As the youngest of ten children of a traditional Mexican couple, I learned to adapt to change and be creative. Growing up in the Sierra Tarahumara, I spent time during the cold winters reading all kinds of books. My favorites were encyclopedias. I remember the first time I thought about chemistry, I was looking at a diagram of an animal cell on one page and a vegetable cell on the other. I could understand that each cell had unique structures – mitochondria and ribosomes – but I asked my mom, “Yes, but how does this make life happen?” Although neither she nor my father finished a formal education, they instilled in me the power that comes with knowledge. This curiosity became the foundation of my love for science.
We moved to Texas when I finished high school so my family could reunite and my mom could receive treatment for her heart condition. As the youngest, I felt a responsibility to stay with her in El Paso. I began to learn English at a community college and was told by my advisor that I should just get an associate’s degree, maybe become a technician. I was disappointed. My ambitions were so much higher than that, and I knew I could do better. A fire sparked in me and I transferred to the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) to major in chemistry.
My years at UTEP fueled my love of science. There was only one woman in the entire faculty, and many professors were older white men, which made it intimidating to approach them about research opportunities. I found great mentors who invited me to be a peer leader with a group that traveled to area elementary and high schools to conduct demonstrations with explosions and science games. When I met a Latino professor in environmental chemistry, I discovered he was from Chihuahua, where I had grown up. His lab became my second home.
Balancing my science with caring for my mom was a challenge for me, but as the youngest in my family, I felt a strong obligation to be there for her. There were many long days in the lab and then I would return home to a list of chores, but I did them with love. The opportunities my mom created for me and her belief in our education gave me the fire I needed to keep going.
A new professor told us in an organic chemistry class about SACNAS and said he wanted to take students to the conference. I presented my research as a poster and oral presentation, won an award, and met the director of the Children’s Nutrition Research Center (CNRC). He was impressed with my work exploring how plants convert toxic metals into non-toxic species. I later joined his group as a summer intern at the CNRC in Houston. What a phenomenal experience! I learned about genetics and plant chemistry.
There were times when pursuing a degree in a male-dominated industry was overwhelming. I was often told I couldn’t succeed, that my research was not “real chemistry” because I worked with plants, or people did not expect me to continue my education. But as I approached the end of my PhD, I met a guru of electron microscopy, Dr. Miguel José-Yacamån, at a SACNAS conference. He was delighted to meet a female Latina scientist with a background in analytical chemistry and microscopy. I began working in his lab and realized that the impact I wanted to have with my science was to teach, and looking back at my experiences, I knew I could make a difference.
I became an assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Texas Permian Basin, where I have mentored 22 students. I’ve supported students in completing their degrees in chemistry and in exploring new pathways. I do my best to advance my students’ science. I write them letters of recommendation, tell them about internships, take them on tours to industry, and we go to SACNAS conferences and ACS meetings. Anything to open their eyes to the wonders of chemistry.
I am nearing the end of my tenure track and recently the Physical Science Department faculty elected me to be chair of the department. I will be the only woman in the department and the chair of the department. I am proving that women can have positions like these.
We all know our science is important, but we should always be open to new opportunities and adventures while also taking care of our people and ourselves. I think back to the little girl I was, voraciously reading those encyclopedias, hungry for knowledge, and a quote from Dr. Vincent Tinto comes to mind, “Access without support is not opportunity.” If I didn’t have mentors around to point me toward the opportunities I had, I might have missed them. We must support the next generation of scientists.
There are two things that have defined me through my entire life; never being afraid to try something new and being an optimist. Much of that fearlessness comes from my upbringing. My father brought us to the U.S. from Cuba, where he had been a political prisoner. We moved to New Jersey, learned to speak English and eventually were granted political asylum, putting me on the path to citizenship. This was a gift that I do not take for granted, because in our current times those privileges are being challenged.
Senior year in college I earned the American Chemical Society Student Award. At the award ceremony I heard the famous medicinal chemist Leo Sternbach talk about his discovery of benzodiazepines, a class of medicines that transformed the lives of people suffering from anxiety and depression. At that moment I knew I wanted to earn a PhD and be a medicinal chemist.
