Making The Best Of Borrowed Time - Dr. R. Jimenez, Jr.
Science was an active part of my life early on. I was fascinated with Donatello - the teenage mutant ninja turtle. Donatello was considered to be the smartest Ninja Turtle who was an inventor, into science and technology. Sparks often flew in the background as he fixed, built, or tinkered around with something cool. Newton’s Apple was also interesting to me. The show was all about science, experiments and discovery. The show's title was based on the belief that Isaac Newton was once sitting under a tree when an apple fell on his head. The event and observation was the beginning of what would one day become the Universal Laws of Gravity, which changed the way humans view the natural world. Soon my front yard became my first science lab. I remember analyzing different colors and layers of dirt, and mixing Clorox with other chemicals that I found around the house to see what would happen. Luckily I never blew myself up. I enjoy thinking back to such simple and humble beginnings because a very special person once told me to never forget where I come from and to help others. Such early exposure to science and important words were not only humble beginnings, but also a foundation for what developed into a professional career in science.
During my elementary school years I considered myself a nerd. However, I was not your typical nerd because I was also into sports. I was very athletic and played different sports, but was especially into football. I’d say that sports were very important because I was a very big kid. Being athletic helped me shed some pounds and made socializing easier to do. I think that my interest and eventual fascination for science and math was what helped me do well in school early on. My interests developed into wanting to figure out how things worked. I became the type of kid that was involved with science fairs. I did the classics that involved lava flowing volcanoes or making pennies shinny with different kinds of soda. I followed the same patterns in middle school as I continued to earn high grades.
I also did well in school because my parents came from traditional migrant working families and instilled in me a strong work ethic and the idea that education is important. Both my parents worked a lot, which meant that I spent a lot of time with my grandparents. My grandparents provided those old school values that taught me about life, helping others, education, and staying grounded. My grandmother always said, “You have to do better than us”, and then reminded me that my parents were working very hard for me. Anytime grandma thought I was slacking off in school, she gave me the eye. It was enough to get me to do better. As high school came around I still wasn't clear about a career in science, but I was beginning to think about college. The many conversations with my parents and grandparents really did sink in because the idea of college was automatic. Overtime the idea became simple – college meant giving myself an opportunity of a better life. My dad earned a bachelors degree, but he is the first to admit that he could have gone much further with more effort. He’s good at relating to people and was in the profession of helping people as a social worker. Yet, he often said that I got my intelligence from mom. All of these talks meant that the question was never about if I would go to college, but where I would go to college.
"The many conversations with my parents and grandparents really did sink in because the idea of college was automatic. Overtime the idea became simple – college meant giving myself an opportunity of a better life".
My ideology in high school was that I needed to play football well enough to get a scholarship to go to college. Football is a big deal in Edinburg, Texas. My goal was to keep my grades up and earn a football scholarship to pay for college. I was a linebacker and fullback and by this time I was often called a “smart jock”, but I still considered myself a nerd. While playing sports I still managed to excel academically and was recognized in the top ten percent of my class, which was important because the top ten percent could get into any public university. I hadn’t developed strong study strategies, but remember preparing for exams two or three days in advance. Paying attention in class and reviewing my notes from time to time helped me earn strong grades. However, what I didn't know was that I was creating bad habits that would make college tougher in the future. During my junior year my plans for college drastically changed. After two or three plays during a football game I gasped for air and struggled to breathe. I was confused because I knew that I was in good shape. I didn't think much of it because nothing hurt, but the struggle to breathe kept getting worse. At some point I almost passed out during a game. My coaches pressed me to get checked out.
After being referred to a specialist and getting numerous exams my doctor couldn’t explain what was going on, but he said that I needed to be hospitalized as soon as possible. Initially I thought he was joking, but he wasn't. I was shocked, but was still able to remain calm. I went home for the day, then went to school the next day to let my teachers know that I was going to be out for a week. I was fine until the very end. I went to see my pre-calculus teacher Mr. Sanchez to let him know, but I opened up to him and finally broke down. I was sixteen at the time and was thinking about all the worst scenarios, but hadn’t voiced my thoughts with anyone. I think I opened up to Mr. Sanchez because he was the type of teacher that talked about personal life from time to time. It made help approachable. I didn't know him too well, but related to him because he shared that he had gone through a difficult illness. He was open to listen and provided very encouraging words that helped ease my worries. Going back to the hospital was hard because I knew that they were going to put a camera down my throat to figure out what was going on with me. After the procedure, they ruled out many worst scenarios, but they couldn't pinpoint the issue. Eventually I was cleared and allowed to play football again. However, the whole experience seemed to mature me and shifted my thinking. As a senior I refocused on academics and looked forward to starting the college application process.
"I was sixteen at the time and was thinking about all the worst scenarios, but hadn’t voiced my thoughts with anyone".
