I remember the day I got called into my high school counselor’s office because she heard a rumor that I wasn’t planning on going to college. Both my parents had gone and my Dad even had his PhD, but I’d just read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and I wanted to explore and read books at my own pace. I had a lot of curiosity for things outside the classroom. My guidance counselor had other plans for me and persuaded me to apply to the University of Washington, where I started that fall.
Before long, I had dropped out of 11 classes because I didn’t see the point of going. As a kid who grew up on a farm in rural Washington state, I loved backpacking and dreamed of becoming a nature photographer. So it was a stroke of luck that I had a botany class that transformed what I had been looking at all around me. Botany class made sense to me because now I could begin to understand ecosystems, the names of plants and how they coexisted together.
This particular botany course was advanced, so everyone was talking over my head and I quickly realized that I had a lot of catching up to do. So I began to ask a lot of questions, which always made me stand out, but I was comfortable with it because I have always been a little different. My grandparents are from Mexico, but in a rural community, we were the only Chicano family. Visiting my mom’s family in San Jose, everyone spoke Spanish (whereas I didn’t) and I felt a strange isolation. And living in Washington state, I was called “wetback” and “beaner”. But all this made me unafraid to stand out, so I kept asking questions, which made professors want to work with me and they often became my mentors.
By switching to botany as my major, my grades went from terrible to really good. I took a class at the marine station where we did experiments changing water viscosity and monitoring how larvae were swimming. I had so much fun with these experiments that I asked if I could continue doing the work. The team at the marine station gave me full run of their lab, which is something that has continued to be a pattern in my life. When I make a pitch to explore something further, there have always been people who open the door, give me a chance and believe in me to do my own research.
For instance, I met a visiting professor from the Netherlands who asked me whether I wanted to do a PhD in his lab studying marine invertebrates. I hadn’t even thought about graduate school at that point, but I felt it was too good to pass up and I went to Europe.
Or when I attended a genomics conference to give a talk on snails and a guy from UC Berkeley approached me afterwards. We got to talking about snails and three hours later, he asked me whether I wanted to do a post-doc to map their genome. So I went off to UC Berkeley.
And now, I am a research fellow at the Marine Biological Laboratory, researching cephalopods like pygmy octopus and pygmy squid. What’s fascinating about studying cephalopods is that evolution has created two lineages. We know that humans used to have a simple nervous system and therefore we shared a common ancestor. Cephalopods elaborated on those structures, so we can examine the complexity of the brain as compared to vertebrates to see the basic principles of how they are made.
Much of our focus in the lab has been studying the effects of MDMA (commonly known as ecstasy) to create more social behaviors. Previous studies have shows that the same ion transporter exists in both octopus and squid, suggesting that our social behaviors come from an ancient circuit. Most scientists tend to think of octopi as anti-social, but when they are treated with MDMA, they begin to spend more time with others, making contact and searching out other octopus in their tanks. We often tell ourselves that humans are so complex that we can’t be understood, but our research suggests otherwise and allows us to get deeper insight from a scientific standpoint.
This year, we hired a talented scientist to work in our lab. She was an intern before, working full-time as a waitress, going to school full-time, doing her research and balancing family. It took her 7 years to graduate because of all she had to juggle. I saw her natural ability to work hard and problem solve. She didn’t have the best grades or the most prestigious resume, but she had a lot of potential that she just didn’t see yet, so we hired her.
I remembered how important it was for my unusual career path to have the doors opened and be given the chance to exceed expectations, and that is exactly what she has done. A visiting professor from NYU Abu Dhabi collaborated with us recently and was deeply impressed by her. Also, we recently ran a workshop on genetic tools in cephalopods, with participants from top labs around the world. She taught the core methods and by the end of the workshop, participants would walk right past me to ask her questions, seeking out her guidance. I can’t tell you how great that felt.
You don’t have to be a genius to be a great scientist or even be a career scientist to research and ask questions. My story isn’t that I am smarter than anyone else. People want someone in their lab who wants to be there and work hard. In some sense, when you fall outside the communities around you, you can either feel isolated or you can gather strength as an individual. And you find empowerment to follow what you think is exciting.
As a child, I was a collector. I roamed around our ranching community in New Mexico picking up rocks and thinking about how they formed earth. I collected insects in plastic baggies with my sister, putting them in the freezer to study how they survived winter. This endeavor drove my mother crazy. My father loved nature and took me and my four sisters out to watch all varieties of birds.