For my PhD thesis project at SUNY Stony Brook I used organic synthesis, computational chemistry and crystallography in equal parts. I continued my work as an NIH Postdoctoral Fellow at The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and The Scripps Research Institute. Up until that point I had the naïve notion that exciting science only took place in academia, but at Scripps I was exposed to the biotech and pharmaceutical world, where the medicines being created could help people in a shorter time frame. I wanted my work to have that impact and I realized that the techniques I had honed over the years were the perfect foundation of structure-based drug design, a field that uses knowledge of 3D protein structures to create drugs that specifically target a given disease, with the goal of minimizing side effects.
My first job was as employee number one at Kinetix Pharmaceuticals, a company founded by Dr. Nick Lydon who pioneered the development of a new type of anti-cancer drugs targeting a class of proteins called kinases, whose function can go awry and drive cancer growth. At Kinetix we applied structure-based drug design and wrote some of the earliest articles on the design of kinase inhibitors. There are now over 30 approved kinase inhibitor drugs today that treat a variety of cancers and other conditions.
In 2005, I joined CHDI, a nonprofit research foundation exclusively dedicated to developing therapies for Huntington’s disease (HD). Shortly after I took my job as Director of Medicinal Chemistry, I watched a video of a little girl with juvenile HD, who couldn’t blow out her birthday candles because HD made her shake uncontrollably. As a mother this affected me deeply. Wanting to find medicines that can help people suffering from HD has been my goal and defined my career since that day.
Here’s where my optimism comes in again. I believe that what I do today will soon benefit the lives of people with HD. I find my work incredibly fulfilling, even though my life as an HD scientist and mother of three school-age children has had its share of challenges. I’ve had to rely on my support system of family, nannies, and friends. But I have also learned to live life mindful of where I am and what I am doing at that moment. Just as important as our scientific questions are the ones that ask, “What is most important right now? Today? This week?” Being a mother has never been in conflict with being a scientist for me, though I don’t take for granted the mother-scientist who came before me. On the contrary, it’s a central part of who I am, and I feel stronger as a scientist for being able to tackle the needs of a family and the needs of my work.
At this stage in my career it is important to me to set the stage for women in STEM so they know that it is possible to be a scientist with a family. When you’re from a traditional culture, women are inhibited by the role models they see. I have a family, I am an active volunteer in my children’s schools, and I am an active participant in my field of research. I want to contribute to changing the picture of role models our young women see.
I have been fortunate to have had good mentors in my life. We need to continue to support young women in STEM. Someday, they could grow to become a medicinal chemist, working on a cure for cancer or Alzheimer’s. But they won’t have to work on HD, because those medicines are coming soon!
When I was a child my parents taught me to believe that I could do anything I wanted to. But when I arrived at the University of Oklahoma to be a professor of chemistry, I began to have my doubts. I was a young scientist, a mother, and the only woman and Native American in my department. It would have been helpful to have someone to teach me how to be a scientist and a mother at the same time, and how to survive being “the only one.”
Since there was no one in person I could talk to, I turned to history and learned about a woman named Madame Marie Curie. Madame Curie was the first women in France to receive a Ph.D. in science and the first woman to lecture at the prestigious Sorbonne University. Her work mostly focused on the uses of radiation in medicine. She won Nobel prizes in physics and chemistry, and became the first person to receive this award twice. On top of all these accomplishments, Madame Curie was also a mother. She took her daughter Irene everywhere with her, including the lab. Irene grew up to be a scientist and was awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1935.
Like Madame Curie, I wanted to spend as much time as possible with my child, but needed to focus on my career as well. Since I was a new faculty member, I had lots of work to do in the evenings and weekends, so I decided to take my son with me to my office while I worked in the lab next door. He soon became very comfortable with the world of science, and he is now in college and majoring in chemical engineering.
The female graduate students in the chemistry department told me they were grateful for the example I provided. I showed them that it is possible to be a woman chemist and have a family too. While I was happy to provide some guidance for these students because I understood what it felt like to be isolated, I was still struggling to find a community of females, Native Americans, and other minorities in the sciences.
Before arriving at the University of Oklahoma, I never felt out of place. I grew up in Eufaula, Oklahoma, the capitol of the Creek Nation. I don’t think there was anyone in town that wasn’t at least some part Indian. In fact, I recall vividly in grade school that we all thought it was strange if someone didn’t have any Indian blood!
Early on I knew I enjoyed math and science. I had an ability to do things very logically and I always enjoyed difficult brain teasers and solving problems. In my school, boys and girls were equally encouraged. I was never made to feel that because I was a girl I couldn’t succeed in math or science. In fact, in my advanced math class, there were five girls and only one boy!
