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Michael Rodriguez, PhD

I am Mexican-American, and I was born and raised in Chino, a small town in Southern California. My life was heavily influenced not only by my mother and father, but also by my extended family who strongly encouraged their children to obtain the best education possible. Since I was the youngest child of this extended family, I felt that I was expected to follow the pathway that my siblings had laid out before me: All of them graduated from college.My grandfather was one of my role models. With very little resources, and facing many obstacles due to his Hispanic culture, he succeeded in starting and running his own construction company. He was very independent, a leader of the Mexican-American community and a strong supporter of his Catholic faith. I saw these same qualities in my father who worked hard to become the head of the family business, took risks to better himself, and always treated everyone with respect.
My family’s hardships and accomplishments instilled in me the belief that I could also succeed in whatever I decided to do. They ingrained in me from the beginning that an education was the key in opening life’s opportunities. When I was a child in the 1960s, I did not face as many obstacles as my parents/grandparents. Rather, the pressures that I encountered while growing up were mostly self-imposed.
High school was not easy for me. To get good grades, I had to dedicate all my time to my homework, so I had little time for after school activities. I felt that I could not fail with my studies because of the large sacrifice my parents were making in order to send me to private school. My reward was the sense of accomplishment I felt when I passed my courses with good marks and eventually graduated from high school with honors.
The high school that I attended was extremely limited in resources. There were no elaborate laboratory facilities in the science courses but the lab experiments were fun. Working with different glassware in the chemistry lab, trying to configure elaborate experiments with limited equipment, and actually getting results, sparked my interest in the sciences. I was so fascinated by the ways in which chemistry could impact people’s lives that I decided to pursue a bachelor’s degree in chemistry at the University of California, Irvine.
My chemistry advisors encouraged me to excel in the areas of chemistry that I was interested in pursuing as a career. I needed to find my own area of expertise within this field. For the next few years, I learned that one of my strengths was technical work in the laboratory. I spent all my spare time working in a research laboratory and my three years of undergraduate research made a tremendous impact in my budding chemistry career. From that point in time, I decided that I wanted to be a research scientist
After earning my master’s degree in chemistry at the California State University, Fullerton, I enrolled in the Ph.D. chemistry program at the University of California, Davis. I felt that having a doctoral degree would challenge me to become more creative with my chemistry skills. My graduate work involved synthesizing a variety of important intermediates (intermediates are chemical materials that are used as building blocks to construct more elaborate chemical substances) that could be used to streamline the synthesis of some well-known polyether antibiotics. Polyether antibiotics are a special class of medicines that slows down the growth of bacteria that causes diseases. My research led to the discovery of other novel chemistries that allowed me to generate enough data to complete my thesis. The success of my Ph.D. research provided me with enough confidence to apply for a National Institute of Health research fellowship. The fellowship I received opened up opportunities to continue my chemistry research training at Harvard University.
Today I am a research scientist for Eli Lilly, a pharmaceutical company located in Indianapolis, Indiana. I have my own research laboratory and I am part of a multidisciplinary research team involved in identifying and developing novel compounds for clinical trials. My objective is to design the right chemical experiments that would enhance the medicinal properties of a compound and thereby discover new medicines that would improve the quality of life for mankind. My research has been very exciting and very rewarding.
It is important to remember that your career ”aspirations” may require you to think beyond your comfort zone. It is o.k. to take risks. Identify your strengths and pursue your dreams. I think that you will discover that the ”fear”of failing is only in your mind. You need to take a chance and learn and build upon your experiences. I think you will realize that you should not underestimate your abilities. Aim high! You can do it!