Mostly, I gathered knowledge, reading books about Marie Curie, Albert Einstein and other famous scientists to get a sense of who they were. There were no scientists in my immediate family, nor any scientists I knew who looked like me or shared my background. My parents valued hard work, my father was very analytical and my mother creative, but they weren’t given opportunities like higher education. We had no money for college and it was part of the culture to encourage young girls to grow up, get married and work with their husbands. I was aware at a very young age how badly the women in my community were struggling economically. They seemed stuck. I was determined that this would not be how my life turned out and that education was the key.
At the age of 18, I worked at an Air Force base and started college at the University of New Mexico (UNM) as an engineering major, but quickly realized it didn’t inspire me. A few biology courses reminded me of my love for living systems and I began working at a veterinary medicine clinic. I did well in my science courses and a professor named Dr. Trujillo invited me to join his lab and apply to graduate schools. Again, my family said I couldn’t leave the state because it would be too difficult financially. They did this out of love and to protect me, I knew, but I was steadily developing my independence and making my own choices.
I stayed at UNM and began graduate work, but about halfway through, I decided it was time to get out of New Mexico and get a postdoc out of state. My PhD mentor was the wonderful Dr. Maggie Werner-Washburne (former SACNAS President and Regents’ Professor Emeritus of Biology) who reminded me to stick with it when I was overwhelmed and told me I had a nose for good questions within biology. I followed my mentor’s advice and I completed my PhD in Biology at UNM. At the end of my PhD program, I got pregnant with my daughter.
Despite my family’s insistence that I stay in the state so that she would grow up around family, I applied for– and was awarded– a three-year National Science Foundation fellowship for a highly competitive postdoc at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Washington. The program was a perfect fit because they offered a fantastic preschool for employees. This helped me choose a prestigious program while caring for my family. In Seattle, I was surrounded by people at the top of their fields and I was pushed in my work to study suspended animation, hypometabolism, and oxygen deprivation.
My daughter’s father lived in Fort Worth, Texas, and it was important to me that she see him often. My mother also would not get on an airplane to visit me in Seattle, so once my postdoc was finished, I looked for a position near New Mexico or Fort Worth that would allow me to start my research lab, teach, and work with underrepresented minority students.
Taking the position at University of North Texas (UNT) has worked well. I have been able to build my research career here and teach a diverse student population. My daughter is thriving in college and my parents have begun to appreciate my decisions. When my students ask about balancing family and a STEM career, I tell them that if you love what you are doing, you prioritize, focus and make tough choices. For instance, I loved science and caring for my daughter, so that meant I went about a decade without seeing a movie! My daughter has sat in on my lectures when her school was closed and come to my lab when I didn’t have someone to watch her. My escape has always been running, so I would reconnect with nature in this way and have an occasional dinner with friends, but the truth is, when you’re raising a child independently and competing at the highest level of your field, you prioritize and make choices.
The important thing to remember with any challenge is that they are short-term. There is an end! Once I earned tenure and reached full professor at UNT, I had time to train and complete six half marathons, take on an administrative position that includes faculty mentoring and I continued to run my research lab. I am happily re-married and even found time to catch up on those movies I missed. I was also able to serve on the SACNAS Board of Directors, which was an amazing opportunity to to help lead the organization that has supported me throughout my education and career for the past 25 years—starting with my first poster presentation as an undergraduate student.
To those future scientists collecting rocks in their backyards and freezing specimens in your mother’s freezer, I say this: do not allow negative voices to dictate your path. Take in the advice you’re given decide what’s true for you, throw away the pieces that will deter you, and ultimately—realize that YOU are responsible for your own choices. YOU chart your own path.
Dr. Pamela Padilla is Vice President of Research and Innovation (interim), Associate Dean of Research and Graduate Studies, and Professor of Biological Sciences at University of North Texas.
Like many kids growing up in the 90s, I can remember the first time I played a computer game. My elementary school had an Apple II, where we played The Oregon Trail. It seemed magical and I was curious about what was inside the case, making pixels appear and disappear and guiding me through the story.
My parents had moved us from Guadalajara, Mexico to the United States when I was six for better work and educational opportunities. When they saw my passion for computers, they pieced together what little money they had and bought me a 486 DX2 desktop computer for our home. It wasn’t long before I was tying up the phone line, tearing through America Online free trial CDs and begging for our own dialup internet account. We had settled in Auburn, California, and during my high school years, I convinced our electronics teacher to let us have a zero period. Every morning before school started, I could do self-study programming with other students who were interested in computers.
On the way home from a basketball game one day, a teammate’s dad suggested that I apply for a summer internship where he worked at Hewlett-Packard (HP). I sat at my computer to create my first ever resumé, applied, and got the internship the summer before college.
