I was born in the mountains of Las Vegas, New Mexico in 1950. We were a family of nine living in the barrio in one of the few houses without natural gas. Because of this, I remember that every weekend my family would go out to look for wood to heat our house. As the third oldest child, I had a sense of responsibility to help raise and provide for my younger siblings. In the sixth grade, I would wake up at 4:35 a.m., go to work mopping floors at a nearby bakery, return home, go to school, come home to do chores, and not go to bed until my homework was completed. I knew what is was like to be hungry, and not just for food, but for material things as well.Education was always important to my parents. Even though they both had minimal schooling, they knew that getting a college education would prepare us children to do anything. My transition from elementary school to junior high school was very traumatic. My father sent me to the junior high on the east side of town where the privileged children went to school. It was very different from the west side elementary school that I was used to. I compare it to being thrown into a fire. After surviving the first term there, I knew that I could make it despite the many obstacles ahead of me. Although I had no clue about what I wanted to be when I grew up, I knew that when the time came, I would be able to leave town and go to college. My advice to any middle school or high school student is first, don”t allow yourself to be consumed by ”looksism” and Hollywood images, secondly, read to find out what is going on, and thirdly, don”t let yourself be taken advantage of.
When I began college in 1969 at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology (NM Tech) in Socorro, New Mexico, I quickly realized that I had a challenge ahead of me. Though I had taken all the high school science courses available, they had not provided me with a good foundation. However, what saved me at NM Tech was that my high school had prepared me well in English and in mathematics. I took calculus during my first semester of college (against the advice of my advisor) and did well. I received my first Bachelor of Science degree in mathematics in 1973. With a tremendous amount of studying, help from university faculty, and opportunities to work in a laboratory, I was turned on to studying science. I found my upper level biology courses were exciting. I had found my calling and was awarded my second Bachelor of Science degree in biology at NM Tech in 1974. I went on to earn my Ph.D. in microbiology in 1978 at the University of Kansas.
Throughout my education, I encountered many obstacles, including the feeling that I didn”t fit in. I felt alone because I was one of the few Hispanic students at the university, plus I felt that I had a lot to learn before I could catch up to my peers. However, I was lucky and always had at least one teacher who recognized my willingness to work and took an interest in me. Those teachers helped me out and made me feel equal to the other students. I remember that there was one time when I almost had to drop out of school because I didn”t have enough money to pay for my college tuition. The physics professor, for whom I had been working, offered to pay my tuition so that I could continue. Even though I found the money, I truly appreciated the gesture.
In 1991, I became a professor in the department of microbiology at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio, Texas. In my laboratory, we study a parasite that causes a sexually transmitted disease that puts humans at a greater risk for catching the AIDS virus, HIV. The goal of everyone who works in the lab is to develop a vaccine and a diagnostic test for this disease. We have already isolated antibodies against the parasite and these are being tested right now by several pharmaceutical companies.