I earned a B.A. in zoology. I decided to pursue graduate studies in biology. My father always wanted me to become a medical doctor, and the decision to attend a Ph.D. program instead was a difficult one for me. But my parents were supportive and proud of my ability to make my own goals and then work to attain them. I attended Yale University where I earned a Ph.D. in Biology with the support of a Ford Foundation pre-doctoral fellowship.
More than once in my education I faltered and lost heart. The first time was during my second semester at the University of Texas, right after I had made a perfect 4.0 GPA with a heavy course load. I somehow lost my motivation to continue to work hard, to excel. I dropped organic chemistry and even considered taking time off from school. This was unsettling to me since I had gone to school throughout the year including summers every year since I had entered high school. My organic chemistry professor’s faith in me rekindled my enthusiasm. The next time I lost my way was when I was a third year graduate student. I went to my Ph.D. mentor and told her that I wanted to quit graduate school. She asked me what I would do instead, and I said that I didn’t know. She told me that she could not allow me to leave graduate school unless I was doing it for a positive, compelling alternative, that I could not leave because of negative feelings or lack of self confidence. That was the most wonderful thing she could have done for me.
As an Associate Professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz I teach and do research in Immunology and Virology. I am particularly interested in the development of the immune system and in the interplay between the immune system and viruses and bacteria. As an educator my goal is to empower students to think critically and to become passionate about biology.
Back to Team
I am Mexican-American, and I was born and raised in Chino, a small town in Southern California. My life was heavily influenced not only by my mother and father, but also by my extended family who strongly encouraged their children to obtain the best education possible. Since I was the youngest child of this extended family, I felt that I was expected to follow the pathway that my siblings had laid out before me: All of them graduated from college.My grandfather was one of my role models. With very little resources, and facing many obstacles due to his Hispanic culture, he succeeded in starting and running his own construction company. He was very independent, a leader of the Mexican-American community and a strong supporter of his Catholic faith. I saw these same qualities in my father who worked hard to become the head of the family business, took risks to better himself, and always treated everyone with respect.
My family’s hardships and accomplishments instilled in me the belief that I could also succeed in whatever I decided to do. They ingrained in me from the beginning that an education was the key in opening life’s opportunities. When I was a child in the 1960s, I did not face as many obstacles as my parents/grandparents. Rather, the pressures that I encountered while growing up were mostly self-imposed.
High school was not easy for me. To get good grades, I had to dedicate all my time to my homework, so I had little time for after school activities. I felt that I could not fail with my studies because of the large sacrifice my parents were making in order to send me to private school. My reward was the sense of accomplishment I felt when I passed my courses with good marks and eventually graduated from high school with honors.
The high school that I attended was extremely limited in resources. There were no elaborate laboratory facilities in the science courses but the lab experiments were fun. Working with different glassware in the chemistry lab, trying to configure elaborate experiments with limited equipment, and actually getting results, sparked my interest in the sciences. I was so fascinated by the ways in which chemistry could impact people’s lives that I decided to pursue a bachelor’s degree in chemistry at the University of California, Irvine.
My chemistry advisors encouraged me to excel in the areas of chemistry that I was interested in pursuing as a career. I needed to find my own area of expertise within this field. For the next few years, I learned that one of my strengths was technical work in the laboratory. I spent all my spare time working in a research laboratory and my three years of undergraduate research made a tremendous impact in my budding chemistry career. From that point in time, I decided that I wanted to be a research scientist.
After earning my master’s degree in chemistry at the California State University, Fullerton, I enrolled in the Ph.D. chemistry program at the University of California, Davis. I felt that having a doctoral degree would challenge me to become more creative with my chemistry skills. My graduate work involved synthesizing a variety of important intermediates (intermediates are chemical materials that are used as building blocks to construct more elaborate chemical substances) that could be used to streamline the synthesis of some well-known polyether antibiotics. Polyether antibiotics are a special class of medicines that slows down the growth of bacteria that causes diseases. My research led to the discovery of other novel chemistries that allowed me to generate enough data to complete my thesis. The success of my Ph.D. research provided me with enough confidence to apply for a National Institute of Health research fellowship. The fellowship I received opened up opportunities to continue my chemistry research training at Harvard University.
Today I am a research scientist for Eli Lilly, a pharmaceutical company located in Indianapolis, Indiana. I have my own research laboratory and I am part of a multidisciplinary research team involved in identifying and developing novel compounds for clinical trials. My objective is to design the right chemical experiments that would enhance the medicinal properties of a compound and thereby discover new medicines that would improve the quality of life for mankind. My research has been very exciting and very rewarding.
It is important to remember that your career ”aspirations” may require you to think beyond your comfort zone. It is o.k. to take risks. Identify your strengths and pursue your dreams. I think that you will discover that the ”fear”of failing is only in your mind. You need to take a chance and learn and build upon your experiences. I think you will realize that you should not underestimate your abilities. Aim high! You can do it!
Back to Team
According to my mother, I spoke Japanese until I was three years old and then slowly moved on to English. This may seem strange until you find out my father was an officer in the United States Navy stationed in Sasebo, Japan. In Japan, he met my mom, married her, and they had me in 1953. My brothers and I were raised to identify with our Japanese heritage, but it was a somewhat different immigrant experience than a lot of Japanese-Americans had. Since it was only 10 years after World War II, we encountered postwar discrimination against Japanese-Americans and Japanese women who had married American soldiers. In many ways, it felt like my father’s Mexican-American roots were much more accepted since Latinos were more commonly considered part of American culture in southern California at the time.
I didn’t have much exposure to my father’s Mexican-American heritage until we lived in San Diego. My family and I hold great pride in our mixed heritage and what it has meant to American culture. Growing up, I was lucky to live where I did, because Latino mentors were easier to find in the San Diego area. In fact, it was a Mexican-American biology teacher in high school who encouraged me to take more of an interest in the sciences. He did a lot to help stimulate my curiosity and encouraged me to explore science beyond the textbook and what was offered in the classroom.
All the way through high school, there were many Mexican-American students and teachers. It wasn’t until college that I began to notice a drop in the numbers of minorities in my classes. At the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), I double majored in biology and psychology. About 15% of the students in my psychology program were Latino. There were fewer Asian Americans and no African Americans, and there were only two Latino junior faculty that I knew of in biology and none in psychology. What concerned me was the small number of minority faculty members in these departments and throughout the entire university. There weren’t that many minority undergraduate students either, especially in the sciences.
The number of minority students and faculty in my graduate program at University of California, Riverside (UCR), was similar. I focused on getting through the program and becoming competitive for future academic opportunities. I also knew that in some areas of science there were very few Chicano/Latino students pursuing graduate degrees. While I remember a number of my minority undergraduate classmates wanting careers in medicine, I don’t recall many looking to academic science. Over time this became a bigger and bigger issue in my mind.
After many years as a researcher, the issue of the lack of diversity in academic science led me to the job of chief of the Research Scientist Development Program in the Office for Special Populations at the National Institute of Mental Health. In seeking this position, I saw an opportunity to give something back and create change at a federal level. I’m now responsible for developing ideas about how to encourage the next generation of scientists, in particular, people who are from underrepresented groups. I want to facilitate the success of other Latinos who want careers in academic research. To achieve this, it is vital for students to have role models—to see people like them as faculty members, researchers, and leaders.
The perspective of a minority scientist may or may not be different from a majority scientist, but it does bring diversity to a research environment. I think growing up half Japanese and half Latino in a predominantly Caucasian culture taught me very early on what it means to struggle with adversity. I know what it feels like to try and achieve your goals without visible mentors who share your ethnic background in your field. To watch the numbers of minorities dwindle the closer you get to the top can be very discouraging. I strive to make it easier for everyone to attain the goals they seek, by helping to encourage students from a mentorship standpoint. My hope is that increased visibility and determination will prove to be an encouraging example for others.
Back to Team
It wasn’t easy trying to get an education in my small village in Mexico. The only school was an elementary school that went up to the sixth grade. My parents were poor farmers who had a large family to support and there was never enough money, not even for food. We often ate just tortillas and salt. My parents are Tarascan, which is the main Indian tribe of the state of Michoacan. We’ve traced our family name of “Mora” to our village of Totolán going back to shortly after Cortez’ conquest of Mexico in the 1530s. Although my mother passed away four years ago, my 85-year-old father still lives in the village as well as some of my siblings.
Neither of my parents finished elementary school because they had to work in the fields in order to help support their families. I too, helped my family work during my summers off from school, and it made me realize that I didn’t want to become a farmer. I knew that my parents weren’t to blame for our family being poor, yet I also knew that I wanted more for my life and theirs. I desperately wanted to help my family out financially while obtaining an education for myself.
In order to get more education after finishing elementary school, I accepted a scholarship to a seminary far away from my village. I received an excellent education as I studied English, Latin, Greek, history, psychology, philosophy, and of course, religion. However, my seminary education wasn’t accepted by the Mexican government, so I essentially had to start over when I transferred to a junior high school at the age of 15.
The closest junior high was about four miles away from Totolán. My parents were too poor to own a car and there were no buses, so I sometimes had to walk to school. By the time I was 17 I had finished the 9th grade, and I then decided to move to Mexico City to find a job to support my family. I worked in an electrical factory where we made small parts for radios and televisions. It was an extremely tedious and monotonous job, and it didn’t allow me the time to continue my education. After a year, I passed the high school entrance exam and found a part-time government job during the day to help support myself and my family while going to high school at night.
Nothing mattered more to me than finishing school, and between working, going to classes, and studying, I didn’t have much time for a social life. It was a dream for me to be able to get a university education, and I would have studied anything. Since I was good in math and engineering, I decided on becoming a biochemical engineering major at the Polytechnic Institute in Mexico City. While working on my bachelor’s degree, I had two jobs that helped focus my career goals: I worked part-time as a biochemistry instructor at the University of Mexico and also worked outdoors with research scientists studying birds.
I found working outdoors very satisfying, and it reminded me of growing up in Totolán which, by the way, in Nahuatl means “land of the birds.” Through this work, I realized how much I loved watching, listening to, and working on ecological studies involving birds. I also preferred not being restricted to the indoor environment of a laboratory. After getting my undergraduate degree, I researched getting my master’s in ecology so that I could apply my knowledge of biochemistry and toxicology to my love of birds and the outdoors.
However, Mexican universities didn’t offer such a program, and I found I had to leave my native land in order to pursue my dream. I ended up attending the University of California, Davis on an international scholarship and eventually received both my master’s and Ph.D. in ecology.
I’m proud of the fact that through the years I’ve become internationally recognized in my field of wildlife toxicology. I’m also very proud of the fact that I’m the only one in my family who made it to college.
Despite my family’s poverty, it was my experiences in childhood that got me to where I am today. Helping my father in the fields gave me an appreciation and respect for nature, and the struggles I went through to obtain an education taught me the power of perseverance and hard work. In fact, if my family had money for me to go to school, perhaps I wouldn’t be where I am today.
Back to Team
As the youngest of ten children of a traditional Mexican couple, I learned to adapt to change and be creative. Growing up in the Sierra Tarahumara, I spent time during the cold winters reading all kinds of books. My favorites were encyclopedias. I remember the first time I thought about chemistry, I was looking at a diagram of an animal cell on one page and a vegetable cell on the other. I could understand that each cell had unique structures – mitochondria and ribosomes – but I asked my mom, “Yes, but how does this make life happen?” Although neither she nor my father finished a formal education, they instilled in me the power that comes with knowledge. This curiosity became the foundation of my love for science.
We moved to Texas when I finished high school so my family could reunite and my mom could receive treatment for her heart condition. As the youngest, I felt a responsibility to stay with her in El Paso. I began to learn English at a community college and was told by my advisor that I should just get an associate’s degree, maybe become a technician. I was disappointed. My ambitions were so much higher than that, and I knew I could do better. A fire sparked in me and I transferred to the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) to major in chemistry.
My years at UTEP fueled my love of science. There was only one woman in the entire faculty, and many professors were older white men, which made it intimidating to approach them about research opportunities. I found great mentors who invited me to be a peer leader with a group that traveled to area elementary and high schools to conduct demonstrations with explosions and science games. When I met a Latino professor in environmental chemistry, I discovered he was from Chihuahua, where I had grown up. His lab became my second home.