My decision to attend college was an easy one. My parents and teachers were excited for me, and after a little deliberation, I decided to major in chemistry at the University of Oklahoma. However, when you grow up in a community like mine, it is very strange to leave that environment and find out that you are suddenly in the minority. It was a huge shock for me those first few days college when suddenly I was the only Native American and almost only woman in all of my science classes.
At first I didn’t realize how different I felt. I thought maybe it was just because I was quiet or shy. Later on, I understood that the differences between my classmates and me were cultural. I particularly noticed these cultural differences when I became a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin, and then a professor. I saw that many people think they have to promote themselves constantly in order to further their careers. This kind of self-promotion was not part of my culture, and I wanted to rely on my performance in science and teaching to advance my career – not bragging. But in the culture of science, people can often assume if you are quiet that you have no accomplishments! Despite the pressure to conform, I remained true to myself and my cultural heritage. Through this experience I learned that I can only do what I feel comfortable with and hope that people will see my intelligence and good qualities through my actions not my words. I learned that the most important thing about pursuing my dreams is that I feel good about myself, do what I feel is right, and behave with dignity.
Even though I am still the only Native American and one of three women in my department, I have found that I am not the “only one” in the world of science. I am working on creating a network of minority scientists across the country, encouraging universities to hire more scientists of color, and educating minority students on how to choose a school that will best support them. It is my goal that future minority women scientists will not have to turn to history books to find a role model – instead they will find role models all around them.
I was born in 1962 in Kingman, Arizona. Kingman is a very multi-cultural community, and has a large mix of Hispanics, Native Americans, and Anglos. I am a mix myself; my mother is Navajo and my father is Caucasian.
During the time I was raised, Kingman was such a little town that there were not a lot of career opportunities for women, and girls didn’t see examples of women who were doctors, lawyers, engineers, and scientists. Many girls, including myself, struggled with this lack of role models. However, I received a tremendous amount of encouragement from my parents who were both teachers. They showed me that an education could take me far.
Growing up in Kingman had its advantages too. In a smaller community you can really excel, even if you aren’t the smartest person in the whole world. I was a good athlete and I was the valedictorian of my high school class. The confidence I gained in my hometown gave me courage through my entire education.
After high school I went to Yavapai College in Prescott, Arizona where I played basketball. It was at Yavapai where I first fell in love with chemistry. I had always loved math and had decided to study engineering. While taking my standard science requirements, I took my first chemistry class. I had an incredibly enthusiastic chemistry professor that really made the lectures and labs come alive. Even though I loved chemistry, the class was still very hard for me. I actually went to my professor to tell him I needed to switch classes to take something easier. He said, “Oh no you don’t!” He was able to show me how to take a step back and ask for help, instead of saying, “I quit!”
As I continued with my education, however, I learned there are times when you truly have to give some things up. For example, when I went to New Mexico State University to get my B.S. in chemistry, I thought I would continue playing basketball. I quickly saw that basketball, on top of my classes and labs, was going to be impossible. Quitting basketball was a hard decision to make, but it was an important step in preparing for graduate school, where science had to be my entire focus.
Although I stopped playing competitively, basketball was still a part of my life, and in fact, taught me a lot about being a chemist. All of the discipline, determination, and patience that it takes to learn a sport are the same things it takes to succeed in science. The bottom line is that it takes hard work and focused time to improve. Neither science nor basketball is something that you can do haphazardly and succeed.
That determination was necessary when I started graduate school in chemistry at the University of Arizona (U of A). Graduate school was truly a test of perseverance, not just because the material was challenging. As I advanced into higher-level math and science classes, I noticed that there were fewer and fewer women and people of color. I got used to saying to my lab partners, “You know, a woman can actually do the same things as you!”
While at U of A, I found myself struggling, like when I was a girl, to find a female role model. There was a woman chemistry professor that I greatly admired. However, while she was very brilliant and successful, it seemed like she was “married” to science. I realized that for me to be happy, I needed to have another life besides chemistry. I am now married and have three children. Times have changed. People realize that having a family doesn’t make you less productive. In fact, having a family helps me stay more focused at work because I know I can’t waste time!
After earning my Ph.D. in 1990, I spent twelve years as a research scientist at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (INEEL), which is operated by the Department of Energy. I study surface chemistry, which is the chemistry right where air or liquid meets a solid. At INEEL, I studied how waste metals like uranium and plutonium that were used in weapons production interact with the environment, mostly at the surface. Our research tries to understand all of these interactions so that better clean-up strategies can be developed.