During my internship at HP, I met another intern who was studying computer science (CS) at Howard University. I was a little intimidated by the amount of math required to pursue a CS degree, but he helped change my perception. I was not naturally gifted in math, but he said all I needed to do was do my homework, get clarification when I needed from study groups or office hours, and study for exams. This simple advice was exactly what I needed at the time.
Enrolling at San Jose State University (SJSU) felt like being reacquainted with my Mexican roots. I’d been listening to punk rock, alternative music, and rap, but at SJSU, I woke up to the sounds of mariachi and was introduced to Spanish rock bands and artists that I really enjoyed. To pay for school, I worked at a web design firm and then at a startup called Excite@Home, where I did web development for the intranet site of the company.
Unfortunately, the company went from 3,500 employees to just around 500 in the course of a year and a half and I had a front row seat to watching the dot com bubble burst. Management laid-off most of my team and moved me from part-time to full-time to help with internal communication while the company continued to shut off operations. I continued chipping away at my credits, taking a math class early in the morning and then working full-time.
After finally getting laid-off, I tried to get another job to continue to pay for school but there was an oversaturation of software engineers in the Bay Area. My original plan after I graduated was to get an MBA and go back to work for HP or another major tech corporation. One day, I received a letter in the mail from Dr. Herbert Silber about a program called Minority Access to Research Careers (MARC). The letter asked, “Have you ever thought about doing a PhD?” I didn’t know what to expect, but I knew I needed financial assistance to pay for school, so I applied and was accepted.
Through MARC, I began doing research with a professor in the CS department and found that I loved doing research! We’d start with an open question, figure out how to formulate the problem, come up with a plan to test our hypothesis, and then work through different solutions. I no longer wanted to be get an MBA, I wanted to get a PhD and become a professor. But, I didn’t want to get a PhD in CS, I wanted to use my computational skills to solve science problems.
That’s when I was introduced to Dr. Frank Bayless who runs the Student Enrichment Office at San Francisco State. The office has various programs that allow minority students to do research and prepare them for grad school. I studied bioinformatics in the CS department which helped solidified the research I was interested in. From there, I applied and went to grad school at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) to the Biomedical Informatics program, which had a strong biophysics and bioinformatics focus. Having been formally trained in CS, I needed to catch up as best as I could on biology, biochemistry, chemistry, cell biology, and pharmacology so that I would be successful throughout my graduate studies. It was a daunting task, but I was able to do it!
At UCSF, I did lab rotations where I developed computational methods to study enzymes, researched the genetics of Latino/African American populations, implemented a system to study the structure of RNA, analyzed malaria messenger RNA, and developed methods for predicting the side effects of small molecule therapeutics.
I decided to join the lab of Dr. Ajay Jain where I developed computation methods which combined the positive and negative effects of drugs with their 3D molecular structure to predict interactions with proteins that can lead to undesired side effects. I learned so much from my advisor and I feel grateful that I was able to work with him during my graduate school career.
With my graduate work completed, data science had emerged as a field where individuals like myself who are trained as scientists can have an impact solving real-world problems and building data products. Now, I am part of the founding team at an artificial intelligence company called Primer. My role has changed quite a bit from data science software engineer, to technical lead, and now manager. It has been an amazing experience building technology from scratch. It very much feels like doing research, except the product is not a research paper but a piece of technology.
Some of the things that are valued in academia – communication, mentoring, research – can be satisfied in industry. Evolving and changing one’s mind about a career path is normal and it is good to be flexible. Building technology from scratch has allowed me find innovative solutions to difficult problems and, as the company grows, I am taking more of a management role which has allowed me to mentor other team members. Appropriate training should be provided to grad students who want to persue careers outside of academia. A lot of progress has been made at universities, but there is more work to be done.
For me, it’s fulfilling to be part of a field that brings all my strengths and interests together. I have seen how my persistence and determination has continued to pay off! One thing I’ve learned is that your learning is up to you. The teachers and professors are there to teach you, but at the end it is your responsibility. I was in an university setting for 14 years (undergrad, Masters, and PhD), but at the end of the day, I achieved my goal of getting a PhD and no one can take away from me.
Milka Montes, PHD
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.
Carlos Gutierrez, PhD
Over the years, I’ve learned that the journey towards and through a Science and Engineering Career can have many twists and turns, and is typically not the simple path that you envisioned when you were younger. However, it can be far richer and more fulfilling than you ever imagined if: (1) you work hard; (2) are persistent; (3) courageously and judiciously explore seemingly risky opportunities; (4) make enabling sacrifices; (5) accept that many of your decisions will be imperfect and possibly even wrong; and (6) learn from and move on from your failures and disappointments. In retrospect, I realize that my professional success has been enabled by many other supporting influences around me, starting with my parents. We also have an obligation to pay it forward to others when we have the opportunity.
