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Luis Villarreal

Luis P. Villarreal, PhD

My name is Luis Perez Villarreal. I was born and raised in East Los Angeles. It’s a unique cultural experience, being of Mexican ancestry and growing up in Los Angeles. For example, in one context you feel foreign, yet in another you feel native. Growing up, we often felt as if we spoke a foreign or prohibited language, that we represented a culture that wasn’t part of the mainstream.
I started going to school when I lived in East L. A., in City Terrace. At the time, my father was buying old houses, fixing them up, then re-selling them for profit, so I ended up meandering into the San Gabriel Valley from East LA, going to eleven grammar schools in the process, eventually ending up in the El Monte/Pico Rivera/Whittier area. I also went to three junior high schools and five high schools. My childhood friends were forever changing and my childhood environment was always in flux. This type of lifestyle can make one very adaptable.
Getting through school wasn’t too difficult. The main obstacle I had to overcome was a general lack of any role model in my family who had gone to college, or even high school. Graduating as a competitive student, one who was able to attend and do well in the University of California system, was an entirely different matter. I don’t think many of my fellow graduates found themselves in this position. For example, out of the 350 students in my graduating class, I was the only one to receive a postgraduate degree, a very small percentage by any standard. Even our valedictorian flunked out his first quarter at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). I knew at the time that my chances for success at the university were not great, so I took a different route. I decided to go to a community college to catch up.
It wasn’t until I was already a senior undergraduate at UCLA majoring in biological chemistry and already involved with some research, that I thought about graduate school. I remember the day an instructor took me aside and asked me what I planned on doing after I graduated. I told him, I don’t know, look for a job, I guess. He told me to consider graduate school, but I wasn’t sure I could afford the tuition and other costs. That is when he pointed out to me that there is often funding available for students. It sounded like a great deal, so I applied!
My job as a scientist now at University of California, Irvine is to learn how viruses and molecules of viruses work. I’m particularly interested in how you program biological things. I am also interested in how you can write programs to re-engineer what cells do in an organism, like gene therapy.
It is important that men, women, and people of many different ethnicities be involved in research, because the kinds of scientific questions one asks have a lot to do with who they are and where they come from. People from different cultural backgrounds have much to contribute to scientific research. I think a mistake many students make is establishing too early on what they think they should be, without knowing where their true interests lie. With regards to a person’s future, I think the long, difficult road usually takes you to the top. The short, quick road will take you to the bottom. It’s better to take five years in college if you need to, for example, than to breeze through in four years with all C’s. Your career options will be much better for it, too. When considering career choices, look at the things you find unendingly interesting. That will be the best kind of career for you to pursue.