Currently I am a professor of chemistry at Northern Arizona University. Teaching provides me with a way of interacting with students who are just getting started in science. Hopefully I am able to show students that a Navajo woman can be a mother, athlete, and scientist. I try and give my students the same advice my chemistry teacher gave me a long time ago, “Don’t sell yourself short, test your limits and try the impossible!”
We all experience moments that can change the course of our lives. These catalysts can be collective; changing hundreds or thousands of lives in an instant and others can be intensely personal and significant events that nobody but you will ever understand.
A catalyst in the scientific world means much the same as it does in general terms. It is something that makes something else happen. A catalyst makes a reaction go faster and with less energy and waste product. One of the first uses of catalysts was to make better fuels; heating crude oil over catalysts to make gasoline.
Like most people, my life has been shaped by catalysts and series of events and circumstances that have shaped me into the person I am today. I was born in 1956 in Eau Claire, Wisconsin to a Seneca father and a Caucasian mother. My parents, who are both ministers, strongly believe in the power learning. Both of my grandmothers earned master’s degrees, which was very unusual for the time and so my parents encouraged my brother and I to continue the legacy of education in my family. My parents also devoted their lives to social service. Perhaps it was their involvement in the community that first sparked my interest in politics.
When I was sixteen I spent a quarter in Washington, DC as an aid in a senator’s office, and soon after that I entered my freshman year at George Washington University as a political science major. Ironically, I did not enjoy my political science class at all. I found myself having more fun in my required chemistry class. I had liked chemistry in high school, but never followed through with it. By the end of the semester, my grades in chemistry were much higher than political science, and the chemistry professor encouraged me to continue with my scientific studies. It was my teacher’s support that became the first catalyst in propelling me towards a career in science.
In my sophomore year I pursued more science classes, but I became overwhelmed fairly quickly, especially by a pre-calculus class I was having difficulty with. I began to think I was crazy for pursuing science, that I had never been that great a student and basically that I just couldn’t do it. My lack of self-confidence became so strong that I actually dropped out of school!
When I went back to school the following spring, I returned to my political science major but was required to take a statistics class. The math came so easily that in the end, I didn’t even have to take the final exam because my average was so high. Later in the year I repeated the same pre-calculus class and did very well. Having the self-confidence gained by the statistics class was the catalyst for my success and I went on to graduate with a degree in chemistry.
Despite my degree, I still didn’t think of myself as a “science” person. After working in the education department of the American Chemical Society, I decided that I needed to see whether I could really be a scientist or not. I entered a master’s program in chemical engineering. It was in graduate school at University of Texas, Austin that I found how much I loved research and how much of a scientist I really am.
My fascination with research propelled me to pursue a Ph.D. I continued with my studies at University of Texas where I worked in the field of catalysis, experimenting with catalysts that could make coal, natural gas and bio-mass (like trees, shrubs, hay etc.) into liquid diesel fuels.
After completing my Ph.D. in 1990, I went to work as a research chemist at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico. At Sandia I kept on with my work in catalysis and eventually became the manager of the Chemical and Biological Imaging, Sensing and Analysis Department.
My work at Sandia has provided a way for me to combine my interest in politics with science. The research and funding at Sandia is closely tied to national policy. Having a good understanding of the political process has made navigating my job easier on all levels.
For example, the events of September 11, 2001 were a catalyst for a new wave of research at Sandia. We have been working closely with the Department of Homeland Security on issues of national security including developing new technology to locate weapons of mass destruction and researching methods of combating biological warfare. The added urgency of our work has truly shown me the global effect a single catalyst can have.
The influence of our parents, encouragement from a teacher and even world events, can help shape the direction of our lives. However, throughout my life I have learned that it is believing in yourself that will be the true catalyst for your success. Never give up. You will always find allies and support along the way.
I always had an interest in outdoor life and improving the world around me. I was the youngest of four siblings growing up in Nogales, Arizona. When I started school, science became my favorite subject. In junior high and high school, I had to make an important decision that would affect the rest of my life. I was advised not to continue taking science and mathematics courses because knowledge of those subjects was not necessary for a secretary or a Spanish teacher – the two traditional careers for Hispanic females in the 1960s. I didn’t want either of those careers. I enjoyed my science courses and I was doing well in them.