My maternal grandmother never had the opportunity to pursue a primary or secondary education because of the turmoil of the 1910 Mexican Revolution which forced her immigration to the USA. Nonetheless, she valued the importance of education and often reminded me of our family’s Aztec heritage. Her stories about her Nahuatl-speaking grandmother and how Astronomy influenced the Aztec world view combined with more modern American science fiction influences, and were influential in my early interest in a STEM career. My parents were not college graduates, and neither were engaged in STEM Careers. Although they did not understand what a STEM Career could provide compared to other more familiar careers (i.e., business, law or medicine), they could offer love and support my decision to pursue my STEM career interest.
I originally wanted to be an astrophysicist and a professor, and that led my early education choices. In High School, I had to find courage to ignore other uninformed voices around me that tried to dissuade me from a Physics career as being “too hard”, or unmarketable. With my family’s support, I earned my Physics bachelor’s degree from the University of Dallas. Afterwards, my parents did not pressure me to get a “real job” rather than pursue a graduate education. This faith and encouragement helped me pursue the lengthy and arduous path through graduate school. Since I grew up in San Antonio, I focused my graduate school search within Texas. Unfortunately, after various visits, none of the programs seemed like a good fit for me, and it was too late to apply elsewhere. Uncertain about where to go to graduate school, I was fortunate to find a civil service physicist job at Kelly AFB in San Antonio to buy me more time to investigate graduate school options. My KAFB co-workers were friendly and I quickly learned how to do my job evaluating jet engines. Within a few months, I became bored with the position, and learned that the more interesting Physics jobs were elsewhere, and required much more education. Thus, I continued my search for a Physics Graduate School outside of Texas that seemed like a better fit.
I learned about the recent decision to place the Hubble Space Telescope Science Institute (STSI) at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and that looked like an incredible opportunity worth pursuing despite the distance from my family and culture. With my parents’ nervous blessing, I took a risk and went to Physics and Astronomy graduate school at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, far my family and cultural surroundings. My KAFB co-workers were supportive of my decision, but also thought I was crazy to resign from a secure career civil service job with steady promotion opportunities. In hind sight, it turned out that the position was not secure – KAFB closed due to a BRAC Commission decision within 10 years (now Port San Antonio).
The change of surroundings during my first year was much more difficult than I expected, and I was surprised how quickly “out of shape” I became from university study habits in my “gap year” between undergraduate and graduate school. I also did not save as much money as I thought I would despite staying at home for that gap year. There is a risk in taking a gap year between undergraduate and graduate school, and I was almost a victim. I seriously thought about quitting graduate school that first year, but I somehow worked hard and persisted. The memory of the lack of career challenge from my previous KAFB job was a key motivator. Fortunately, after that first tough year at Hopkins, things became more comfortable and exciting. Despite an interesting STSI summer intern experience after my first year at Hopkins, I realized that I was more interested in the state-of-the-art instrumentation contained in the Hubble Space Telescope. I learned that Condensed Matter and Materials Physics were an even greater passion, so I took a risk and shifted gears away from Astrophysics.
My Hopkins dissertation project focused on fundamental issues related to surface and interface magnetism, partially motivated by the chance to be advised by a very bright, dynamic and supportive Physics Professor: Cal Walker. After Hopkins, I still wanted to be a Professor, and I was advised that a challenging postdoctoral research experience was crucial. With Cal’s help, I was fortunate to successfully apply for an National Research Council Postdoctoral Research Associateship at the Naval Research Lab in nearby Washington DC. My choice was motivated by the chance to work with another dynamic researcher (and Hopkins alumnus), Gary Prinz. Coincidentally, Gary Prinz would later found NRL’s Nanoscience Institute. Besides my engagement in exciting research at the dawn of the age of spintronics, I also had the chance to learn how Gary motivated a team of researchers towards a coordinated goal, and the importance of research in support of US National Security.
Determined to be a Professor at a place where I could make a difference and move closer to family, I next accepted a position at Texas State University. Like graduate school, the first year was the hardest. I wondered if I made the right decision. After working hard and surviving the first year, it was exhilarating working towards building a new Materials Physics research and curriculum program that impacted the careers of many future students. I began offering mentoring that began to pay forward the help that I received. I had great satisfaction helping a group of ambitious Texas State students initiate a new “Science Extravaganza” outreach program that was eventually recognized and expanded throughout the National Society of Mexican American Engineers and Scientists organization. I was pleased that I significantly contributed towards Texas State University becoming a Hispanic Serving Institution, and lead the way to a new interdisciplinary Materials Science Doctoral program.
