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maria elena zavala

Maria Elena Zavala, PhD

I grew up in Laverne, California. I have two sisters and two brothers. Until I was two, my parents were farm workers, and traveled around southern California picking lemons. My background is traditional Mexican-American with a large Indian influence. My grandmothers and other relatives all lived within two blocks of our house, and that has made an impact on how I think about familial things. My great-grandmother was a curandera (healer). Her yard was basically a traditional medicinal garden in that most of the plants were grown for medicine and many from seeds her friends had given to her or traded. Because she lived next door, she had a big influence on how I think about plants and their uses. I have always liked to know how things work. Once I took my father’s roses apart. I was trying to see how the parts fit together and I ended up decimating his rose bushes. Now I get paid to do the same thing!
When I was growing up, being different was tough. I did not always run with my peers. I had different interests from them. I would spend all of my allowance money on books and puzzles. I didn’t belong to the typical Chicana group, but that was okay because my parents supported my interests.
When I was in school, I was considered weird because I was a good student and I was in the band. My freshman year of high school, I was taking typing, and I was getting a C. I went to my counselor and told him I needed to get out of this class to take more college preparatory kinds of classes. The counselor told me that if the Spanish teacher would take me in his class it was okay to change, but he said, ”Your kind of people need some kind of skill.” My older sister had really liked biology. She was about eight years older than I was, and we would talk about all the neat stuff she was learning. I took a lot of extra units in high school, so by my senior year, I only had one required course to take. I worked as a teaching assistant in chemistry and biology. That was neat because I got to test out all the lab equipment before the other students got to use it, and I got to prepare solutions, which was fun. Initially, when I got to college, I was going to be a biology major, but there was no such thing at my college. It was either zoology or botany, so I became a botany major largely because of the influence of an absolutely enthusiastic botany professor. He cared so much about his plants.
I attended Pomona College, which is a very competitive private college in the Los Angeles area. My senior year of college, I was thinking of graduate school but I didn’t know how I was going to afford to go. One day I saw this poster on the wall that said the Ford Foundation had doctoral fellowships for minorities in the sciences. Everyone else I knew was going to graduate school, and I thought, ”Well now, here’s an opportunity.” I applied for the fellowship on the spur of the moment and I got the money!
At one time I thought I wanted to be a physician. After I got my Ph.D., there was a time when I felt that what I was doing was not relevant to the population I wanted to affect, so I took all the classes I needed to go to medical school. I applied to medical school and got in. I ended up deciding against it. I realized that most of the people I wanted to affect were victims of their socio-economic status. They are poor and have diseases of the poor, which are often caused by stress. So I decided that I would remain a professor and would try to work in an institution where I could work with minorities. I decided to invest in the future that way.
I am currently a professor of biology at California State University-Northridge. I do basic research and I am the initiator of two programs, MARC and MBRS at CSU-Northridge. These programs provide research opportunities for students. In my career, I’ve learned it’s okay to be different, to pursue your interests. It’s a good habit to read, and talk about what you’ve read with other people. Sharing your ideas is very important in the long run. If you really want something you can have it. You are only limited by what you can imagine.