Balancing my science with caring for my mom was a challenge for me, but as the youngest in my family, I felt a strong obligation to be there for her. There were many long days in the lab and then I would return home to a list of chores, but I did them with love. The opportunities my mom created for me and her belief in our education gave me the fire I needed to keep going.
A new professor told us in an organic chemistry class about SACNAS and said he wanted to take students to the conference. I presented my research as a poster and oral presentation, won an award, and met the director of the Children’s Nutrition Research Center (CNRC). He was impressed with my work exploring how plants convert toxic metals into non-toxic species. I later joined his group as a summer intern at the CNRC in Houston. What a phenomenal experience! I learned about genetics and plant chemistry.
There were times when pursuing a degree in a male-dominated industry was overwhelming. I was often told I couldn’t succeed, that my research was not “real chemistry” because I worked with plants, or people did not expect me to continue my education. But as I approached the end of my PhD, I met a guru of electron microscopy, Dr. Miguel José-Yacamån, at a SACNAS conference. He was delighted to meet a female Latina scientist with a background in analytical chemistry and microscopy. I began working in his lab and realized that the impact I wanted to have with my science was to teach, and looking back at my experiences, I knew I could make a difference.
I became an assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Texas Permian Basin, where I have mentored 22 students. I’ve supported students in completing their degrees in chemistry and in exploring new pathways. I do my best to advance my students’ science. I write them letters of recommendation, tell them about internships, take them on tours to industry, and we go to SACNAS conferences and ACS meetings. Anything to open their eyes to the wonders of chemistry.
I am nearing the end of my tenure track and recently the Physical Science Department faculty elected me to be chair of the department. I will be the only woman in the department and the chair of the department. I am proving that women can have positions like these.
We all know our science is important, but we should always be open to new opportunities and adventures while also taking care of our people and ourselves. I think back to the little girl I was, voraciously reading those encyclopedias, hungry for knowledge, and a quote from Dr. Vincent Tinto comes to mind, “Access without support is not opportunity.” If I didn’t have mentors around to point me toward the opportunities I had, I might have missed them. We must support the next generation of scientists.
Back to Team
If someone told you there was a family that had six children and was so poor they could not afford a TV, board games, or even toys, you might consider this tragic. In my family, however, we unknowingly seized our predicament to develop our imaginations!
I was born in a small town in Bayamon, Puerto Rico, to a family of six children. I had an older brother and two older sisters, as well as a younger sister and brother. Six years spanned the oldest to the youngest. My parents were from farming families—a coffee plantation and a dairy farm. For my parents, going to school was a struggle since they were needed to work for their families on the farm. As a result, my father only completed the second grade and my mother the sixth grade.
At my elementary school, everyone received free lunch and free government shoes, including me. In the fourth grade, I had a very stern and serious math teacher named Ms. Hernandez. She would slap you with a ruler if you didn’t know your multiplication tables. Ironically, her threats began my appreciation for a type of certainty and precision in mathematics that is unrivaled by other subjects. I appreciated this, even if sometimes I had to learn the hard way!
In seventh grade, I had another very strict but wonderful teacher named Ms. Figueroa. At lunchtime she occasionally invited me to work on puzzles and play math games by throwing dice and finding the sum as a race. This is when I “officially” fell in love with math!
I had a lot of support for school at home, especially from my mother. She always told us that the best gift she could give us was an education, because that is the one thing that no one can ever take away from you. She instilled a love for learning in all of us. Every day we would learn from each other. After dinner, my three sisters and I would clean up and then sit at the corners of the table spreading out all our books. My sisters and I would share all that we were learning in our classes—it was the most wonderful thing. We would do this every single day, even on the weekends. I remember when my older sister took an art class in college, she told us about all these amazing painters we never knew existed: Monet, Degas, and others. We were fascinated. We just loved learning!
Often my oldest sister, Nilda, would pretend she was a teacher while the other sisters were students who would misbehave. We thought it was hilarious. I admire Nilda a lot, because at age 16, she started college, which was located far from our home. When she would come home, Nilda would tell us all about the subjects she was learning. Nilda got a master’s degree in chemistry at the University of Puerto Rico and after all of our make-believe games, really did become a high school chemistry teacher.
I was also very close to my sister Olga, who is just 11 months older than me. In tenth grade, we took algebra together. After doing our homework independently, we would check each other’s homework. Our teacher showed us the elegance of mathematics and that is when I fell in love even more with the subject. In eleventh grade I took geometry with my younger sister, and we would work on homework together. During my senior year there were no math classes I could take, so I bought a book to learn more math on my own. It was a book to prepare for the equivalent of the SAT exam in the U.S. In the afternoon after school, I would sit outside my home in the balcony with a little chalkboard and study the book until it was time for dinner.
At the time, I had a boyfriend who was from another school. Dating was very strict—you needed a chaperone to go out, so there wasn’t much chance to get distracted. He ended up going far away to college to study engineering. So it was just me, my books, and my chalkboard once again. I studied very hard to prepare for the college entrance examination; it had 5 parts, each worth 800 points. So the maximum score was 4000 and my school had an average of 1950. I scored 3521! With this score, I was able to attend the University of Puerto Rico, in my hometown of Bayamon.
Many of my classmates came from excellent private schools. It was a challenge trying to stay at the top of my class knowing everyone knew so much more than I did. There were so many things I hadn’t been exposed to in school before. There was so much more to learn. Still, I wasn’t discouraged—just excited!
In the third year, I transferred to the main campus of the University of Puerto Rico in Rio Piedras where I took a class in abstract algebra. It was so different from the concrete math I was used to learning. Also, my professor was American and could not speak Spanish very well, and I couldn’t understand her. It was the very first time ever that I was lost in a math class! Still, I wouldn’t settle for less than an A. I asked, “Can I do this?” and I thought, “Sure I can!” I studied and studied and earned an A. I felt that I had learned so much in that class. When I graduated with the bachelor’s degree in mathematics, I had the highest GPA of the graduating class and received the award for “Student with the highest GPA in Mathematics.”
One of my professors suggested I go to the U.S. to get a PhD, since there was no PhD program in mathematics in Puerto Rico at the time. I didn’t see how this was possible. Sadly, a few days before my second year of college, my father had died in a tragic accident. He was the breadwinner of the family, and after completing an undergraduate degree it seem that the only thing to do was to get a job to help take care of my family. One of my professors suggested that I go to Berkeley, California, and work as a nanny while going to school. But I was scared because I didn’t speak English well enough. Other opportunities presented themselves and I applied for a National Science Foundation Graduate Scholarship for minorities and got it! I chose to go to Berkeley where I got my master’s degree in mathematics; luckily, I didn’t have to get a supplemental job to be able to afford the tuition.
After that, I went to the University of Iowa for the PhD program since my sister Olga was already there. I passed my three comprehensive PhD exams in algebra, analysis, and topology. And then, the most terrible thing happened—my mother died of breast cancer. I was 27 and it was a very, very hard time for me. I thought, “Why do I want to do this anymore? She is not going to be able to see me.” It took me a long time to recover from this loss. My sisters would just tell me, “You have to keep going! “One day, I finally thought, “Well, wherever my mother is, she is going to see me graduate, and she is going to be very proud of me!” So I continued my studies and received a PhD in mathematics from the University of Iowa. Today, I am an associate professor of mathematics at the University of Texas at Arlington. My research is in finite geometries—which is at the intersection of geometry, algebra and combinatorics.
I am married to a wonderful man, who is also a mathematician, and we have two sons. My life is full and rich, and I am very thankful!
My thoughts or advice for the younger generation is to slow down in your studies and learn the basics very well. Nowadays, students want to do everything fast—REALLY fast, and that is not always the best way. It is best to start slow by getting a good foundation of the subject because later you can catch up with the rest. You have to believe that you can do it, and know that it is going to take time and work. The key is time. If you take your time and work hard, you are going to succeed!
Back to Team
I grew up in stressful circumstances. I am one of six children, in a family that was struggling to make ends meet. Additionally, my father was an abusive alcoholic who frequently left us for weeks at a time without money. In spite of the difficulties at home, I still managed to receive straight A’s in all my classes. At home, I was responsible for taking care of my three younger brothers and helping with the household chores.
Instead of being recognized for all my accomplishments, I was labeled a defiant troublemaker and was repeatedly told by the teachers at my schools that I would never amount to anything. Growing up in Tucson, Arizona, among many other American Indians and Mexican Americans, it was hard to find success stories for inspiration that could contradict such disheartening messages. Most of the kids in my neighborhood were never expected to graduate from high school, much less college.
By the age of 13, I felt hopeless: I didn’t believe that my life would ever improve. To make matters worse, my seventh grade teacher decided that my sister and I were impolite, and she reprimanded us in front of the entire seventh and eighth grades. She complained to the principal and a simple misunderstanding resulted in my expulsion from school.
Being humiliated in front of my peers confirmed that life was not worth living. I attempted to take my own life. Lost and scared, I was admitted to a mental hospital. It was a frightening place and none of the other patients were even close to my age. But in counseling, with the help of a wonderful psychologist, I found comfort for the first time.
Through my work with her, I gained clarity about my life, which allowed me to better cope with the difficult realities of my home and family. I felt I could continue to live my life with the knowledge she taught me, especially the insight that the hardships I experienced were not my fault—rather, they were due to my environment. She helped me to understand that my father had a disease that kept him from being a good father and that my mother’s own childhood had prepared her to accept abuse as normal. She had been abused herself and did not know how to protect her children.
My experience in therapy showed me the healing power of psychology, and I decided that I wanted to learn how to help others just as I had been helped. This determination made my experience in the hospital positive and life-affirming instead of pushing me to continue down a destructive path. After returning home, I decided to go back to school and I continued to get straight A’s. Part of my motivation to do well in school was to prove my teachers wrong and show them that I would succeed.
Following high school, I went to the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. My senior English teacher couldn’t resist telling me I would never graduate, but I graduated in 3.5 years with majors in psychology and Japanese. Luckily, my two older sisters were also attending Notre Dame and we provided each other with the support we needed to graduate. It was hard to leave my younger brothers—always taking care of them had made me protective—but I knew that the best thing I could do for all of us was to get the best education I could.
College gave me a newfound confidence. For the first time in my life, I was told I was intelligent. Notre Dame also came as an unexpected culture shock, not because I was one of the few American Indians there, or even because I studied abroad in Japan for a year, but because the other American Indian students seemed just as different from me as I felt from the white students.
Many of the American Indian students at Notre Dame had never been to their reservations. They knew they were part American Indian, but they did not know very much about their cultures. Realizing that not everyone grows up going to ceremonies and hearing their language spoken gave me a stronger appreciation for my own Zuni culture. It was this realization that made me begin to enjoy participating in the ceremonies on the reservation. I had always concentrated on the bad things that happened on the reservation, the alcoholism and the poverty, and I was angry at the U.S. for the reservation’s condition. I wanted to be a warrior and fight the power, just like Malcolm X.
Traveling abroad and learning about the lives of other Indian students helped me reframe my negative experiences. Instead of focusing on the poverty that surrounded me, I realized that I had been surrounded by incredible generosity and love. Every time I left from a visit with my relatives on the reservation, my sisters and I had new jewelry made by one of my aunties and a car full of food for the long drive home.
After graduating from college, I worked as a juvenile probation officer, trying to help kids like me get on a better path. Many of them had never seen a different way of life and thought it was better to join in the chaos of alcohol and drug addiction that surrounded them because they saw no way out. I knew there was one way out–education! I worked hard with the kids to help them understand that life could be different. Most importantly, I constantly rewarded them for making the decision to have a better life by showing up for school and staying sober and out of trouble. I had many successes with young people, but there were kids that I couldn’t reach—the ones that ended up murdered, in prison, or dead by their own hands—and the weight of the loss of these lives became too heavy.
