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.