My parents had taught me to be disciplined in my studies, and had always encouraged my interest in science. When I discussed the situation with my parents, they urged me to continue taking science and mathematics. They told me that they would support me with whatever I decided to do. I remember how excited I was when one of my teachers told me that because I had done so well in my algebra and geometry classes, he would teach me calculus after school! While I did study, I also had fun being a member of the Girls Athletic Association. I graduated from Nogales High School in 1963 having taken calculus, biology, chemistry, and physics.
I obtained an associate of arts degree from Fullerton Junior College in 1965 and a Bachelor of Science degree in zoology/chemistry from the University of Arizona two years later. After three years of working as a special education teacher in California, where I conducted mathematics and science classes for learning disabled high school students, I returned to the University of Arizona as a research associate, and obtained my doctor of philosophy degree in soil chemistry in 1979. Later, I worked at the Western Archaeological Center where seven states depended on my advice for the scientific techniques of maintaining the historic adobe structures and ecosystems in the national parks. To provide guidance, I conducted on-site experiments to find out which particular soils were used in the construction of the 18th century buildings. As a Federal manager, I arranged to have testing for Federal jobs take place in the smaller towns where jobs were located. Growing up in Nogales, I knew of many people who wanted Federal jobs, but weren’t able to go to the state capital to take the eligibility test. The Federal Executive Association honored me as Manager of the Year for creating and implementing this system that increased minority representation in the applicant pool for all Federal jobs.
In 1984, I was hired by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a soil scientist. My responsibility was to develop criteria and write the regulations for the use of sludge on agricultural land. Sludge is what remains when garbage decomposes. In my report, I mathematically described several potential pathways humans could get toxin poisoning from industrial sludge. For example if sludge with a high concentration of a toxin is spread on cattle grazing land, the toxin will pass into the cows. If these cows produce milk for human consumption, this toxin could poison people. For my efforts on addressing this important issue the EPA awarded me the Bronze Medal.
Since 1989, I have worked as National Coordinator of the Global Change Research Program studying the changing global climate and its effects on trees, animals and forested ecosystems. My job as a national science administrator is to translate and provide scientific information to help policy makers develop regulations, determine needs in scientific research and choose which science researchers will receive funding to fill these needs. One year, I decided how to distribute 25 million dollars to scientists and the science projects they proposed. When the results of the environmental research are given to me, I use them to help advise politicians making the rules for the use of land. I also represent the United States at international environmental conferences and committees.
My advice is that you should pursue your interests no matter what they are. Don’t be dissuaded by the obstacles and disbelievers that you will encounter. If you are dedicated to your dreams, you will always find a way to accomplish them.
My birthplace is Edinburgh, Texas. My mother’s family goes back many generations in Texas, and my father is from Mexico. I have one brother and two sisters, who are all younger than I. I grew up Chicano and bilingual within a strong matriarchal system, where mothers ruled. I had 67 cousins all within a five block radius. Sixty-four of my cousins received college degrees, and eleven got Ph.D.s or master’s degrees. All of my cousins and aunts and uncles were bilingual. Self-esteem in my family was strong, and education was highly stressed, although this was, and still is, the poorest county per capita in the United States. My family is where the ground work for my future academic success was built. There was a high emphasis on honesty, fairness, cooperation, and compassion. Family members encouraged us to be “vivo”, which means to think on your feet and use common sense. We didn’t have television while I was growing up, and I think that had a positive effect on how I saw myself and the world around me. As I got older, I began to work picking cotton as a migrant farm worker. Being in contact with nature, I was always interested in how the components of an ecosystem work together. However, some of the obstacles I perceived came from the fact that non-minorities ran the schools, the places of work, the government, and every other institution. My mother, because she was bilingual and fluent in Spanish and English, attended all of the Parent-Teacher Association meetings, to make sure we were treated fairly. Many other parents, because of the language barrier, were not able to do the same for their kids. The students at my school were almost all Chicano, but hardly any of the kids in the accelerated learning classes were Chicanos. I knew that something was not right about this situation. Despite the barriers, I was always a very good student, and I especially liked chemistry, art, and English.
When I was in high school, my counselors told me to go to vocational school, even though I hated to fix cars. So when I went to college, I decided I was going to be an accountant. I soon realized that wasn’t what I wanted to do. I was hired as a work-study student cleaning up a laboratory, and I began to get interested in science. Eventually, I began working in a laboratory where I could actually do research. I decided to major in zoology and minor in organic chemistry. My major professor gave me different tasks to do in the laboratory. Most non-minority professors didn’t know much about working with people of different cultures. However this professor knew when he had a good worker, and he kept them. I did very well in college, and I published three articles by the time I graduated. Later, as a graduate student, I published twenty papers.