I realized I wanted to do more than try to help once a child was already in trouble. I wanted to understand why some children like me could experience trauma and still succeed and why other children were not able to escape lifestyles of poverty and violence. This idea of success despite adversity began to intrigue me deeply and I considered how to research it further. Many researchers have focused on how providing social support helps kids overcome difficulties, but I wanted to understand the abilities that the children themselves possessed that promoted resilience, to potentially help future disadvantaged children succeed. Luckily, I was given the opportunity to further my education at the University of Kansas through the recommendation of a former professor who had become my mentor, Dr. Sharon O’Brien. Continuing my education and receiving a Ph.D. has granted me further access to helping others.
Currently, I teach at the University of Utah and my work is dedicated to understanding cognitive and social development in relation to how children remember the events and the interactions with others that shape their lives. My Zuni heritage has instilled in me the idea that giving is essential, and now that I have reached a position of influence, it is my responsibility to give back to others.
I take enormous pride in my work because I feel that it reflects who I am. I personally have grown up in the context of adversity and know how hard it is to change your life when it doesn’t seem like very many people support you. When a person is caught going down a self-destructive path, the keys to promoting resiliency are optimism, empathy, and acknowledgement of destructive life factors. It is not an easy task, but through further research we can create a stronger awareness of how to overcome the harmful environmental conditions common in many youths’ lives.
Back to Team
We all experience moments that can change the course of our lives. These catalysts can be collective; changing hundreds or thousands of lives in an instant and others can be intensely personal and significant events that nobody but you will ever understand.
A catalyst in the scientific world means much the same as it does in general terms. It is something that makes something else happen. A catalyst makes a reaction go faster and with less energy and waste product. One of the first uses of catalysts was to make better fuels; heating crude oil over catalysts to make gasoline.
Like most people, my life has been shaped by catalysts and series of events and circumstances that have shaped me into the person I am today. I was born in 1956 in Eau Claire, Wisconsin to a Seneca father and a Caucasian mother. My parents, who are both ministers, strongly believe in the power learning. Both of my grandmothers earned master’s degrees, which was very unusual for the time and so my parents encouraged my brother and I to continue the legacy of education in my family. My parents also devoted their lives to social service. Perhaps it was their involvement in the community that first sparked my interest in politics.
When I was sixteen I spent a quarter in Washington, DC as an aid in a senator’s office, and soon after that I entered my freshman year at George Washington University as a political science major. Ironically, I did not enjoy my political science class at all. I found myself having more fun in my required chemistry class. I had liked chemistry in high school, but never followed through with it. By the end of the semester, my grades in chemistry were much higher than political science, and the chemistry professor encouraged me to continue with my scientific studies. It was my teacher’s support that became the first catalyst in propelling me towards a career in science.
In my sophomore year I pursued more science classes, but I became overwhelmed fairly quickly, especially by a pre-calculus class I was having difficulty with. I began to think I was crazy for pursuing science, that I had never been that great a student and basically that I just couldn’t do it. My lack of self-confidence became so strong that I actually dropped out of school!
When I went back to school the following spring, I returned to my political science major but was required to take a statistics class. The math came so easily that in the end, I didn’t even have to take the final exam because my average was so high. Later in the year I repeated the same pre-calculus class and did very well. Having the self-confidence gained by the statistics class was the catalyst for my success and I went on to graduate with a degree in chemistry.
Despite my degree, I still didn’t think of myself as a “science” person. After working in the education department of the American Chemical Society, I decided that I needed to see whether I could really be a scientist or not. I entered a master’s program in chemical engineering. It was in graduate school at University of Texas, Austin that I found how much I loved research and how much of a scientist I really am.
My fascination with research propelled me to pursue a Ph.D. I continued with my studies at University of Texas where I worked in the field of catalysis, experimenting with catalysts that could make coal, natural gas and bio-mass (like trees, shrubs, hay etc.) into liquid diesel fuels.
After completing my Ph.D. in 1990, I went to work as a research chemist at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico. At Sandia I kept on with my work in catalysis and eventually became the manager of the Chemical and Biological Imaging, Sensing and Analysis Department.
My work at Sandia has provided a way for me to combine my interest in politics with science. The research and funding at Sandia is closely tied to national policy. Having a good understanding of the political process has made navigating my job easier on all levels.
For example, the events of September 11, 2001 were a catalyst for a new wave of research at Sandia. We have been working closely with the Department of Homeland Security on issues of national security including developing new technology to locate weapons of mass destruction and researching methods of combating biological warfare. The added urgency of our work has truly shown me the global effect a single catalyst can have.
The influence of our parents, encouragement from a teacher and even world events, can help shape the direction of our lives. However, throughout my life I have learned that it is believing in yourself that will be the true catalyst for your success. Never give up. You will always find allies and support along the way.
Back to Team
I was born in Far Rockaway, Queens, to hardworking parents: my father was a building superintendent and my mother was a flight attendant. They were both born in Panama but met in New York City. My parents and my two older brothers were always very supportive of my dreams, even though they didn’t always understand why I was constantly studying!
Math was a lifelong friend that made sense to me. From kindergarten to sixth grade, I was a fixture in my elementary school’s computer club. A good student who wasn’t always challenged in school, a social studies teacher nominated me for Prep for Prep, a program that supports promising students of color in New York City schools.
As a result of my time spent in Prep for Prep, I was later admitted on a full scholarship to Milton Academy, a boarding school in Massachusetts. Unlike my time in New York City, I was very aware that I was one of a handful of students of color in the school. Still, I was always proud and happy with my uniqueness. This confidence would be a great asset later on.
After high school I went to Pomona College in Claremont, California, where I commenced party mode! During my freshman year I was suspended after failing two classes and sustaining a whopping 2.0 GPA. Finally, it was time to relearn the value of hard work and discipline. I went to De Anza Junior College in Cupertino, California, where I got serious with my studies. I took on a full-time job at a bagel store that opened at 3 a.m. I would work until noon and then head to class where I took a double full load. For the first time in my life, I got straight As! Community colleges are a terrific way to get an education at an affordable price, if you are motivated to study and work hard.
My experience at the community college was an important boost to my confidence, and I decided to return to my math and music double-major at Pomona College. Unfortunately, the dean was not sure I could handle it. In addition, I was the only person of color and the only woman math major. My mentors advocated for me strongly and I was reaccepted.
That summer was a critical for me. I considered moving to Las Vegas and becoming a lounge singer. My mentor, Erica Flapan, was completely shocked. She recommended I teach summer school math classes at the Center for Talented Youth. If not for her, I might have left the field of mathematics entirely!
Dr. Ami Radunskaya and Dr. Rick Elderkin at Pomona encouraged me to apply to a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program. I was chosen to participate in the Mathematical and Theoretical Biology Institute (MTBI) program.
At last, I was on the right track. It was like a sleepaway camp for nerds where I got paid to study! No more waking up at 3 a.m. to bake bagels. I was now learning the secrets of higher mathematics and loving it. We studied linear algebra, ordinary and partial differential equations, and stochastic processes—all which would one day be put to great use in my research.
I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and attended the Enhancing Diversity in Graduate Education (EDGE) summer program before attending the University of Iowa for my PhD. Studying for a doctorate is the start of a long and arduous path that has many rough spots—where you can easily get discouraged and drop out. But this is true of all the great and difficult things life has to offer. There were many times when I doubted myself and just wanted to quit with my master’s. It would have been so much easier to go home and throw parties for a living. And then, I considered that life.
I realized that I would most likely burn out before I reached middle age, and then what? But you can be a mathematics professor your entire life and get paid to study creative ideas! Becoming a professor is also a great tool for social mobility. My father would say, “Don’t worry about the boys right now, just worry about your education. Whatever you want to do, we will support you!”
Preparation in the EDGE program helped me during my early years in grad school and later when I took and passed my comprehensive exams. This helped me gain a lot of confidence. I thought, “Now all I have to do is write a really long paper to get my PhD!”
And that is exactly what I did. This was an incredible challenge for me. Although I have always enjoyed creative writing, this level of technical writing at this length seemed tedious. At times I had no idea if I could even answer my own questions.
At long last I received a PhD in applied mathematics and computational sciences from the University of Iowa. My dissertation in the field of mathematical epidemiology evaluated and predicted the growth of rotavirus infection at the population level. Today, I still continue with this research. I am also an assistant professor of applied mathematics at Arizona State University where I teach a variety of courses, such as calculus, probability, and proof writing.
In my spare time I train in capoiera (cap-oh-way-rah), a Brazilian martial art that combines self-defense, dancing, music, and acrobatics all in one! It is a great way to develop focus and discipline—all the skills necessary to succeed in mathematics.
Being great in mathematics is like anything else—you need lots of practice. If you think you love math, then stick with it and keep trying. If you ever get discouraged, then try a different type of math or find new people to study math with. Get to know as many people as possible. Look for better mentors. Network and find a good community with as many supportive programs as possible.
Right now there is a shortage of American mathematicians. But there is a great deal of money for people to study in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. Part of the reason I have my PhD is bribery. “Oh, you would pay for me to go to grad school? OK! I’m happy to take your money!” So much of what happened to me was just serendipity. I happened to see this poster. I happened to meet this critical mentor. I happened to have been recommended. But it is our responsibility to make those chances happen.
Back to Team
As a child, I was a collector. I roamed around our ranching community in New Mexico picking up rocks and thinking about how they formed earth. I collected insects in plastic baggies with my sister, putting them in the freezer to study how they survived winter. This endeavor drove my mother crazy. My father loved nature and took me and my four sisters out to watch all varieties of birds.
Mostly, I gathered knowledge, reading books about Marie Curie, Albert Einstein and other famous scientists to get a sense of who they were. There were no scientists in my immediate family, nor any scientists I knew who looked like me or shared my background. My parents valued hard work, my father was very analytical and my mother creative, but they weren’t given opportunities like higher education. We had no money for college and it was part of the culture to encourage young girls to grow up, get married and work with their husbands. I was aware at a very young age how badly the women in my community were struggling economically. They seemed stuck. I was determined that this would not be how my life turned out and that education was the key.
At the age of 18, I worked at an Air Force base and started college at the University of New Mexico (UNM) as an engineering major, but quickly realized it didn’t inspire me. A few biology courses reminded me of my love for living systems and I began working at a veterinary medicine clinic. I did well in my science courses and a professor named Dr. Trujillo invited me to join his lab and apply to graduate schools. Again, my family said I couldn’t leave the state because it would be too difficult financially. They did this out of love and to protect me, I knew, but I was steadily developing my independence and making my own choices.
I stayed at UNM and began graduate work, but about halfway through, I decided it was time to get out of New Mexico and get a postdoc out of state. My PhD mentor was the wonderful Dr. Maggie Werner-Washburne (former SACNAS President and Regents’ Professor Emeritus of Biology) who reminded me to stick with it when I was overwhelmed and told me I had a nose for good questions within biology. I followed my mentor’s advice and I completed my PhD in Biology at UNM. At the end of my PhD program, I got pregnant with my daughter.
Despite my family’s insistence that I stay in the state so that she would grow up around family, I applied for– and was awarded– a three-year National Science Foundation fellowship for a highly competitive postdoc at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Washington. The program was a perfect fit because they offered a fantastic preschool for employees. This helped me choose a prestigious program while caring for my family. In Seattle, I was surrounded by people at the top of their fields and I was pushed in my work to study suspended animation, hypometabolism, and oxygen deprivation.
My daughter’s father lived in Fort Worth, Texas, and it was important to me that she see him often. My mother also would not get on an airplane to visit me in Seattle, so once my postdoc was finished, I looked for a position near New Mexico or Fort Worth that would allow me to start my research lab, teach, and work with underrepresented minority students.
Taking the position at University of North Texas (UNT) has worked well. I have been able to build my research career here and teach a diverse student population. My daughter is thriving in college and my parents have begun to appreciate my decisions. When my students ask about balancing family and a STEM career, I tell them that if you love what you are doing, you prioritize, focus and make tough choices. For instance, I loved science and caring for my daughter, so that meant I went about a decade without seeing a movie! My daughter has sat in on my lectures when her school was closed and come to my lab when I didn’t have someone to watch her. My escape has always been running, so I would reconnect with nature in this way and have an occasional dinner with friends, but the truth is, when you’re raising a child independently and competing at the highest level of your field, you prioritize and make choices.