After 13 years at Texas State University, another opportunity for change and growth appeared – I was offered a chance to lead an R&D Department with outstanding nanomaterials science/engineering experts at Sandia National Laboratories (NM). This opportunity was the result of my expanding research collaborations putting me on the radar of Sandia National Labs. Many of my Texas State University colleagues saw great risk in the opportunity, especially since I would be leaving a tenured Professor position. Additionally, many of them thought that since the Sandia position was not a Professorship, it was not a “real” science position. I disagreed. Sandia’s offer was a risky opportunity, taking me out of Texas again and landing me in a new environment and culture. Again, the first year was the hardest and I wondered if I made the right decision to come to Sandia. Again, persistence, adaptability and networking helped me make the transition. It has been a tremendous and satisfying learning experience at Sandia, leading to recognition by HENAAC and Fellowship in the American Physical Society. In my present role, I continue to look for ways to keep paying it forward. I don’t know what opportunity lays in waiting in the future, but I hope that I will recognize it and have the courage to pursue it. I hope that my example helps you recognize and courageously pursue your path.
Updated April 3,2018
Carlos Catalano, PhD
As a middle school student in Corona, California, I was fortunate to have Mr. Schultie for my science teacher. When I would ask him a question, he would say, ”I don’t know, but I have often wondered about that myself.” Mr. Schultie had a library in the back of his classroom, and he would suggest that I look for an answer there and let him know what I had found. For the longest time I thought he was ignorant. Finally, I realized that he was teaching me a very important lesson: I could find an answer to any question on my own. It was wonderful to have someone point me in the right direction. Many times throughout my education, I have been fortunate to have someone guide me by pointing the way.I attended California State University, San Bernardino after I finished high school. I wasn’t quite ready for college at that time, so I quit and worked as a buyer at Circle City Hospital for two years. That work experience convinced me that I was still very interested in science, and that an education would provide me with the necessary tools to become a successful scientist. So, I went back to school. This time I went to California State University, Fullerton. My favorite subject was chemistry. I recall a conversation that I had with my professor of organic chemistry where he told me that no one understood how aspirin worked. I was dumbstruck. How could we be so uninformed about such a common, over-the-counter drug? This started my interest in the chemistry of drugs, which continues to this day.
I moved to San Francisco and completed my Bachelor of Science degree in biochemistry at San Francisco State University. I was still very interested in the chemistry of drugs but was seeking financial security in a profession. How could you make a decent living in chemistry? Little did I know of the many interesting and lucrative opportunities that actually existed. Nevertheless, I enrolled in the School of Pharmacy at University of California, San Francisco. At this critical point in my career, I was again fortunate to have someone point the way. Dr. Neal Castagnoli told me that I could study pharmacy and at the same time continue my studies in chemistry. This is exactly what I did. I received a Doctor of Pharmacy (Pharm.D.) degree in 1983 and a Ph.D. in Pharmaceutical Chemistry in 1987 while working for Dr. Paul Ortiz de Montellano. Paul was also a major influence in my life. He continued to feed my curiosity, and more than anything else he nurtured my love for science.
I then moved to Pennsylvania State University for a post-doctoral fellowship. During this time my scientific interests broadened, and I began to study the chemistry of proteins, working with Dr. Steve Benkovic. I examined how a cell makes more DNA, something that must happen for the cell to divide. This was also an exciting time, learning new ideas and different ways to perform experiments. Steve taught me how to approach difficult problems in studying the chemistry of enzymes. These lessons are very important to my everyday life as a scientist today.
Finally, after all the training and hard work, I accepted a faculty position at School of Pharmacy, University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in 1989. Although I no longer practice pharmacy, I teach pharmacy students biochemistry and try to show them how the biochemistry of a cell (and a human) is changed by drugs. Today the pharmacist’s role in society is going through radical changes. In the last century, the pharmacist’s role was mainly to dispense medicine. Now pharmacists are receiving more intensive training, leading to the Doctor of Pharmacy degree. Pharmacists are now expected to take a more active role in helping patients.
My favorite part of my job, however, is conducting research on viruses. These are very tiny infectious particles that enter a cell and ”take it over” to make more viruses. My laboratory is interested in how a virus replicates inside of a cell. We try to understand how the virus puts itself together, making virus pieces from the cell’s pieces. I am still interested in chemistry, the chemistry of life. The lessons that I have learned from my teachers as well as my students and peers have made me even more curious about how life works. If I can have it my way I will continue to be a student for the rest of my life.