Today, I have an endowed chair, it is called the James A. Perkins Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies at Cornell University in New York state. My research is unique–I do research in both the field and the laboratory. I’m a biological chemist interested in the organic chemistry of natural drugs from plants, insects, and fungi. One of the most exciting things about my research is having developed a new discipline, which in itself is rare. My laboratory has been instrumental in creating Zoopharmacognosy, which is the study of how animals medicate themselves. When animals are sick, they know what plants to use to cure themselves. Most of my research takes place deep in the Amazon and African rain forests, studying primates, plants, and arthropods.
In science, as in any other career you may choose, you must have reading and writing skills, and be able to think critically. You have to be able to think clearly about the destruction of the environment, because it is important that the rainforest not be destroyed simply for a few greedy people. In my laboratory at Cornell University, I have many minority students, but I do not work only with minority students. In fact my laboratory is known as the “United Nations laboratory”. We have students from many races and cultures. I try to involve all of my students in the spirit of scientific discovery, which for me, is the most exciting part of being a Chicano professor.
Science is about thinking and solving problems. As a student, it is very important for you to do what comes naturally to you. You should be happy at what you’re doing. I would like to tell young students that reading is vital. Learning to use a computer can come later, but it is essential to read and be able to write and think about what you read. Listening to your elders is also important. Never let yourself be discouraged by negative and mean spirited people. Education will get you what you want in life, but you must work at it.
I always wanted to be the best, be it in mathematics, English, or the sciences. My father taught us the value of being competitive from his sports background, which I transformed into a motivation to excel in school. I am Mexican-American and grew up in Montebello, California. My parents are both from Los Angeles.I am a professor of chemistry at California State University, Los Angeles (CSULA). Chemistry is part of all of our lives, and recent discoveries have affected our way of life for the better. For example, the discovery of cures for a variety of diseases came out of the laboratories of chemists who were designing materials that are now being used in silicon chips, transistors, and other things. The cars we drive and the planes we fly in are made of materials that were discovered in chemistry laboratories by scientists looking for new strong, light, and durable materials.
While I was an undergraduate I was fortunate to have several role models in the department of chemistry and biochemistry at CSULA. I started out as a mechanical engineer, but that only lasted for a few quarters. I was introduced to research by a teacher named Professor Thomas Onak. Professor Onak’s passion for research and dedication to teaching were especially encouraging in helping me decide on a research and teaching career. Two other professors who served as mentors to me during my undergraduate years were both Latino; Anthony J. Andreoli and Raymond Garcia. There were very few minorities in the sciences, and I was surprised to find two in the department. After I spoke to them and found out about the research programs in the department, I changed my major to chemistry. I also changed majors because I had received A’s in general chemistry and thought it was fun and interesting. After conducting research for a few quarters, I found it to be a wonderful experience. I also enjoyed the academic lifestyle–professors seemed to live a relaxing life. Interacting with students and doing science appealed to me. Little did I know how much work professors actually do! I received my Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry from CSULA in 1986. I knew that I needed a higher degree in order to one day be a professor, so graduate school was definitely in my future.
I attended graduate school at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). During that time I had many opportunities to conduct experiments in the laboratory and be creative. After completion of my doctorate in 1991, I went to Harvard University as a postdoctoral fellow to work with Professor George M. Whitesides. Until then, I had yet to see the relationship between chemistry and other science disciplines such as biology, medicine, and biochemistry. During my time at Harvard, I learned about the connections among these various fields of science. I decided that my research would have to involve other areas besides chemistry.
I have been a college professor since 1994, and I have found it to be a wonderful experience. They say you never really know and understand the material until you have to teach it, and so far that has been true! But a professor of chemistry does not only teach classes. I also do research. My research group and I focus on the area of bioanalytical chemistry, which is the use and development of instrumentation to examine biological problems. Specifically, we work with hollow pieces of glass called capillaries that are 50 microns (50 x10-6 meters) in diameter. This is a little larger than the thickness of a single strand of hair. We inject into the capillary different biological molecules that we would like to study and understand and then place an electrical voltage across the capillary. The voltage affects the molecules differently and causes them to move across the capillary at different rates of speed. We can measure properties of these molecules by observing where they end up in the capillary. One of the great benefits to this technique is that we need very small quantities of the molecules for study.