The important thing to remember with any challenge is that they are short-term. There is an end! Once I earned tenure and reached full professor at UNT, I had time to train and complete six half marathons, take on an administrative position that includes faculty mentoring and I continued to run my research lab. I am happily re-married and even found time to catch up on those movies I missed. I was also able to serve on the SACNAS Board of Directors, which was an amazing opportunity to to help lead the organization that has supported me throughout my education and career for the past 25 years—starting with my first poster presentation as an undergraduate student.
To those future scientists collecting rocks in their backyards and freezing specimens in your mother’s freezer, I say this: do not allow negative voices to dictate your path. Take in the advice you’re given decide what’s true for you, throw away the pieces that will deter you, and ultimately—realize that YOU are responsible for your own choices. YOU chart your own path.
Back to Team
My parents were from Puerto Rico. My father was an army officer surgeon and my mother was an elementary school teacher, and they always encouraged learning. My parents bought me a telescope for my tenth birthday. When the astronauts landed on the moon, I remember running back and forth between the television set and my telescope trying to see if I could catch a glimpse of the men on the moon. When I was in sixth grade my father left the military, and my family moved to Freeport, Illinois, where my father went in to private practice. It was then that I decided I wanted to be a physicist, sparked mainly by reading and the Apollo moon landings. I wanted to know how the universe worked. In ninth grade we moved outside of town, where I had to start a new school, Pearl City High School (PCHS), without any of my previous friends. At PCHS I had a wonderful science teacher, Jerry Heinrich, who loved science and loved to teach it to others. In 1974, Mr. Heinrich taught me to do a small amount of programming on an early computer he had. For me, science was always a large and important part of my life.
Technically, I never graduated from high school. Stemming mainly from my “outgrowing” PCHS, I decided to go to college early. In the fall of 1976, I entered the University of Illinois (UI) as a physics major. It was quite a step going from a high school of 200 students to a major university with 35,000 students. At first I did very poorly, as I felt significantly under-prepared for the challenges of college. In my first semester I earned under a C average. During the second semester I remember a particular calculus test. I had worked through many of the difficult problems at the end of the book, and I felt very prepared for the exam. I received a D, which was an eye-opening experience to me. I knew I wasn’t stupid; I had just studied stupidly. During that semester I finally learned to study wisely. I mastered the concepts rather than very specific problems, and I aced the next calculus test. Also during my first year, I studied very hard to fill in the gaps that were apparent from my lack of preparation. During my third semester at UI, I received straight A’s.
Though I was indisputably a physics major, I had other interests as well. In fact, if I wasn’t a physicist, I think I’d be a historian. During school I worked in the physics department setting up lecture demonstrations, which was a great job for a student. I could study, and I came into contact with many of the professors I wouldn’t have known otherwise. I also wrote articles about physics for the school newspaper as an undergraduate, which helped me immensely later in life. Though it doesn’t seem like it, scientists actually write for a living; so the experience of writing for the newspaper was invaluable. I was even encouraged to go to school and receive a Master’s in journalism. But I’d wanted a Ph.D. in physics since middle school, so I pursued that dream instead.
I received a National Science Foundation minority graduate fellowship to attend graduate school, where I knew I would study space science. I decided to attend Rice University in Houston for graduate school partly because I was tired of the cold winters in Illinois. At Rice, things were different than at UI. The graduate students in space science were a close knit group as opposed to the large department I’d come from. It was very difficult in graduate school, and all of us in the program had to become more serious and focused. I even thought about dropping out after the first year due to isolation from the other things that I loved, such as literature, history, art and philosophy, which I was used to being a part of at UI. However, I persevered; and in 1986 I received my Ph.D. in Space Physics.
Fresh out of graduate school, I began doing pure research in space physics at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab (APL). I left APL because I wanted to put more effort into educational projects, which I did at the University of Maryland at College Park (UMCP). When I was 34, I became the Director of Education for the American Physical Society (APS); and for five years I ran all of the education programs for APS while still working half time at UMCP. However, after five years doing both jobs, I’d had enough. I wanted a faculty position. In 1999, I obtained a position at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). I was appointed C. Sharp Cook Distinguished Professor of Physics and Chair of the Department of Physics at UTEP.
Back to Team
I was born in Guam, a small tropical island in the Pacific Ocean. The Chamorro people migrated to Guam some 1500 years ago. Fast forward about one millennium, the island was claimed a colony of Spain by the (in)famous explorer Ferdinand Magellan. For nearly 500 years, the people were indoctrinated by the Spanish Jesuit priests and their “missionaries,” who brought with them a host of diseases like small pox and influenza. These diseases, along with the islanders attempt to return to their former ways of life, wiped out nearly 95% of the island’s inhabitants. The conquerors saw the need to restock the population, and this brought an end to the pure Chamorro bloodline. After the Spanish-American war, in the Treaty of Paris, Guam was ceded to the United States along with island nations like the Philippines, Cuba and Puerto Rico. We islanders still identify ourselves as Chamorros. In our culture, we place a high value on family.
Growing up financially unstable, I saw the importance of to reaching the point where I could take care of my family, and I knew that education was the key to having that privilege. I was probably six years old, flipping through the pages of an old dictionary, when I came across a small section about the different degrees in education, “Ph.D.: one of the highest academic degrees.” It was then when I started to dream of that different life.
I knew I had to leave my little island in order to get my degree. Throughout my schooling, I was serious about reaching my goal, so I allowed myself to be who I was and not try to fit in with the others. At the time, our schools had limited and outdated materials and equipment, but our teachers were dedicated, encouraging and supportive. They often said to me, ”Go to the best college you can, do the best that you can, and go as far as you can go.”
The idea that family comes first also had an effect on where I ended up going to college. Although I received a full scholarship to the University of Portland, my parents wanted me to be near my brother, who went to school in Los Angeles. My entire family (six of us!) flew to California and we marched into the admissions office at Loyola Marymount University (LMU) with my unofficial high school transcript. My mom met with the dean of admissions and showed him my records and asked if they would accept me. To my surprise, he said yes! Though it wasn’t my first choice, I was happy to stay close to my family. I realized that having done well in school opened up these doors of opportunity. Looking back, I would have done it the same way all over again, as embarrassing as it was!
Although LA is huge, the campus at LMU was comfortably sized, so I didn’t feel overwhelmed. I started my studies as a pre-med chemistry major. I quickly learned that even though I won an island-wide competition with my high school chemistry project, chemistry wasn’t for me. However, I really enjoyed my calculus class and did well enough that my professor, the late and great Dr. Mike Cullen, suggested I major in math. Later in my undergraduate career, Dr. Herbert Medina took me under his wing and became my mentor. He informed me of programs I could do to advance my career as a mathematician and invited me to work on some undergraduate research questions with him. He opened doors I never knew existed.
In the end, I received two national graduate fellowships to attend graduate school in mathematics, one from the National Science Foundation and one from the National Physical Sciences Consortium sponsored by the National Security Agency.
So, I went on to graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley, and although I made the cut with only 30 others, I was at a huge disadvantage from the very start. It was an extremely competitive environment, and the professors seemed interested only in the crème de la crème. Most everyone else came from universities like Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Cambridge. In fact, I needed to take extra undergraduate classes just to get up to speed. I felt very isolated and these early experiences made me realize that I should have chosen a graduate program that fits me. At the time, it seemed my first choice should be the best schools, but while I was there, I saw many who started out on a similar difficult path, got frustrated with life and ended up throwing in the proverbial towel altogether. I could have easily been one of them.
During a period of exams, my father passed away. It was a very difficult time, and so I left school for a while. After this necessary break, I went back and finished the master’s program at Berkeley. Then one of the rare congenial math professors at Berkeley, Dr. Bernd Sturmfels, pointed me toward New Mexico State University to go for my Ph.D.
The minute I was in that beautiful desert, I knew it was where I belonged. Although Las Cruces has a very different climate from tropical Guam, the population is largely Latino. It’s a huge support to feel like you belong to a community. The math department became my second home. Whatever I needed, large or small, the professors were there for me: trips to mathematics conferences all over the country and sometimes abroad, summer employment, materials and equipment. I finally finished my degree in August 2004.
Now I am an assistant professor in mathematics at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas. I teach classes every day and work on research projects with students and on my own. With a family of my own and the care of my mentally disabled sister, I work hard everyday to balance my personal life and my career. At the moment, I am working on developing a summer research program at the University of Hawaii at Hilo. It will be the first such program in mathematics in the Pacific Islands. I hope to start bridging the gap between the Pacific Islands and the continental United States, both culturally and mathematically. Undergraduates will be able to work on current mathematical research topics, which I hope will influence them to pursue a career in mathematics. One of my career goals is to increase opportunities so more minorities seek higher math degrees. I am the first Chamorro woman to receive a Ph.D. in mathematics, but I do not want to be the last!
Being a professor is a demanding job, but the rewards are worth every effort. I am in a highly visible career, where many students of color and women alike see in me that they too can achieve their dreams in the sciences and mathematics. I am a mentor, advisor and a source of support and encouragement to my students. If you love science or mathematics, don’t give up and don’t give in. Don’t give up your natural talents for anybody else and don’t give in to anyone or anything that tells you, “College is not for you. A master’s degree is not for you. A Ph.D. is not for you. ”
What can you do with your math degree? Mathematics will open so many doors of opportunity. It trains you to ask the right questions and gives you the power to find the right answers. This is an important skill in every career and in every science! Start out on the right foot now by getting to know your teachers, and appreciate all that they do. As I reflect on my experiences, I realize it was really their feet that kept those doors open for me all along.
Back to Team
My father is from Mexico and my mother is second generation Mexican-American. I have two older brothers and one older sister. Although I was born in the United States, I lived in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico until I was fifteen years old, and then I moved to El Paso, Texas to attend high school and college. My father worked in a very small town in Mexico near the border and was very proud of being Mexican. In fact, he never spoke English. He wanted me to grow up Mexican since all his other children were raised and educated in the U.S. For this reason, I attended school in Mexico until the 9th grade. I believe this was the most important development in my life, since I learned to appreciate my Mexican heritage.
I had a very tough time trying to adjust to the American educational system, because I did not speak English at all. Taking on this challenge, I was able to survive well enough to graduate with senior honors in English (I am proudest of this achievement), political science and history. Most of the difficulties I had in school had to do with the language barrier, since I was initially embarrassed to speak English due to my accent. I still feel more comfortable speaking Spanish than English.
I believe that people have underestimated my abilities throughout my life because I am Mexican-American. This continues unchanged and is a constant motivating force for me which I have learned to use to my advantage. There is a saying in Spanish, ”No hay mal que por bien no venga.” Loosely translated, this means that there is always something good that comes out of something we perceive as bad. I think of this saying whenever I think I have been wronged or something bad happens. This helps me see the good things that can come out of a bad situation.
When I was in high school, I was generally bored. I was a difficult student, always joking around and fighting. Teachers were annoyed with me but they couldn’t kick me out because, to their surprise, I did well in class. I believe school was too easy for me and that I was not challenged enough. The only classes I cared about were history and biology, and I hated mathematics. Although I never particularly liked it, I did learn to appreciate mathematics in college. Although I enjoyed my biology courses, I did not want to be a doctor like everyone else. My mentor at University of Texas, El Paso, Dr. Eppie Rael, was instrumental in showing me what research was all about when I was a sophomore in college. I liked research so much that I never stopped and after twenty years, I still enjoy working in the lab.
I am a full professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Texas, El Paso. I think of myself as a research scientist first and teacher second. As a scientist, I perform ”cutting edge” research, and train graduate and post-graduate students. I also teach undergraduate classes such as ”Introduction to Molecular and Cell Biology” and ”Advanced Immunology.” I would like to continue working in the area of molecular biology and immunology until I retire.
My advice to you is to find something you are really good at. This is probably an area that you pay more attention to because you like it so much. Never give up, especially if others do not think you can make it. I have never given up because I always knew I was better than others thought I was. In the end, all that really matters is that you believe in yourself.
