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.