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Martha Zuniga, PhD

I was born in Laredo, Texas, second of ten children. I grew up in a large, extended family with over 80 first cousins. I believe that my Catholic Laredo upbringing shaped me not only as a person, but also as a scientist.
I was always interested in science and math and both of my parents encouraged this interest. When I was in elementary school some representatives from NASA in Houston visited my school. One man told us that NASA’s missions would seem like child’s play in comparison to what we would achieve when we became scientists. I remember feeling that he was speaking directly to me, telling me that I would become a scientist who would achieve something significant.
I first discovered my special interest in biology when I was in sixth grade. My maternal grandmother loved to eat rabbit and my father, who was a hunter, brought her wild rabbits. One time when my father was cleaning one of the rabbits that he killed he called me over. The rabbit was pregnant with two bunnies. I peered down at the babies, so perfect in shape under the membrane of the uterus. I remember thinking “I want to know how these babies come to be.”
My parents and grandparents were firm believers in education. There was never any doubt that I would go to college. The encouragement from home was important because almost none of my teachers seemed to notice me in class. I remember my frustration during fifth grade when boys were always called upon to provide solutions to math problems. However, when I was in eleventh grade my chemistry teacher took me aside and told me about a summer program for high school students interested in math and science. This program was sponsored by National Science Foundation and was held at several colleges and universities throughout the United States. He encouraged me to apply and he even proctored an entrance examination that was sent by one of the universities. My parents allowed me to apply to the program at the University of Texas at Austin (my father’s alma mater) and at Loyola University in New Orleans because it is a Catholic university. I was accepted at the Loyola program. My experience in that program was one of the most important in my life. The faculty and counselors challenged us to defend our career goals. (Most of us, myself included, said that we wanted to go to medical school, but really didn’t know why. Maybe it was parental pressure or the glamour.) The director of the program in particular demanded that we think about our futures in a concrete way and to prepare for them accordingly.
Upon graduation from high school I attended the University of St. Thomas in Houston on scholarship and then the University of Texas at Austin, where I earned a B.A. in zoology. I decided to pursue graduate studies in biology. My father always wanted me to become a medical doctor, and the decision to attend a Ph.D. program instead was a difficult one for me. But my parents were supportive and proud of my ability to make my own goals and then work to attain them. I attended Yale University where I earned a Ph.D. in Biology with the support of a Ford Foundation pre-doctoral fellowship.
More than once in my education I faltered and lost heart. The first time was during my second semester at the University of Texas, right after I had made a perfect 4.0 GPA with a heavy course load. I somehow lost my motivation to continue to work hard, to excel. I dropped organic chemistry and even considered taking time off from school. This was unsettling to me since I had gone to school throughout the year including summers every year since I had entered high school. My organic chemistry professor’s faith in me rekindled my enthusiasm. The next time I lost my way was when I was a third year graduate student. I went to my Ph.D. mentor and told her that I wanted to quit graduate school. She asked me what I would do instead, and I said that I didn’t know. She told me that she could not allow me to leave graduate school unless I was doing it for a positive, compelling alternative, that I could not leave because of negative feelings or lack of self confidence. That was the most wonderful thing she could have done for me.
As an Associate Professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz I teach and do research in Immunology and Virology. I am particularly interested in the development of the immune system and in the interplay between the immune system and viruses and bacteria. As an educator my goal is to empower students to think critically and to become passionate about biology.