Back to Team
I was born in Los Angeles, California and I have a twin brother, two younger sisters, and one younger brother. I inherited a Native American face and straight black hair, which makes me wonder where my roots lie. My mother believes we may have ancestral ties to the Tarahumara Indians in Chihuahua. I learned from my mother and father, who are both from Mexico, many important things – good work habits, belief in yourself, pride in who you are, respect for others, and sensitivity to their needs. My mother taught me that you can do anything that you want; you just have to stay determined and not give up. There was nothing that was going to prevent my mother from achieving her goal once she set her mind to it.
When I was in school, I was always a good student, despite the problems which existed in the community. Our difficulties were similar to what youth face today. Many of my friends got involved in drugs or dropped out of school. Often, the counselors at school had low expectations for us, and did not give us advice on how to obtain the best possible education. However, from the first grade on, my brother and I did very well in math. When we wanted to, we could do well in other courses too. I think my love for mathematics may have come from the Mayas, one of the first civilizations to deeply understand mathematics and astronomy.
When we were in junior high and high school, my twin brother and I had one very strong outside interest. We were very mechanically inclined, and built cars for racing. We discovered our talents one day when my family’s car wouldn’t start. My brother and I took it apart and fixed it. After that time, we worked for free at different auto body shops and garages, learning as much as we could about cars. When we were fifteen, we built a 1932 Ford street roadster and raced it at local drag strips. We soon held many local records. In 1968 we set a world record for elapsed time for fuel dragsters!
Before going to a four-year college, in high school I was never told that a four-year college was an option so I attended Harbor Junior College in Wilmington, California. At junior college, my mathematical talents were noticed, and I was encouraged to apply to the University of California, Los Angeles. After earning my degree in mathematics at UCLA, I designed ships for a year at Todd Shipyards. Then I went on to graduate school. During this time my wife and I did not have a lot of money, for the first few years I supported myself. Eventually, because I was doing well, I did receive support from the department of mathematics and the Office of Naval Research.
I had planned to work for industry after completing my doctorate, but many of my professors felt that I would make a good researcher and teacher; so I decided to pursue a university career. After my postdoctoral fellowship in applied math at the University of Wisconsin, I accepted a position at Rice University in Houston, Texas. I chose Rice because of its excellent mathematics programs, and Houston because of its excellent racial diversity. Today, I am Noah Harding Professor of Computational and Applied Mathematics. Some of my job duties include teaching mathematics and science to college students, writing books, doing research, and working with the community. When I made my career choice, I knew I wanted to reach out to underrepresented groups, especially Hispanics. I wanted to show minority students that if they really want to do something, they can. I believe I can improve minorities’ participation in science and mathematics. However, in order to do this, I have to serve as a role model by first being an excellent scientist. In 1992, I was elected to the prestigious National Academy of Engineering, the first native-born Hispanic ever to receive this recognition. In 1996, President Clinton appointed me to serve on the National Science Board, and in 1996 I won a Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics, Science, and Engineering Mentoring, and in 1998, I won the American Association for the Advancement of Science Mentor-Lifetime Achievement Award. I want to tell minority students that they must not close their eyes to the possibility of a career in science or mathematics. If we do, we will never be able to influence the future of this country. By the way, my love for cars is still alive and well, and is shared by my family. We own and show two 1957 Chevys and a 1970 Chevelle SS with a 1996 Corvette LT4 engine. Recently, the Chevelle won every show in which it was entered. It is truly a beautiful car!
Back to Team
Though I was raised far from the lands of my maternal grandfather’s people, I have always taken pride in my Lakota heritage. I grew up in the farming community of Sheldon, Illinois, with two sisters and a brother who are all younger than I; and to this day I prefer not to live in large cities. As a professor at the University of Michigan and yet a resident of a rural area fifteen miles from campus, I have been happy that my career choice has allowed me to steer clear of living in a big city.When I was an undergraduate at the University of Illinois, my cultural background was such an oddity that people were more curious about it than anything else. I do know that it affected my worldview quite a lot. For example, I dislike the Native American sports mascot at Illinois, Chief Illiniwek, which led to some uncomfortable encounters. Also, I was raised to have particular values that were not always appreciated by others. I learned to respect elders, understanding that they can reveal wisdom to you. Thus, I interacted with my professors differently than did many of my peers. I was not familiar with the style of learning that was more interactive, where you had to speak up and let the professor know that you had the answers. In many cultures people are not taught to stand out from the crowd and strive to make themselves noticed; so at times teachers may think quiet students are not learning or that they are not interested. However, just because you are quiet and perhaps do not always raise your hand in class, it does not necessarily mean that you are not a good student.
I changed fields several times during my journey from my Bachelor of Science degree to my doctorate. Though my first degree was in physics, after graduation I took a job in computer programming. While working as a programmer, I learned that my real interest was in mathematics and the teaching of it to others. Since a doctorate in the subject seemed to be the way to do that, I entered graduate school at the University of Illinois in 1977. I received a master’s in statistics and a doctorate in mathematics over the next six years. What do I study in mathematics? Spaces.
You live in a world that has four dimensions, because you can move forward-backwards, sideways, and up and down. Those are the three space dimensions. But don’t forget the other dimension, time. As a mathematician, my main mathematical focus is functional analysis, a branch of mathematics concerned with spaces having infinite dimensions! This is a difficult concept to consider, but mathematicians have developed tools to tame infinity. I have also recently published a graduate level textbook entitled An Introduction to Banach Space Theory. Banach spaces include the space that you live in as well as spaces of infinite dimension.
I am seriously concerned with the problem of extreme under representation of minorities in mathematics. To help remedy this, I spend my summers working directly with Native American middle and high school students on the Turtle Mountain Chippewa (Ojibwa) reservation in North Dakota. My responsibilities to them are to further their interest in mathematics and to help them understand the importance and cultural relevance of mathematics. For instance, in the Ojibwa language there is a wonderful way to attach suffixes to counting words to indicate not just the number of items being counted, but also something about the nature of the objects being counted. As an example, rather than referring just to two blueberries, an Ojibwa speaker could talk about niizho-minag miinan, two three-dimensional organic blueberries, where the fact that the two (niizho) blueberries (miinan) are three-dimensional and organic is implied by the suffix minag. The fact that these distinctions are important when counting in the Ojibwa language conveys vital information about the traditional values of Ojibwa culture. This helps the students understand more about their own culture and the place of mathematics within it.
Students should know that learning is not just the road to a better job: it can also be fun. When taking mathematics courses (and I encourage you to take as much mathematics as you can), you should ask your teachers to tell you interesting things about the material and its history, since this really is exciting stuff.
As a final piece of advice, don’t ever let anyone tell you that you can’t succeed, or that you will at most be second-rate. I have had that happen to me, and I firmly believe that hard work and determination will pay off in the end bigger than anyone could ever imagine.
Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science
Fellow of the American Mathematical Society (Inaugural Cohort)
Deputy Director, Mathematical Sciences Research Institute, Berkeley (2002-04)
Selected for inclusion in the book “100 Native Americans Who Shaped American History”, by Bonnie Juettner, Bluewood Books, long featured in the bookstore section of the National Museum of the American Indian
Updated April 3, 2018
Back to Team
Like many Native nations, the Potawatomi people were removed from their ancestral lands. Even after they were relocated in Oklahoma, the disruption of the relationship between people and their place continued, as children were sent away to boarding school. My grandfather and great uncle were taken from the Potawatomi reservation in Oklahoma and sent to the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. My uncle ran away from the school and made it back to Oklahoma, but the rest of my family became permanently rooted on the east coast.
I was born in 1953 in Schenectady New York. Having both Potawatomi and Caucasian heritage, I grew up feeling like there were two worlds. I was familiar with the native world and mainstream society, but I didn’t feel like I belonged in either one of them. One place I truly felt comfortable was outdoors. Although my family was removed from the, tribal lands they instilled in me a deep respect and love for the land of the northeast, especially the Adirondack Mountains. I grew up with a lot of knowledge about plants and the woods, and a deep sense of being rooted to the earth.
It was this love of the land that made me know from a very young age that I wanted to work with plants, but I didn’t know that such a profession existed. As a little girl I believed I had to be a nurse or a teacher because I thought those were the only jobs a woman could have! But when I was in sixth grade, my parents bought me a book on swamps written by an ecologist. I thought, “Oh my gosh! There is a career where you get to stomp around in swamps? That is what I want to do!”
With the goal of becoming an ecologist firmly in place, I attended the State University of New York, College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse (SUNY), where I majored in forest botany and minored in forest entomology. However, while I knew I wanted to be an ecologist, I had some negative stereotypes about scientists as hermits who never left their labs! I also thought it meant you had to be good at mathematics, which has been a life long struggle for me. The kind of science I wanted to do was outdoors, in communities.
My worst fears about laboratory science came true when, after college, I worked as a microbiologist for a pharmaceutical company. I found the work very isolating and repetitive, and it was this experience that propelled me into graduate school. I attended the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where I earned my Ph.D. in Botany in 1983. After a few years of teaching at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, I became a professor at SUNY, the same college I attended as an undergraduate.
As a professor at the SUNY, I am working with members of the nearby Onondaga Nation (who are part of the Iroquois Confederacy) to restore communities of native plants, including black ash trees, sweetgrass and medicine plants on native lands. I know from personal experience how changes in landscape and place can affect families for generations. I have learned that sense of place is as vital to humans as it is to plants and animals. In scientific terms, you might think of this sense of place as a niche in the eco-system, or the way a community of plants and animals interact with their environment.
Although the Onondaga haven’t been dislocated from their traditional homelands like my Potawatomi family, they are losing parts of their eco-system that are essential to their history and culture. Sweetgrass and the black ash trees have long been used in Iroquois basketry. Due to changing environmental factors the numbers of black ash and sweet grass are greatly declining. This change in the natural landscape of the Onondaga Nation could potentially affect the way future generations experience their culture.
It is this work with the Onondaga and the restoration of native plants that has made me see my greatest obstacle turned out to be my greatest gift. The uneasy sense of being split between two worlds that I felt so often as a young woman has become the catalyst for working with the Native American and scientific communities. I realized that there was an immense amount of knowledge about the earth in both the scientific and indigenous communities, but neither side was communicating with each other. I saw that if you wanted to combine the strengths of both science and traditional ecological knowledge, you needed somebody who could cross that gulf. I think my work is to try and be a bridge of communication between these two worlds.
In my life I often felt out of place, but through my work and relationship to land I learned how to make a place for myself. In a sense, I found my own niche in the eco-system. It is my hope that through using both science and traditional knowledge in ecological restoration the contributions of Native American culture can be understood as a respected partner with science and people can learn to appreciate all forms of knowledge.
Back to Team
When I was young, my father bought me a toy microscope. I used it all the time. I collected objects to observe and made up experiments. When we studied frogs in high school, I would turn in extra projects I did on tadpoles I had studied at home. But my science teachers weren’t impressed. I was usually bored in classes, and I even got a D in biology.
My mother, who was from the Narragansett nation of Rhode Island, had advice that helped through the boredom of school and the apathy of my teachers. She always told me, “There’s time and then there’s Indian time. Make sure you get done what needs to be done, and you do it well. But don’t let a clock dictate what you’re doing.”
From what she said, I eventually realized that it is okay to learn at my own pace and to remember there’s nothing I can’t do. I learned this for myself after a rough start in school. We moved around a lot when I was growing up, and lived in six towns in five states by the time I graduated high school. We were poor and had to move as my father got new industrial construction jobs. He emigrated from Ireland without a high school education, so he didn’t have many opportunities. My mother also had a limited education, but my parents both knew college would make a difference in my life. However, most of my friends just thought school was something you had to do until you finished. I am a first generation college student, but not necessarily because I wanted to be!
After high school, my parents said I should go to college and that they would help me find a job to pay for it, or I could live at home and go to work. In Baskin Ridge, New Jersey, where I lived, a high school education meant a job at the gas station or 7–11.
I chose college because I thought it was one big party—I didn’t know college also meant work. It was an awful surprise! I called my parents all the time begging them to let me please come home. But they told me if I wanted a better life I had to get through college; I had to at least try. I majored in premed biology because I thought I wanted to be a doctor since they make a lot of money. But you had to attend class to be a doctor, and I didn’t really want to do that.
