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.