Battles don’t always go to the stronger or the faster man. Sooner or later the person who wins is the person who thinks he or she can. My advice to students is straightforward–read everything you can get your hands on, learn how to write, believe in yourself, see the big picture, ask lots of questions, and embrace the moment for it is quickly gone. Also, take as many mathematics and science classes as you can. Have the courage to be a leader, and don’t be shy. Make your parents and grandparents proud.
I was born in Mexico City, Mexico in 1951, and I have one brother who is ten years younger than me. My father is from Spain. My mother is from New York City, but her parents were from Austria. Neither of my parents ever finished high school, but there was always an admiration for music and art around our house; however, there didn’t seem to be anything to do with science. I found science to be very satisfying because it was a way of understanding the world around me. Being very curious about why things happen as they do, studying science was perfect for me.
In Mexico City where I attended two bilingual private schools until the ninth grade. For high school I went to a Jesuit military school. I was undecided about what I should do when I finished high school, at that time being equally interested in both philosophy and chemistry. I took a job as a truck driver in my father’s business, hoping to use the time to consider my options. In 1970, I entered the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico in Mexico City as a chemical engineering student.
Chemistry opened up a whole new way of exploring the world, enabling me to understand it from a different level. I found that many of the professors in the chemistry department were rigorous and competent, possessing a profound love for the discipline they had chosen. Seeing the love that these professors had for chemistry, and the beauty of the material itself, I changed my major to chemistry after just one year as a chemical engineering student. In 1974, I received my Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry.
Though I had a degree in chemistry, I didn’t know exactly which direction to go when I graduated. I stayed in Mexico City and taught high school for a couple of years. Teaching high school students was a very rewarding experience, but I felt that I had to continue my education. I wanted to probe more into the depths that chemistry had to offer; and I knew that more schooling would need to be in my future to better prepare myself to be a scientist. When a cousin of mine, Sonia Lombardo asked met to help her carbon-14 date some of the pyramids in Cacaxtla, Mexico for part of her doctoral thesis, I discovered my true calling. Using chemistry to find out the age of something was a fascinating notion to me. In 1978, I was admitted into the University of Michigan where I eventually earned both a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in geochemistry.
After I received my Ph.D. I was lucky enough to find a job right away as an assistant professor at the University of Miami. Then in 1983, I accepted a position at The University of Arizona in the Geosciences Department, where I am a full professor of geochemistry. I also served as head of the department; and in 2000, I was appointed Dean of the College of Science. As head of the department I made decisions that determined the direction the department would take in the future. I am very interested in higher education, and I want to open more opportunities for all students to get a good education in the geosciences. As a research professor my duties are completely different. In addition to teaching a variety of both undergraduate and graduate courses, I also direct a research operation where I oversee the research of postdoctoral and graduate students.
Of course, a geologist’s laboratory is the world, and I have had the opportunity to travel extensively as I have carried out my research. We are very interested in how the earth acts chemically. The chemistry behind the eruption of a volcano is certainly interesting, and understanding it could help us save lives and property. We are also interested in how the earth evolved chemically. Specifically, my research delves into why certain deposits of elements are accumulated in particular places on the earth. For example, in Arizona there is a high abundance of copper that you just don’t find in other places. What interests me most is when these deposits were formed over the course of the earth’s evolution, and I use chemistry to determine the age of rocks and materials near these deposits.
I think it is important to try and make a difference in the world, and I feel the only way to do this is to excel at what one does. Try to do something that has social impact, and push yourself to do well. Remember that what you do affects others, so try to do something that will enhance the well being of all of those around you.
Transition has influenced where I am today, and it defines the work I do. The major transitions in my life were difficult at the time, yet they fostered my success and ability to learn, to adapt, and to be resilient in any situation. And here I am today, working at DuPont to help the company make and sell next-generation high-performance materials.
I was born in San Pedro, California—a Mexican American community where everyone spoke Spanish. When I was 10 years old, my family moved to Indianapolis, Indiana, because of my father’s job. I was the only kid with a Spanish name in school. I didn’t know anyone outside of my family who knew my language, culture, and traditions, or who knew how to say my name correctly. I was in culture shock.
While my experience in Indianapolis was tough, in the end, I am grateful because it made me a very resilient person. I learned how to assimilate to the non-Hispanic culture and to feel comfortable in environments where there are few people like me—like corporate America and my current job at DuPont, where there are very few underrepresented minorities.