I eventually graduated from the College of New Jersey with a 2.9 GPA. I was happy to be done, and I got a job at the health department. One of my duties was running the scientific instruments, and I came to really enjoy it. A coworker told me, Why don’t you go back to graduate school and do what you want to do? But first I had to figure out what that was.
Within the year, I applied to graduate programs in geology, remembering how I enjoyed finding dinosaur bones with my mom when I was little. Although I had low grades, my future advisor at the University of New York, Buffalo recognized my intent to learn. As I continued, eventually I found a match for my interests—geochemistry.
After getting my Ph.D. at the University of Rochester, I thought I had finally finished with school. I just wanted a regular teaching job. But my advisor insisted I apply for a postdoctoral scholarship at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. He explained that it would help me go farther in my career, knowing the experience would mean working with scientists in other disciplines. He was right, and now I can help students by connecting them with well-respected professionals in their fields.
Being able to make a difference is important to me. Here at Arkansas State University, I started the summer Research Internships in Science of the Environment (RISE) program, so undergraduate students can get hands-on research experience. Besides undergraduates, we also bring in underrepresented minority high school students from across the country. These are students like me, interested in science, who maybe were told either directly or between the lines that they weren’t good at anything and weren’t going anywhere. They really bring unique insights to the design of their projects, inspiring my own research.
Science cannot grow without diverse perspectives. But it took a long time for me to understand this and to trust my own capabilities. This couldn’t have happened without the help of mentors who saw my potential and gave me a leg up when I needed it. Thanks to them, I went beyond even my own expectations. Now part of my job is showing students how important their contributions are to science. When I started my geochemistry research laboratory, I asked them to come up with the name. They decided on “Water-Rock-Life” (WRL), which summed up our research and gave us a unique name. My favorite aspect of running a lab is working with students, introducing them to the excitement of discovery, to help them realize that they are very capable people who can do anything they really want to do.
Back to Team
I was born in a rural agricultural community called La Masita in the state of Zacatecas, Mexico, to a Mexican American father, Sr. José Bañuelos, and a Mexican mother, Sra. Rosalva Bañuelos. As a child I had no formal education, working—like most kids in that region of Mexico at that time—primarily in farming. We had no running water, no electricity, and no telephone service. In retrospect, life in La Masita was primitive and hard, but I did not know it at the time. My childhood memories are those of a campesino community, whose members were always there to help each other.
At the age of 15—along with my mother, grandmother, five brothers, and one sister—I moved to Pasadena, California. My father, born in the city of Superior, Arizona, had lived in the US essentially all his life, commuting from Pasadena to La Masita once or twice a year. He worked as a cook at various restaurants in the Los Angeles area. He was very proud of his Mexican American heritage and was an incredibly hardworking individual with an amazing sense of optimism who believed that through hard work, anything can be achieved. After we moved to the US, my mother worked for minimum wage at various factories and in the serving line at a popular cafeteria in Pasadena—the Pasadena Cafeteria. While not having had any formal schooling, both my parents valued education greatly. Indeed, my mother always blamed every “bad” thing that happened to our family on our lack of education. We were poor, we were sick, people mistreated us or took advantage of us, etcetera—and all because of a lack of an education. “Eso nos pasa por falta de educación,” she would often say. As a young person I did not always understand, nor fully appreciate, the depth of this statement.
I cannot say that I was the smartest or the hardest working member of my family. I believe such distinctions belonged to my oldest brother, Javier, who passed away at age 45 from mesothelioma caused by exposure to asbestos. However, because of opportunities that others did not have, I was the first in the family to attend and graduate from college. In fact, I was even the first to attend and graduate from high school! For this, I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to Juan Francisco Lara whom I met in 1973 while working at the Arroyo–California Car Wash in Pasadena, located at the corner of California Boulevard and Arroyo Parkway. Juan was then a PhD student at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) with a part-time job teaching Chicano Studies at Pasadena City College. He would regularly drive from West Los Angeles to Pasadena. The Pasadena Freeway (210 Freeway), coming from downtown LA, empties onto Arroyo, becoming the Arroyo Parkway. Juan then would drive on Arroyo, make a right turn onto California Boulevard, a left at Hill Avenue (with the prestigious California Institute of Technology at the corner of California and Hill) and just after a short five-minute drive on Hill (and just before Colorado Boulevard, home of the Tournament of Roses Parade), he would arrive at Pasadena City College.
From time to time, Juan would stop at the Arroyo–California Car Wash to clean his car. My job at the car wash was to clean and shine those great chrome bumpers (front and back), that cars used to have in the ’60s and ’70s, as the cars roll on the belt on their way out of the wash. While younger than many of the older Latino (Mexican) men who had worked at the car wash for many years, I was no different from the other young Latinos and few African Americans who worked there. But for some reason, Juan took the time to talk to me and to encourage me to enroll in his course on Chicano Studies at Pasadena City College, which I eventually did. In addition, I enrolled in an elementary (about 8th-grade level) mathematics course and in a beginning English course. After a full year and two summers at Pasadena City College, with the help of Juan Lara and this time also with the help of Ruben Ruvalcaba, who was the director of the Equal Opportunity Program (EOP) at University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC), I transferred to Santa Cruz. Earlier I had applied to, and was rejected from, several other campus of the University of California (UC) System, including UC Los Angeles (UCLA).
During my first year at UC Santa Cruz, I was extremely fortunate to meet two of the founding members of SACNAS, professors Eugene Cota-Robles and Frank Talamantes. From these two individuals, I and many other of my fellow UC Santa Cruz students, received tremendous support and encouragement. These two, like Lara and others, exemplify at its very best, Cesar Chavez’s statement that “We cannot seek achievement for ourselves and forget about progress and prosperity for our community. Our ambitions must be broad enough to include the aspirations and needs of others, for their sakes and for our own.” I would certainly not be where I am today if I had not encountered these remarkable people on my very winding path to my present career.
During my time at UC Santa Cruz I was encouraged to study mathematics by several people, perhaps none more than professor Anthony Tromba. Professors Tromba and Edward Landesman were the first non-Latino teachers/academics who believed that I had the potential to earn a college degree. I owe them a great debt of gratitude.
I received a Bachelor’s degree from UC Santa Cruz in 1978 and a PhD from UCLA in 1984, both in mathematics. I also received a Master’s degree in mathematics education from UC Davis in 1980. After my PhD, I was a postdoctoral fellow in mathematics at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). Sitting in my office in the Sloan Mathematics Building and walking around the Caltech campus—only a few blocks from the Arroyo-California Car Wash, the Pasadena City College, and my parents’ house—was surreal for me for many months after my arrival there in September 1984. In 1986, I received a National Science Foundation (NSF) Postdoctoral Fellowship to go to the University of Illinois at Urbana to continue my research on probability and its applications to analysis with professor Donald Burkholder—one of the towering figures on this subject and a tremendously kind and generous person whose mentorship has been invaluable to me for many years. I moved to Purdue University in 1987 as an assistant professor, was promoted to tenured associate professor in 1989, and to full professor in 1992 (five years after my arrival and 8 years after my PhD). At Purdue University I have played many leadership roles, including serving a four-year term as Head of the Department of Mathematics. I have given hundreds of invited lectures at conferences and universities in many countries around the world. My research has been continuously funded by the NSF and in 1989 I received the Presidential Young Investigator Award from the NSF. For years, I have been involved with many efforts, both local and national, to increase the number of minority students in sciences and engineering. In 2004, I was deeply honored to be the second recipient of the Blackwell-Tapia Prize in Mathematics. This prize, which honors professors David Blackwell and Richard A. Tapia, is presented every two years to a mathematical scientist who has contributed significantly to his or her field of expertise and who has served as a role model for mathematical scientists and students from underrepresented minority groups or has contributed in other significant ways to addressing the problem of the underrepresentation of minorities in mathematics. The Blackwell-Tapia Conference and Prize presentation took place at the Institute for Pure and Applied Mathematics at UCLA, the same institution where I received my PhD and where I was rejected as an undergraduate. It really is true: if at first you don’t succeed, try again, and again, and again, …
My wife Rosa and I live in West Lafayette, Indiana. We have two daughters. Nidia, a graduate of Stanford University, is currently a graduate student at the University of Chicago. Carisa, a graduate of the Purdue University Krannert School of Management lives and works in Denver, Colorado, the beautiful mile high city. I am extremely fortunate to have a job which provides the opportunity to encourage others to pursue their dreams through education, where I interact with people from all over the world, which is fun and challenging, and that provides the financial support to live comfortably. But there is not a single day when I don’t contemplate, at least for a moment or two, the “what if…Lara hadn’t been there….” Where would I, my daughters and other members of my family whose lives have been so greatly impacted by the educational opportunities we have had, be today?
Back to Team
“Education is your most powerful weapon,” said Chief Plenty Coups, one of the last Crow Indian war chiefs. “With it, you’re the white man’s equal. Without it, you become his victim.” Chief Plenty Coups led our tribe before the United States settled the West, and continued to lead it into the transition of living on a reservation.
I am a full blood member of the Crow tribe of south-central Montana. Growing up, I was immersed in tribal culture and conduct, and spoke the Crow language before learning English. American culture was somewhat foreign to me. We have extended families in our tribal communities, where aunts are respected as mothers, and cousins are like brothers and sisters. Grandmothers would tell us the history of our people and how we survived the wars and smallpox epidemics. We embrace our identity as survivors and the host people of this great country.
Chief Plenty Coups’ words were important in my family. On my mother’s side there are generations of teaching experience. My grandmother was the first Crow Indian to get a four-year degree in teaching and my mom was a principal, administrator, and teacher for over thirty years. My father taught high school and was also a tribal leader, so I was exposed to community issues at tribal, state and national levels. As he encouraged his children to go to college, my father also ingrained in us the understanding that there would come a time when the tribe would call upon us and our specific skills, and we were obligated to come back to help. I wanted to help by becoming either a scientist or physician. Knowing it would take extra effort, I worked hard in all my science and math classes. Also, my junior year in high school, I was part of a summer internship program for native youth at Montana State University (MSU). It was very competitive, and provided exposure to university research projects, which I later came to understand as being an integral part of a career in the sciences.
I had a summer job at a coal mine when I was just out of high school. We have one large mine on the reservation, and others close by. Working with geoscientists, I was intrigued by their expertise in mapping coals and directing mining operations. I was very interested in their ability to predict where the coals were underground. When I learned that I could identify hidden deposits of oil and gas, even gold or silver or diamonds, I knew what I wanted to study.
Only a few of my peers went on to finish their college education. Coming from an Indian school system, we’re not always prepared for college, where being Native American, you are truly in the minority. Although racial discrimination was not unusual at border towns along the reservation, I determined within myself to keep an open mind, and made a commitment within myself to look for the best in people. I used my experience to learn about others, and recognized that we are all part of the human tribe. I found a new and unfamiliar culture at Montana State University. People interacted differently, and I was one of the few on campus who spoke Crow. Although there were other Native Americans there, the university population is so large, I hardly saw them during the course of the day. That shock alone prevents many from continuing an education. Often the struggle is not about how smart you are, but how well you can cope with that change, and having persistence.
In our culture, early marriage is a traditional custom. I thought I had a hard time, and then I saw Indian women with one or two kids, often single mothers, working and going to school, and successfully finishing! As I admired and respected them, it helped me to keep in mind that many times people are facing even larger obstacles than me and still get through school. It’s difficult, but people do make it.
I started college dreaming only of a bachelor’s degree in geology. But by senior year, I realized that if I started working, my salary would not be what I was hoping for. I decided to get a master’s degree at Colorado School of Mines. I didn’t even think about a Ph.D. That’s the way dreams are. I learned to take one step at a time—each step will lead to the next. Eventually I found myself saying, “Well, there are very few Natives with a Ph.D., why don’t you be the one who breaks the trail?”
My Ph.D. program at Colorado School of Mines required steel discipline. I worked full time in the oil industry and then came home to work on my dissertation. After staying up late, I woke up each morning to another long day. I also had two children by then. What kept me going was my ability to dream, and having enough passion, determination, and faith to chase my dreams.