Carlos Castillo-Chavez, PhD
I never thought about becoming a mathematician or a scientist when I was younger. In fact, I had a strong desire to become either an actor or a hotel manager! While in school I worked as a Coke salesman at the 1968 Olympics in my native Mexico City, and in a hotel. As a student I excelled at all subjects; however, after the October 2, 1968 student massacre at Tlatelolco, I lost interest in school. The hope for democracy and change had been destroyed by the military. I immigrated to Wisconsin in 1974 where I held a few non-academic jobs – including a job at a cheese factory – before returning to school. I enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point (UWSP) in 1975, where I majored in Spanish literature and mathematics, earning my bachelor’s degree in 1976. I completed a master’s degree in pure mathematics in 1977 at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and in 1984 I completed a Ph.D. in applied mathematics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, under the supervision of Fred Brauer. I taught for a year at the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma(1984-85) before accepting a position as a postdoctoral student in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Cornell University. Simon Levin (now at Princeton University) was my mentor from 1985 to 1988. I joined the faculty at Cornell in 1988 as an assistant professor of biomathematics, was promoted to associate professor in 1991, and to full professor in 1997.I have been very lucky because I have a job where I am interested and am able to work with issues that I find important. Because I want others to be able to have the same opportunities as myself, I co founded (with Herbert Medina) the Mathematical and Theoretical Biology Institute (MTBI) in 1996. MTBI supports and fosters research activities primarily among underrepresented minority undergraduate students. During the regular academic year, MTBI also mentors and supports underrepresented minority undergraduate and graduate students from various universities who are working in the mathematical or statistical sciences. MTBI mentored and trained over 106 minority undergraduate students in the mathematical and statistical sciences from 1996 to 2000. About 47% of these students were enrolled in some of the most selective U.S. graduate programs in these fields in the nation. I received a Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring in 1997, in part for the work that I have carried out with MTBI.
I currently hold joint appointments in the Departments of Statistics, Biometrics, and Theoretical and Applied Mechanics at Cornell University. I am also a member of the graduate programs of applied mathematics, epidemiology, ecology and evolutionary biology and Latin American studies at Cornell. My research involves the use of dynamical systems, modeling, statistics and computational techniques in the study of theoretical questions that arise in these fields. You may never have heard of a dynamical system, but its main idea has already been covered in your algebra course in high school, the composition of functions. In dynamical systems, we choose a function f and a point a, and follow the computations, a, f(a), f(f(a)), f(f(f(a))), …, forever. For example, if f(x) = x2, then if we start with a real number a, the sequence of numbers generated gets larger and larger if a>1 or a<-1, smaller and smaller if -1<a<1, and stays one if a=±1. This is a dynamical system. Maybe it doesn’t look very interesting, but if you let a be a complex number, then beautiful patterns are described. However, I used them mostly to model populations and disease epidemics.
I have carried out specific research on HIV/AIDS, influenza, Chagas’ Disease, and tuberculosis. My research is driven by the study of the role of social dynamics (social landscape) on disease evolution. I received a Presidential Faculty Fellowship Award (1992-1997) for my interdisciplinary research and leadership efforts, which included a $500,000 National Science Foundation Grant. My research and education programs have been supported by various funding sources, including the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, National Security Agency, and the Sloan Foundation. I have published over ninety research articles, edited two volumes and co-authored a textbook on mathematical biology (with Fred Brauer). I was awarded the Profesor Plenario by the Universidad de Belgrano, and named a Catedra Patrimonial by the Institute of Applied Mathematics (IIMAS) at the National University in Mexico (UNAM). In 1999, I was named distinguished alumni by the UW-Stevens Point Alumni Association, and in 2000 I received the QEM Giant in Science Mentoring Award. For a recent interview look at STRIDES.
My job has been extremely rewarding. Thanks to my luck, awards, and hard work, I have been able to give back to those who need it the most. I have learned that education is the key to a better life for an individual, their family, and their community.
Benjamin S. Duran, PhD
I was born in 1939 in Tularosa, New Mexico. My people are known as Chicanos, with four hundred years of heritage in New Mexico. My family was poor and extremely hard working, and I was the third oldest of five children. My siblings and I started working in the cotton fields when we were in grade school, trying to earn money to help our family. Although we were poor, we were rich in family values; the values I grew up with were those of family, community and helping each other.
When I started elementary school, I knew very little English. When I was in public school I had the impression that all teachers were white since that was the situation in our school—there were no role models for Chicanos. However, I was blessed with talent in mathematics and a high school teacher noticed that and pushed me into the more advanced classes in mathematics.
