Tell us about your current career position.
Currently, I am an NIH ISIS Postdoctoral fellow in the lab of James H. McKerrow, Department of Pathology and the Center for Drug Discovery and Innovation in Parasitic Diseases at the University of California, San Francisco. The IRACDA Scholars In Science (ISIS) program allows me to continue my research training at one of the best biomedical institutions in the country while developing my teaching skills at San Francisco State University, a minority serving institution. This is very important to me because I am a first-generation Mexican-American and the first in my family to graduate from junior high, high school, college, and graduate school. In addition, coming from a disadvantaged background and being a product of the California State University system, I am passionate about encouraging and influencing students with similar backgrounds to pursue a career in science.
What are the key experiences and decisions you made that have helped you reach your current position?
Growing up, my family was extremely poor. My father was a painter, a regular blue-collar man, who provided the sole source of family income. Although I was young, I remember all the sacrifices that my parents endured. What’s more, they gave up their lives and family in Mexico so that I could be born in the United States and have the opportunities that they never had. We always lived in the barrio (poor Hispanic neighborhoods) and seeing how hard it was for my parents and for many of our neighbors, who were mostly migrant workers, to survive, I knew that the only “way out” was through education. While both my parents barely finished 6th grade, hardly spoke any English, and could not help me with any of my homework or projects, I performed fairly well in elementary, junior high, and high school.
Another key moment in my life came during my first year of college. Being the oldest of three siblings, my obligation was to ensure that my brothers got to and from school each day. In one instance, while picking up my brother from high school where he was taking Chemistry from the same teacher I had, the teacher asked me what I was doing now that I had graduated high school. I responded that I was in my first year of college at Cal State Bakersfield and was considering majoring in Chemistry. Instead of being supportive, my old teacher told me that she doubt I would graduate college if I majored in Chemistry and that I should consider a non-science major, despite the fact that I had performed well in her class. I was disappointed with my teacher’s negativity. Perhaps to prove her wrong, and because of my interest in the subject, I did in fact major in Chemistry and went on to receive a Ph.D. in Biochemistry in 2010.
The most positive experience in my career came from my college Biology professor Dr. Ted Weinheimer (Cal State Bakersfield) who enthusiastically encouraged me to follow a career in science. He challenged me intellectually and was always willing to talk about science, and more importantly, life. Dr. Weinheimer also helped me with graduate school applications and we stayed in close contact even after I left for graduate school at the University of Arizona. This proved to be crucial because in my fourth year, due to reasons beyond my control, I nearly considered leaving the graduate program, a decision that would have affected my wife and children as well. Dr. Weinheimer helped me through a difficult situation and gave me the advice I needed. I took his advice and was able to graduate within two years of joining a new lab, published my work, and even earned a four-year postdoctoral fellowship at UCSF.
How did you first become interested in science?
My earliest memory of science exposure was when I took Biology in junior high at age 13. However, science never piqued my interest until I took Cell Biology in college. The Cell Biology lecture was accompanied by a laboratory section which was taught by Dr. Weinheimer. A particular experiment in the curriculum had proven to be very problematic for the lab course, so as my major project for the class, I chose to try to “debug” the protocol. Dr. Weinheimer enthusiastically allowed unlimited access to the lab and equipment in order for me to carry out these studies. I learned plant enzyme extraction techniques, enzyme and inhibitor kinetics, as well as how to write a formal lab report. The whole experience was exhausting but also very rewarding. It sparked my love for science. Ever since then, I have never regretted my decision to pursue a career in science.
Were there times when you failed at something you felt was critical to your path? If so, how did you regroup and get back on track?
There are always times that you fail both in life and in science, but to me, that is part of living. I have learned that failure goes hand in hand with learning. Growing up disadvantaged, I learned that you have nothing to lose taking what other people might consider risks; it is a part of who I am. I have had my share of failures, but they have all been invaluable learning experiences that have made me the person I am today.
What advice would you give to young persons from under-represented backgrounds who want to pursue a career in science similar to yours?
Work hard and never give up when adversity arises. I did not graduate from prestigious schools, but my hard work and dedication has allowed me to achieve all the goals I have set for myself, and now I am part of a great group of scientists at one of the nation’s top universities.
What are your hobbies?
Playing sports with my wife and children. We love to workout together, and to swim, play fútbol (soccer) and basketball.
What was the last book you read?
The Alchemist. This book is about a shepherd boy who wants to find his Personal Legend (what he wants to accomplish in life). I love this book because it is similar to what I have experienced my whole life, a poor boy wanting to do great things. If you want something, you need to go out and get it and make it happen.
Do you have any heroes, heroines, or role models? If so, describe how they have influenced you?
Growing up I really didn’t have any heroes or role models outside of my family. I deeply appreciate and have respect for what my mother was able to do for my siblings and I while we were growing up. She sacrificed so much to provide us with the necessities of life. In addition, she always let us learn from our mistakes, and kept us from joining our friends who were involved with gangs around the barrio. Growing up poor, temptation is always around, especially when you see your friends dealing drugs and making more money than what your parents could earn at their jobs.
What is it that keeps you working hard and studying science every day?
My love for my wife and kids, the sacrifices and difficulties I endured growing up, and the rewarding outcomes of studying science in general. I want to show students with similar backgrounds that anything you set your mind to is achievable through hard work and patience.