In 2001 I was called home, as my father predicted. I developed Arrow Creek Resources, to provide geoscience expertise to the Crow and other tribes. During my time with Arrow Creek Resources, I helped tribes understand the value of their natural resources, and the steps for making informed decisions when dealing with outside companies.
Then I moved to Houston, far from the reservation, to rejoin the petroleum industry with a large company. I did get homesick, but that is the price to be successful as a geoscientist. From day one, my wife and I taught our children how to speak Crow, so we have always had our own tribal community at home. It was wonderful to live in a big city, learning about new groups of people and cultural practices. I just loved the rainbow of cultures in Houston.
In 2006 I accepted a position with another petroleum company that has allowed me to move back to Montana while continuing to work on projects throughout the U.S. I also serve part-time as an adjunct professor in the Department of Earth Sciences at Montana State University-Bozeman, where among other things I am also very involved in Native support services. We need more young people to break trails and become champions in their industry. Becoming a geoscientist positioned me to be able to contribute significantly to the tribes. Whether it’s the science, medical or computer industry, you’ll make the biggest impact by becoming a champion in your particular field, so you can answer the call of your people when it comes.
Back to Team
When I was in graduate school at the University of Washington (UW), I studied organisms called bryozoans, which are often called “moss animals” because they are usually mistaken for seaweed and plants. Bryozoans thrive in both fresh and saltwater environments. One species even produces a chemical compound that is being used in cancer research. Bryozoans are actually made up of millions of tiny individuals called zooids that work together to create the organism. Each of the zooids has a specific function: defense, eating, reproduction, to name a few. Because they each do only one job, zooids cannot exist independently. I especially like the idea that bryozoans are absolutely connected to each other and that their survival is dependent on mutual work and support. Like bryozoans, I feel that I am made up of more than just myself. My parents and sisters are a profound part of who I am, and the love and support of my family has helped me get to where I am today.
Although neither of my parents completed college, they always emphasized the importance of education. My dad, who is Navajo, started college but soon got drafted into the Vietnam War. My mom is from a traditional Mexican family and she was never expected to go to college. One of her high school teachers noticed her potential, convinced her that she should go to college, and helped her get a scholarship. However, after my mom and dad got married and had me and my two younger sisters, finishing college became virtually impossible for her.
My parents took it upon themselves to get me into college. I was born in 1968 and grew up in Española, New Mexico, a town filled with Pueblo Indians, Hispanics, and Anglos. Even though Española is a diverse town, Native Americans were always treated a little differently. We weren’t expected to do as much because we were Indian, and as a result, many Indians in the area didn’t finish school. Without realizing it, I began to see myself the way others saw me. When my mother saw that I was probably going to stay home after high school, she encouraged me to attend Northern New Mexico Community College. My father was also instrumental in my education. He works at Los Alamos National Labs, which has a program that helps the children of employees to go to a University of California school. With my parent’s encouragement, I decided to pursue a life long interest in the sciences, and chose to study marine biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC) where I graduated with a B.S. degree in 1992.
The transition from a community college to a four-year university was very challenging. Going from a school of 500 to a university of 10,000 students was quite a shock! When I first got to UCSC I began to doubt my abilities as a student. I would sit and listen to other students talk about the advanced classes they had taken in high school and experiences that they had with research and travel and I would think, “How am I going to get through this class?” It took me a while to realize that I was just as smart as they were. Furthermore, I had a lot of encounters with people who didn’t know what to make of a Native American scientist. When people found out that I was Navajo, they would romanticize what it was like to be Native American. Other experiences were more extreme. For example, some of the teaching assistants would even ask if I could understand English! While all of these situations were a shock to my system, they made me a stronger person in that I had to find my own identity outside all the stereotypes and preconceptions that people had of me.
My strong love of science, and the support of my family and my mentors (Dr. Clifton Poodry from UCSC, and Dr. Richard Strathmann, the associate director of Friday Harbor Labs, where I did my graduate research) kept me going through all of the difficult transitions, and helped me to attain a Ph.D. in zoology from the University of Washington in 2001. Earning a Ph.D. has made me feel more confident and self-assured. Now I am able to use the skills I learned through school to set goals and reach them. I am currently at the Center for Insect Science at the University of Arizona where I am studying how insects become resistant to crops that have been genetically modified for pest control.
In the future I hope to teach at a university, continue with my research, and help students, particularly women and minorities like myself. As both my parents and mentors told me, you should be proud of your identity. When people try to put you down, remember that they don’t know anything about you. You know who you are and you are strong.
Back to Team
I was born in Carazo, Nicaragua and grew up with my mother and three sisters. During this time my family lived in many different places in Central America, and I attended elementary and high school in Honduras and college in Costa Rica. This experience exposed me to people of many different countries. I learned that not everyone thinks the same as you do. Moving around so often also made me very adaptable to new situations.
My father died when I was eleven years old. He left no debts, but no money, either. There was no insurance money for my mother to collect. Within a month of my father’s death, my maternal grandmother also died, leaving my mother entirely alone. She had no father, or siblings to lean on, and she had no education to help her get a job. Mom worked during the day, and in the evenings and weekends she spent her time as a seamstress to supplement her salary. Those were very hard times for all of us. My mom kept telling us that if she had an education, our situation would be different. She encouraged us to study to be able to support ourselves and made every effort to provide us with an education.
I liked school. I was an avid learner, and I thought that school was fun. I did very well in elementary, high school and college. I received a fellowship to come to the U.S. for graduate school. It was then that I experienced my first culture shock. I learned English in the summer before I started graduate school. I realized when I got there that one summer of English had not prepared me to compete at Duke University. I had a very hard time making it through school. I thought about quitting more than once but I knew that if I left, the possibilities of getting another opportunity would be gone. Because of my poor English, some professors and fellow students thought that I was not smart enough to be in graduate school. Those were very difficult years for me. What kept me going was a strong desire to persevere. I’d never studied so hard in my life.
I have always enjoyed nature. I used to collect insects and butterflies in the neighborhood when I was a child. I thought they were neat. Later on, I was influenced by the Jacques Cousteau films about the oceans. I thought that being underwater was thrilling and that there was a whole world there to discover. I was the oddball in my family, always thinking about adventures and places to go. I thought that being an explorer or an archaeologist in Egypt or Greece would be so much fun. Unfortunately, those careers were available only to people in developed countries. I also wanted to be a pilot and was fascinated by crop dusters which flew over cotton fields in northern Nicaragua. I chose biology as my major in college because that was the subject I found closest to my interests. I was greatly influenced by biology professors early on in college.
My training is in marine biology. Before I came to the National Science Foundation, I worked as a research associate at the Duke University Marine Laboratory in Beaufort, North Carolina. I conducted research there on the populations of oysters to find out why the oyster fishery was going down. My research involved setting experiments in local estuaries to look at the settlement and growth of oysters under different environmental conditions to find out where oysters grew best. Prior to that I spent a considerable amount of time in Costa Rica studying the interactions among the animals that live on rocky shores such as barnacles and limpets. I was trying to find out why some animals were more abundant in some places than in others, and why other animals were absent from some shores. I was also looking at the effect of fish on the abundance of these animals.
My job now is directly related to providing funding for research. My scientific background helps me administer programs to support research for scientists and engineers. We receive applications for fellowships, we seek people to help us review the applications and with this input, make decisions as to who will get funding.
Never miss a chance to learn, because you never know when your skills could be useful. Everything is possible when you set your mind to it. Trust yourself and follow your dreams. After all these years, my dream to become a pilot came true. It’s never too late to learn. Maybe someday I’ll be an archaeologist!
Back to Team
Both my parents are Texans, but I was born at Travis Air Force Base, California, and grew up in California, North Dakota, Georgia, and Texas. My parents first language was Spanish, but they chose not to teach us Spanish so that we would never face discrimination due to an accent. I am the oldest of five children, with two brothers and two sisters. I am the first person in my family to attend college. In an unusual turn of events, my decision to attend college motivated my parents to attend college as well. When I was growing up, I was taught that school should come after all of my other responsibilities at home. Because of this I felt guilty for pursuing an education. In traditional Mexican-American culture, girls are often taught to take care of the house and family, whereas men are in charge and do things outside the home. However, being the oldest, I always had to take care of the others, which put me in a leadership role. This experience would help me later in my education.
I went to thirteen different schools between kindergarten and twelfth grade. Although military schools are excellent, I did not get a strong science background. Junior high was when the pace of my educational development accelerated. I was placed in advanced classes in English, mathematics, science, and social studies. My trigonometry and calculus teachers were very encouraging. My calculus teacher, in fact, suggested that I consider engineering as my major in college, but I just thought ”What the heck is that?” I was also in the concert band and on the basketball team. I learned some very valuable lessons from basketball in those years. We would have two hours of practice, and the first hour and a half focused only on the fundamentals – running, dribbling, shooting, etc. The last half hour was spent on strategy. I began to realize that by concentrating on fundamentals, whether in athletics or academics, a person will have the abilities needed to excel at other things.After graduating high school, I attended a junior college in Georgia. My goal was to be a high school mathematics teacher. I took one education class, and I ended up changing my mind. I had one very interesting calculus professor at this school. My perception was that he was sexist, and he made a couple of comments in class that substantiated my thoughts. I remember one time he asked one of the two other girls in my calculus class a question, and when she didn’t know the answer, he shouted ”You women belong in the kitchen!” Pretty soon I was the only female left in my calculus class. However, this same teacher told me at the end of the year that I should consider applying to Georgia Institute of Technology after I got my two year degree, and that I should try engineering. Although I was offended by this person at first, he ended up being very encouraging and gave me real motivation to focus on engineering.
I chose electrical engineering rather blindly, but I did know that mathematics was my ticket to engineering. I ended up making straight As my first quarter there. There were not very many women in the electrical engineering department at Georgia Tech. I was usually one of two or three women in a class of 80. That fact alone made me uncomfortable. I was afraid to ask my professors questions. I would spend hours trying to figure out trivial things so that I wouldn’t have to approach the professors. In general, I found engineering and mathematics faculty to be very uncommunicative. I graduated with a 3.8 GPA and was recruited by a company that sent me back to school for my master’s degree in electrical engineering. I finished my Ph.D. in electrical engineering in 1990, and accepted a faculty position at University of Texas, Arlington. Finally, after all these years, I am the teacher I wanted to be.
It is very important that I am a female who is a professor of engineering. Over the years I have had to listen to comments from others who said I was not qualified. I had to convince myself that I was qualified and that I would get my Ph.D. By concentrating on the fundamentals, I have attained a position that I truly enjoy, and that is the most important point.
Back to Team
I was born in 1941 in Segundo, Colorado, in a coal mining camp where my father worked. I am the oldest of three sons and we all grew up in the south valley of Albuquerque, New Mexico, which back then consisted of small farms and alfalfa fields. We did not have indoor plumbing until I was twelve. We were poor, but I did not know this until the invention of the television. Television allowed me to view many things that other people had that we did not. Nonetheless, I felt wealthy in that my parents had given me strong values. My mother honored formal education. My father, who had completed school up until the sixth grade, did not regard formal education in the same way. His teachings always reinforced the importance of hard work.The elementary school I attended did not encourage the Hispanic students in the same manner as the non-minority students. Because I was an extremely curious student who always wanted answers, I was often reprimanded for being inquisitive. I became restless when we weren’t learning anything new in class. For example, in the fourth grade we did a unit on the uses of water for irrigation. When the teacher asked the class what water is used for, I said to build houses. “Haven’t you ever heard of igloos?” I asked the teacher. My creativity was rewarded with a trip to see the principal. I guess you could say I’ve always viewed the world differently.
When I heard that the Soviets had sent Sputnik, the first man-made satellite, into space, I knew I that had to go to college. Even though I didn’t excel in high school, I was able to get into the University of New Mexico on the strength of my college entrance exam scores and the recommendations from teachers and counselors who believed in my scientific ability.
