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.