When I graduated from high school I was ready to join the Air Force. But, a friend of my family came to my graduation and offered to buy my books for the first year if I attended the College of Saint Joseph in Albuquerque. He took me there during the summer to see the campus and I decided I would take him up on the offer. This friend taking interest in my education motivated me in ways that are immeasurable.
I was the only one from my family to go to college and my first year of school was very difficult. I was so homesick I almost quit, but my parents considered education to be very important so they encouraged me to continue and pursue my degree.
When I was an undergraduate in college I supported myself by being a janitor for four years. I also had to take out loans to help support my education. Since I had not planned on attending college I did not seek any scholarships as a senior in high school and I did not receive any counseling to that end.
Despite my financial difficulties, I never had any doubt as to what I would study in college: mathematics. During my senior year at the College of Saint Joseph, my mathematics professor suggested that I attend graduate school and study statistics, since he felt that was becoming a very important field of study. He was right. I received a Ph.D. in statistics in 1966 from Colorado State University. As a graduate student I had a research assistantship for one year and a training grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for four years. In graduate school there are more opportunities for support in the form of research/teaching assistantships, fellowships, grants, etc.
What do statisticians do? We are involved in the design of studies for producing meaningful data, analyzing data for useful information, and drawing practical conclusions from data. Statisticians are employed in our government where they are involved in many areas used in forming national policy, such as the census bureau where they design sample surveys. They are also involved in the pharmaceutical industry where they analyze data to determine which drugs are effective and safe before they are dispensed to the public; in the credit card industry where they determine the credit rating of applicants for credit cards; in industry where they are involved in the quality assurance of products; etc. In short, statisticians are employed in many different types of industry, which affect our daily lives.
As a statistician I was involved in public education for 36 years, directing the research of over 50 master’s/ Ph.D. students in statistics, and collaborating with researchers in several science and engineering disciplines. I have also worked at the Los Alamos National Laboratory on problems dealing with system reliability, and at the Weapons Laboratory (now Phillips Laboratory) at Kirtland Air Force Base on research related to the development of an outer space discrimination system to defend against a potential nuclear attack, etc. Prior to my retirement from Texas Tech University in 2002, I was elected a Fellow of the American Statistical Association. One of my most important objectives is to promote the education of our minority students and to promote their involvement in today’s society. Also, I advise many minority students on educational opportunities.
If you are the first one from your family to pursue a higher education you will be setting a great example for those who are to follow. I was the only one from my family to attend a university but each of my four children has received at least a master’s degree. So you see, by pursuing a higher education you impact many others.
Ann Lopez, PhD
I was born into an interracial Mexican-American and Anglo-American working-class home in Southern California at a time when Mexican-Americans and Anglo-Americans were socially segregated. Sometimes I feel that it is a miracle that I am even here because my father lived on the “wrong side of the tracks,” and my mother came from an old wealthy family in Arkansas that, before the Civil War, used to have slaves!
In my family, the fact that my two sisters and I are biracial was painfully suppressed. So when I wasn’t allowed to wear braids because I might look too much like an Indian, or when I was singled out in class, or picked on by other children in my all-white school, I couldn’t understand what was happening. I grew up thinking there was something inherently wrong with me.
But in a confusing and often solitary childhood, science was always very stabilizing—a rock I could count on. I knew that no matter what, hydrogen would always have one proton and one electron. And although my parent’s silence around our biracial family was difficult, they were very open minded about how to raise a girl. During the 1950s, there were a lot of female stereotypes, and girls generally had to play inside and help with chores. Instead, my parents let me run wild in the hills around our home, where I would spend hours observing nature and wildlife.
I excelled in school and, after high school, assumed that I was college-bound. However, my high school counselor thought differently. Perhaps it was racial discrimination or because I was a girl, or a combination of both. But when I graduated from high school, after earning all As and Bs, the counselor told me, “You know, I think it would be good for you to go to beauty school at Pasadena City College.” When I told my father, he was so angry. He encouraged me to apply to University of California, Riverside, which is where I earned a B.A. in biology.
I went on to receive my master’s degree in biology from the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 1969 and that same year started teaching biology at San José City College. Because I had such a successful career teaching at the community college level, I had never thought about going on to earn a Ph.D. until I read a series of articles about Mexican farm workers in the newspaper. The rage I felt at the inhumane treatment of farm workers and the degradation of the land they were working on propelled me into the newly formed environmental studies doctoral program at the University of California, Santa Cruz in 1994. I was 49 years old.