I earned my Bachelor of Science degree in two years and ten months, and decided to become a high school biology teacher. During the next ten years of my career I admired those who were doing scientific research, not just interpreting it as I did. I believed a person had to be unusually intelligent to attend graduate school, and that I didn’t have what it took. I was wrong, but it was not until participating in a National Science Foundation summer program for teachers that I realized I was capable of doing Ph.D. level work. I aced the course and a professor in the program asked me to work on my master’s degree with him! Due to my professor”s encouragement, I went on to earn my master”s degree at Northern Arizona University, and my Ph.D. at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
While at the University of Colorado getting my Ph.D., I joined one of the many Chicano organizations on campus. We would often protest to draw attention to the problems affecting our community. That was the best way we knew of to have our voices heard. Unfortunately, the attention we would draw to ourselves became negative attention. Newspapers would take pictures of police clubbing and hurting a group of these unruly demonstrators. I started to think that the real way to institute change was to get the necessary credentials, and then to go Washington to support what we proposed with rational arguments. So, I earned my Ph.D., gained research experience, and moved to Washington to address issues at the national level. I worked as an administrator at the National Institutes of Health in the Minority Biomedical Research Support (MBRS) program.
Today I am an associate professor of biology at San Diego State University, administering the Minority Biomedical Research Support program which trains minority students to become biomedical researchers. In addition, I am the president and owner of Bookmark Publishers. I write textbooks designed to bring biological literacy to students while including profiles of scientists from all ethnic backgrounds. My hope is to illustrate the diversity of talents within the sciences. We are presently working on a fitness book for the Olympic committee. I also write medical mysteries and I just finished a novel titled Smokescreen. In addition to these accomplishments, I am very proud to have been a founding member of SACNAS.
Overall, I have dedicated my life to developing programs to encourage minority students to think of science as a career option. My goal is to provide opportunities for talented students to discover their interests and abilities. I hope to encourage creativity and curiosity while teaching students about the process of how science works. Don”t be afraid to dream big and believe in yourself. It”s so important that what you do is your passion, because if it”s your passion, it”s not work. The quality of your work will also show, and you will be recognized for it.
Back to Team
I was born and raised in Boyle Heights, a barrio in East Los Angeles. Although my Mexican-born parents had very little schooling, they instilled in my two sisters and me the importance of education. I attended Catholic schools throughout my elementary, secondary, and university education. In high school, I did very well in the sciences and mathematics. However, I didn’t do well in high school physics, which was surprising to me because I loved building things and always thought I’d become an electrician or some other kind of mechanical technician. My love of building started when I was a kid. I was always fixing things like radios and television sets. I even built my own stereo with the help of my dad.
My high school teachers recommended that I take the “college track” courses rather than the strictly technical courses I planned on taking in order to become an electrician. I had no idea I was capable enough or even eligible to go to college, but I was accepted to Loyola Marymount University of Los Angeles, which was exciting and scary at the same time, since my family, not wealthy by any means, had to come up with the high cost of college. At the time, we didn’t know that there were federal aid and loan programs to help offset the costs of higher education, so along with my mother and father, I worked constantly for four years. By the time I graduated from Loyola, my education had been completely paid for.
I entered college still interested in being an electrician, so I majored in electrical engineering, not knowing how vastly different the two fields are. One of the required courses was engineering physics taught by a professor named Father Cooney, who became a mentor to me. Father Cooney was absolutely fantastic— he always challenged us to do better and he did it in a tough, yet caring way. I loved the work and I loved the excitement of physics, so I decided at the end of my first year to pursue physics as my major. Everyone thought I was crazy given that I hadn’t done so well in my high school physics class. I wasn’t a stellar student, but I did finish my physics degree in four years and received a full scholarship to attend graduate school at the University of Missouri.
My experience in Missouri was a hard one. Not only was it an adjustment going from an urban environment like Los Angeles to a rural one, but the Midwestern culture was so different. There was virtually no ethnic diversity. I had never felt like a minority before because, living in East L.A., we were the majority! Except for another Hispanic student with the surname Romero, all my classmates were white, and there were very few women. I had good friends, but the small community of Rolla is where I had the difficulty. Townspeople didn’t respond to me very comfortably. I think it had as much to do with their ignorance of who I was as with their lack of experience with people from different backgrounds. However, I decided to get involved in the community and my last two years were much easier as the townspeople appreciated my efforts.
After applying to 268 colleges for a teaching position once I received my Ph.D., I landed a job at New Mexico Highlands University in Northern New Mexico and was there for 24 years before retiring in 1994. In addition to my teaching responsibilities, I began to get involved in developing organizations that helped increase minorities in the science fields, both academic and professional. That’s how the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) began— a group of Hispanic and Native American scientists in the early 70s who shared the similar experience of discrimination and isolation in the sciences.
It was a natural progression for me to continue my minority advocacy work after I retired. Currently, I spend a great deal of time working on programs to improve mathematics and science education in southwestern Native American and rural Hispanic communities.
As much as I enjoy traveling the country with my science/mathematics education consulting business, I miss teaching. I really loved the one-on-one interaction I had with students. I was considered a tough but caring professor like that of my mentor Father Cooney. I believe that one of the qualities of an excellent teacher is to accept the fact that he/she doesn’t have all of the answers. For me, this made for an exciting exchange with students whose questions always gave me new information and new insights. Although I no longer teach, I do have the satisfaction of knowing that I’ve come a long way from building radios to helping build future communities of minority scientists throughout the country!
Back to Team
As a zoologist, I have chosen a career path where I am likely to be the only Navajo doing science research at any university I am employed by. However, I am a scientist because I enjoy it and my contributions are appreciated. I remember what a medicine man once told me about being the only American Indian doing research in biology at Berkeley. He said that I was like a scout. I should learn as much as possible about science and research. If I felt it was good, I should tell our people about it. I truly believe that any dedicated student can prosper in a science and research career.
My life has been shaped by the fairly traditional Navajo lifestyle I was raised in. It taught me to be respectful, and to be responsible for activities that were important to me. I attended schools in Shiprock, New Mexico from kindergarten to twelfth grade. In the seventh grade, I first learned about the cell being the structural unit of organic life. I was fascinated to learn that each person is made up of trillions of these tiny cells that could only be seen through a microscope. Unfortunately, my middle and high schools had no microscopes. I could only see cells by looking at 2x 2 slides the teacher showed my class. In high school, I would go to the library, look at pictures of different types of cells, and draw them out. After graduating from Shiprock High School in 1977, I knew that I wanted to study biology, but I did not know how to use it to get a job. I saw medicine as one possible application, but I felt it was not exactly right for me.
I did not do well my first time in college. I had been at the top of my class in high school, but I was not prepared for coursework at a major university. I had not learned how to write well and I did not have an understanding of mathematics or science that other students possessed. I did not know how to apply my time well for studying, and I did not know how to use the educational resources at the university. I overcame these problems, first, by keeping my desire for a college education alive, second, by having my parents support my interest in college, and third, by getting serious about learning. I re-booted and started over at Navajo Community College (NCC) in Shiprock. This was probably the best move I could have made because people cared about me, and were dedicated to helping me get the education I needed to compete successfully in the university system. At NCC, I applied for and was able to participate in the Minority Biomedical Research Support Program (MBRS), a Federal government research training program. This was where I first experienced scientific research, and learned of a way to specifically link my interest in biology with a profession. Through MBRS, I worked as a student researcher in the laboratory of Dr. Lora M. Shields. She was a great educator and mentor. She gave me the opportunity to work with microscopes, grow bacteria, stain cells, and much more. I helped Dr. Shields investigate a disease affecting the Navajo Nation. I am grateful for this opportunity because it showed me the relevance of research to medicine, and Dr. Shields taught me that research was not just an esoteric activity. In one year’s time, I was able to move on to Fort Lewis College where I received my Bachelor of Science degree in biology. I chose to attend graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley where I earned a doctorate in zoology in 1991.
I have been involved in many different and interesting research projects covering both biomedical and basic science research areas. For example, I have been looking at the earliest stages of skeletal muscle development using the chicken embryo as a model for understanding muscle formation in humans. I want to know how the first skeletal muscle cells of the body are formed in transitory embryonic tissues known as somites. Somites appear as ball-like structures, forming along both sides of the neural tube (future spinal chord). Each somite will give rise to tissues that will form the backbone and ribs (sclerotome), the skin of the back (derotome), and all the skeletal muscles in the body, arms, and legs (myotome). My co-workers and I have done research and have proposed a new model that more accurately explains myotome formation. If our model is correct, then we have furthered our understanding of how nature works in the development of the skeletal muscles in the embryo, a major organ system in our body. I am a researcher, but I would like to become university professor in the life sciences. Besides teaching, I would also like to have a research laboratory and train future scientists in the biological sciences.
Back to Team
I was born in Tucson, Arizona, and grew up in the Spanish speaking part of town. Both of my parents were born in the state of Sonora in Mexico. My father died when I was nine years old, and my mother had to work three jobs to make ends meet. My siblings and I also helped out by working at the family gas station after school, on weekends, and during the summers. Though my family experienced poverty, I came away with a sense of pride. My family valued education. In grade school, I had a supportive group of teachers. They were very caring, tough, and they believed in my abilities. I appreciate them giving me a good foundation in English and mathematics. I was a B student through high school. During my junior year, at the suggestion of a teacher, I carried out an experiment on the impact of a medication on the fruit fly. Many hours of work produced insignificant results. Laboratory work did not suit me. After graduating from Salpointe Catholic High School in 1964, I attended the University of Arizona. I chose to major in chemical engineering. This choice was made purely for monetary reasons. A chemical engineer had visited my high school and had said that he made $11,000 per year! This was an unheard of sum of money at that time and I decided to choose that for my field of study.There were several problems with this choice of a major. As a high school student, I had detested chemistry class. Secondly, my abilities to perform any kind of experiment were negligible. If the chemistry experiment called for a liquid solution, mine would become a gel. The third problem was philosophical. As a high school student, I had studied for a time to become a priest and the engineering curriculum was too focused on the practical, and came into conflict with my theological way of thinking. Though I thought that I wanted to study something scientific, engineering was definitely not it. That first semester was a total disaster. I earned nine units of D’s, four in chemistry and five in college algebra and trigonometry and so I lasted as an engineer for exactly one semester!
It was at this point that I made a momentous decision. During that first semester at the university, I had dropped calculus and taken a lower level mathematics course. I felt terrible that I had done so badly in my first semester mathematics course, and I was also annoyed with myself because I had not been able to understand calculus. Out of pure pride I decided to take calculus that second semester and I earned a C. The following semester I took the next calculus course and earned an A. I also enrolled in physics. By the end of my sophomore year, I had decided that I was going to earn a doctorate in mathematics. My philosophical interests had turned into mathematical interests. I graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in mathematics and a minor in physics in 1968, from the University of Arizona. In March 1968, I was sent to active duty in the US Navy and served aboard the aircraft carriers, USS Yorktown and USS Kearsarge until 1969.
I began graduate school in 1970, earning a master’s degree in mathematics in 1972 and a Ph.D. in 1975, at the University of Arizona. I was a teaching assistant, I was in the naval reserves, and I worked on masonry crews on weekends to help finance my college tuition and support my wife and children. After I got my doctorate, I accepted a position at Sandia Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where I worked on problems dealing with the command and control of atomic weapon systems. In 1977, I accepted a position as an assistant professor of mathematics at the University of Arizona. I was promoted to full professor of mathematics in 1989.
My research deals with problems in algebra and number theory. I also enjoy working on problems involving communication systems. Modern communication systems use very sophisticated mathematical ideas. For example, to understand how music is stored and played back on a compact disk requires graduate school level mathematics.
I have traveled extensively giving lectures throughout this country and around the world. One of my most interesting lecture tours was a three-week trip to China in 1988 where I gave lectures in Beijing, Sichuan, and Shanghai. I have also worked as a consultant to the Naval Ocean Systems Center, where I helped solve problems dealing with communication systems for submarines. From 1994-1996, I served as president of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science.
Back to Team
Biographies are written in collaboration with the narrators. Contributors to the project include: Rachel Barron, Cassandra Brooks, Sandra Boer, Natalie Bulkely, Meredith Conatti, Sylvia de la Sancha, Stacy Hartman, Alexander Huie, Marisa Mercado, Jenny Kurzweil, Jason Shaw, Mary Van Note, William Yslas Vélez, Heidi Williams