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!