I decided on environmental studies because it gave me the chance to combine my love of science with my desire to help farm workers and farm land. In order to fully comprehend a problem, environmental studies examines the whole picture, including the social, economic, political, biological, and ecological aspects of the environment. So, to understand why Mexican farm workers were being treated poorly in the United States, I had to understand the social, biological, and ecological aspects of the entire agricultural system that they were part of, both in the United States and Mexico. My work in graduate school enabled me to channel my anger at the injustice that farm workers face into a productive way to work toward helping people and the environment. Studying the “whole picture” gave me the perspective I needed to understand the complicated intersections between countries, science, farming, racial discrimination, and human rights.
Using the tools of looking at the “whole picture” that I learned in graduate school would have drastically changed my childhood. But it was my adventures outside, my love of science, and the painful feelings of rejection and isolation in childhood that helped shape my desire to use science as a way to preserve the environment and work for social justice. My childhood experiences also taught me to never be afraid of speaking my mind or getting angry. For a woman of my generation, this is an unusual characteristic. My mother always used to say, “Think before you speak!” But that always felt unnatural. If I had kept all of my thoughts and emotions stuffed inside, I would probably be dead by now!
In my life, allowing myself to get angry and speaking my mind has empowered me to make progress in both my education and my career. Most importantly, however, it has given me a way to look at the “whole picture,” to see how all of our actions can make a difference in the world. I may have been 57 years old when I finished my Ph.D., but I learned that it is never too late to follow your passion or speak your mind.
Alfonso Ortega, PhD
I was born and raised in El Paso, Texas. My parents migrated to the United States for better job opportunities so as to provide for their eleven children. My parents are from ranchitos (small ranches) outside of Durango, Mexico. My father was a teacher in Mexico; but when he migrated to the U.S. he became a bricklayer, a trade he soon mastered. He loved his job and felt passionate about being a master bricklayer. My brother and I would often work for him. I owe a great deal of my love for building things to my father. He helped me understand and appreciate the value of a good structure, as well as the beauty contained within it.I went to Bel Air High School in El Paso. During high school I worked hard, and eventually I won a scholarship to Rice University, a university of high reputation. However, when I told my parents about my opportunity, they weren’t very enthusiastic about it. Though they didn’t stop me from attending Rice, they never gave me the approval I felt was necessary. I decided instead to go to the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). I have never regretted this decision, for I believe I received an excellent education. At that time the school catered to undergraduates, and I learned the essentials I would need to become a successful engineer. One professor I had at UTEP, Professor Jack Dowdy, introduced me to the engineering problems surrounding heat exchange, and set me on a course that continues to this very day. It is amazing the impact that a few small comments can have on a student. I received my B.S. degree with honors in mechanical engineering from UTEP in 1976.
In January 1977, I started work at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, participating in the One Year On Campus (OYOC) program, which is meant to help minorities and women get higher degrees. I consider myself to be a case study in how the system works for getting minorities and women into advanced degrees through national laboratories. I saw people with advanced degrees doing the things I wanted to do, and that having a graduate degree in engineering was the key to success.
In August 1977, I left Sandia and headed to Stanford University. I was enrolled in an intensive one-year master’s degree program. That first quarter at Stanford was the toughest that I had ever experienced. At UTEP I was used to being the top student, and things just seemed to come to me naturally. However, the higher the educational level, the more dedicated the students are. For the first time in my career I was not easily the top student in my classes. I earned my master’s degree and then returned to Sandia where I continued to work. Seeing the need for even higher education, after two and a half years I returned to Stanford to pursue my Ph.D. under the Sandia Laboratories advanced degree program. At Stanford I worked as a research assistant with Professor Bob Moffat on heat exchange problems in engineering. After five years I obtained my Ph.D., and then returned again to Sandia. On the side I worked as an adjunct professor at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, where I learned that I enjoyed university teaching. I wasn’t looking for a position when I received a request from the University of Arizona (UA) to interview for a tenure track professorship. I had been recommended by my advisor at Stanford as a possible candidate for the position. I decided to interview, and I was offered and accepted the position in 1988. I am currently an Associate Professor, and the Director of the Experimental and Computational Heat Transfer Group, at UA.
In my laboratory we study heat transfer. A project we are working on in my laboratory is cooling down computers as they work harder to keep up with the ever increasing speed of operations. We use the human brain as a model. The brain is cooled by bringing liquids (blood) into contact with it. We are trying to use this idea by bringing cool liquid, air and water, into close contact with the processor, which heats up as it does more work. The heat is transferred to the liquid, which is then carried off and cooled by circulation. The process repeats, keeping the computer’s processor cool enough to function properly, much like the human brain.
I love my job. I work on problems in engineering that are important and interesting. With the knowledge that I gain from studying these problems, I get to teach and inspire students at all levels, from high school, to my university classes, to professional engineers in industry. I feel privileged being an academic at the University of Arizona.