As a young person, I didn’t intend to work in industry. I actually had my heart set on becoming a naval officer. I always enjoyed science, chemistry in particular, but that might have been because I had a couple of fantastic chemistry teachers in school. I enrolled at Purdue University, a great local school that had an excellent science and engineering reputation, as well as a very prestigious ROTC program. Neil Armstrong, Gus Grissom, and many others had graduated from their ROTC program. I majored in chemistry and was accepted into the ROTC program, which covered most of my tuition and living costs.
Being in the ROTC program gave me an atypical college experience. While most students have a lot of freedom and few responsibilities, the ROTC program was incredibly structured. We had weekly uniform inspections, flag raising and lowering duties, and drill practice. If your grades dropped, you were forced to endure 20 hours of supervised tutoring every week. The program gave me excellent training and discipline, and I was eagerly working toward a leadership position in the navy.
Then in my final year, I was medically discharged from the ROTC program and told that I was ineligible for the navy. I was devastated and had no idea what I was going to do with myself. I had spent all those years training to be a naval officer. I was faced with another unanticipated transition, one that would lead me to where I am today.
I had been doing undergraduate research for a professor at Purdue, and when he found out I was ineligible for the navy, he really pushed me to go to graduate school. Since I really liked research and was in the process of figuring out the type of career I wanted to pursue, I followed his advice and began applying to several chemistry PhD programs. I applied to several really good schools and got accepted, and decided to stay on at Purdue in my professor’s lab because he was so supportive and interested in seeing me succeed.
He then led me to the next major transition in my life: moving to Alberta, Canada, where it was winter 9 to 10 months out of the year. It was so cold, with temperatures dropping to negative 60 degrees or more with the windchill. I had already completed many of my graduate requirements, so I was granted my PhD from Purdue. I spent the last two and a half years with my professor at the University of Alberta. Living that far north was really tough, but it was a great experience because it made me more flexible. It made me more open-minded to trying new things and gave me a different perspective on my views of the world.
From Alberta, I went straight to DuPont Central Research and Development. I was always interested in going into industry rather than academia. As a PhD student I synthesized small molecules and studied them. In industry you focus on applying science to solve problems that ultimately improve the human condition. At DuPont we have invented and commercialized many new materials and products that make our lives safer and easier. For example, for my first four years at DuPont I worked frequently with plastics. We make these really high-performance plastics that can endure incredibly high temperatures for use in aircraft engines and power plants. And we’re always trying to push the limit. By enhancing wear and friction properties of these super plastics we will have a huge impact on energy conservation around the globe.
I also just love the big corporate culture that highly values a work / life balance. I love that I don’t have to take my work with me. Of course there are times when I put a lot of extra hours in, but this is not the norm. And DuPont is very supportive of that, so that their employees don’t burn out. I’m married with two young sons, and I get to spend time with them and pursue other interests.
Working at a big corporation has also afforded me diverse job experiences. After four years of being a principal investigator in Central Research and Development, I am now training to work on the marketing side of the business. The idea is to marry my technical background and scientific understanding with marketing to drive innovation. Now I work with business data instead of science data and focus on DuPont’s toughest marketing challenges instead of our toughest technical challenges.
Much of my success is a result of the joint influence from my mom and dad. My father is a strategist, a big-picture person, while my mom is great at the tactical day-to-day things. My dad is a phone man; he would always talk to me about being a scientist or engineer. My mom stayed home with me and my siblings and taught us how to get things done on a daily basis. That combination was very successful for me and for my brother and sister. My parents have always been the rock that supports our foundation. My brother recently defended his dissertation in history, while my sister recently began her second year of a PhD program at Notre Dame. My parents did something right!
At a very early age, my parents also taught me I could do anything I wanted, and this made a huge difference. I never questioned whether or not I could complete the PhD, become a scientist at a top-notch research facility or become a marketer. When I tell people I have a PhD in chemistry, some say, “Oh, you must be really smart!” But my success has nothing to do with that. Almost anyone has the ability to become a scientist or engineer if they’re willing to do the work and go through the training. Academia and research can be really tough, but having the ganas (Spanish for willingness, desire, determination) is what’s most important. If we could get rid of the whole attitude about how someone must be really smart to be a scientist or engineer, then we’d have a lot more scientists and engineers which we really need!