One of the hardest transitions in my life was leaving home to go to college. I am the youngest of five children and was raised in a Mexican-American farming community on the outskirts of Stockton, located in the Central Valley of California. Traveling 50 miles to attend the University of California, Davis, felt like a whole world away.
I am the second person in my family to go to college, following in the footsteps of my older sister. My grandparents, who emigrated from Mexico, were illiterate and my parents never made it to high school. In the early days, my mother worked in the fields to earn extra money that was necessary to support our family. On weekends, we would join her to pick tomatoes, cherries, walnuts, or whatever else was in harvest. I come from a family of very strong-minded women who possess an incredible work ethic.
As early as elementary school, I sought refuge in academics and had supportive teachers. I would finish all my schoolwork for the day by 10 a.m. and then, because I was bored, became disruptive in class. The teachers didn’t know what to do with me, so they sent me to the principal’s office. The vice principal, Mrs. Astorga, had me doing all sorts of tasks to consume my time and to keep me out of trouble. I’d help tutor the kindergarteners or I’d do more reading. Ultimately, Mrs. Astorga became one of my first role models and biggest advocates.
While I was in middle school, one of my teachers realized I had an interest in science and she introduced me to her father, Antoni Oppenheim, who was a professor of mechanical engineering at University of California, Berkeley. In high school, I continued to develop an interest in science and Professor Oppenheim took an interest in me when I told him how much I liked science, and he helped me obtain a summer internship at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBL). During those summers, I lived in a cottage next to Professor Oppenheim’s house in North Berkeley and I was exposed to a life that I hadn’t seen before—the life of a professor—and I thought this is what I want to be.
Inspired by my research experiences at LBL, I decided to pursue a PhD at the University of California, San Diego, which has one of the best Pharmacology Departments in the country. At UC San Diego, I studied signal transduction, which is the process by which extracellular stimuli transmit information to cells so that they respond with the appropriate behavior such as movement, contraction, or cell division.
Some of the most important skills I’ve learned came from training during my PhD. I gained academic skills of course, but I also learned critical thinking and how to tackle a problem at its most fundamental level. That is a skill you can use in all aspects of your life: how to think deeply about a problem and then figure out how to solve it.
After completing my PhD, I trained as a postdoctoral fellow at UC San Francisco. I then accepted a faculty position at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill in 2000, and then decided to return to UC San Diego in 2008. The goal of my current research is to understand the mechanisms by which proteases such as thrombin elicit cellular responses to regulate endothelial barrier permeability and cancer progression. Through my years of training, education, and research, I began to realize that I was just as smart and capable as my peers. Despite my very different upbringing, the scientific playing field was now level.
While I cannot offer a clear path for students to follow to succeed in science, hard work and great mentors can make a difference. Students need to seek out and find access to as many educational opportunities as possible. At the same time, students need great mentors who can provide them with guidance. Keep in mind that mentors come in different forms and serve many different purposes. One mentor might help you better balance your personal life—my sister and mother are role models and mentors for me in this way—while another mentor might be a scientist who acts as a career or research role model. Crossing paths with the right mentors can have a profoundly positive effect on the course one follows.