I was fortunate enough to have someone like Ms. Santiago who helped me fill out the college and financial aid applications. She was an encouraging counselor who often reminded us about due dates in the hallway. After applying and waiting to hear back from universities, I finally decided on Texas State University (TSU). Initially, the whole situation that involved my heart condition led me to consider a career physical therapy. I liked the idea of focusing on sports and rehabilitation. I decided on TSU because I found out that they had a strong physical therapy program at their master’s level and I would be able to play football at the college level. Unfortunately, the person who saw my potential and recruited me moved on elsewhere. This meant that making the team would be much harder to do. In spite of that, I tried walking on to try out for the team, but that didn't work out. I still wanted athletics to be an active part of my life, which is why I decided to focus on track and field.
During one particular practice I remember warming up and jumping rope. Out of nowhere I passed out, then awoke moments later to worried stares as everyone stood around me. The coach encouraged me to take it slow and to see my cardiologist. About a week later I was walking from the cafeteria to my dorm room and began to feel extremely weak and out of breathe. I was alarmed enough to ask my roommate to rush me to the hospital. Doctors told me that my heart rate was far beyond its normal capacity and close to cardiac arrest. They kept asking me what type of drugs I’d taken. I said, none, but they didn't believe me. They insisted that I tell them the truth, but I was being truthful. To them, it was the only explanation as to why my heart was beating so rapidly and out of control. I was admitted to the hospital to stabilize my heart rate and for further tests. It turned out that I had heart arrhythmia all along and needed a defibrillator. I remember feeling scared. Meanwhile, my parents drove throughout the night to get to the hospital because I needed to consider surgery.
I remember asking the doctor what would happen if I didn’t get the defibrillator. The doctor was clear and said I had two options. Option one meant not getting the defibrillator and continuing to play sports, but risking a very likely heart attack. And option two meant getting the defibrillator and having a 99.9% chance of living a healthy life, but no more sports. I chose to live. It was an obvious choice, but a very difficult one because sports had been a very active part of my entire life. All of this happened in middle of my first semester at TSU. My collegiate athletic career was ultimately cut short. I would have to admit that all of these changes really affected me. I felt down as the idea of not playing sports hit me. Although it was hard, I was able to adjust and focus on other areas of my life that were also strengths. This incident brought on a curiosity to deeply understand my condition. My ability to adjust came from asking myself questions. I was already speaking with professors about my situation, which led communicating with Dr. Feakes. She appeared open to listen so I asked her tons of questions. My interaction with her significantly changed my academic path.
Dr. Feakes answered some of my questions, but also mentioned that the department was starting a biochemistry program that may be able to answer additional questions. She continued and said that the program was hands-on because of lab work. She concluded by mentioning that this academic program would prepare me for a Ph.D. and that it was all part of becoming a scientist. What, a Ph.D. in biochemistry? I was confused. I’d heard the word scientist plenty of times, but I didn't know that scientists earn Ph.D. degrees. I was intrigued by the idea of becoming a scientist! She went further into the process and I quickly decided that I wanted to take on this academic path. There was only one problem; I wasn’t doing well in any of my classes. I could have easily withdrawn from my classes because of my heart condition, but didn't know at the time.
"What, a Ph.D. in biochemistry? I was confused. I’d heard the word scientist plenty of times, but I didn't know that scientists earn Ph.D. degrees. I was intrigued by the idea of becoming a scientist! She went further into the process and I quickly decided that I wanted to take on this academic path. There was only one problem; I wasn’t doing well in any of my classes".
It was organic chemistry that seemed to be killing me gradually during my sophomore year. Much of my struggles with those challenging classes had to do with not seeking help and keeping old study habits. I was simply not used to asking for help or considering real study strategies. I was working hard, but not working smart. My parents were also concerned at some point because they saw that I was so stressed out. I ended up with a C in the class, but I survived. During my junior year I took on my first course in biochemistry. I was still trying to find my way, but gained much further direction once I took Mrs. Watkins’s class. She initially stood out because her teaching style was so different from others. It allowed all of us to get involved as we partnered up to teach each other concepts after she covered them in class. Concepts that were once so complex began to make sense. I pieced together material within the class and many other concepts covered in previous classes. It all clicked once I taught my friends in my own words. Saying it out loud mattered and hearing my classmates did to. Adding the social element to learning really made a difference.
My grades began to climb. It was also Mrs. Watkins that began to talk to us about understanding what type of careers we could potentially pursue in biochemistry fields. She encouraged me to attend a small regional conference presented by the American Chemical Society. I decided to attend. I heard different people speak and was astonished with admiration. I kept thinking that I would like to get to their level someday! I was so impressed by their contributions to science, their knowledge, the way they spoke, and their experiences along the way. I was inspired to work even harder to get to their level. I ran into my buddy, Doug, at the conference who was also taking the class and realized that we were into the same things. Once we came back to school we started hanging out and studying together. Often times we challenged each other and disagreed, but settled things by looking up concepts to determine who was right. Searching for concepts in the book to gain clarity was also a new study strategy that worked well for us. It became fun, competitive and about pride. My grades kept getting better and better. We were using the new study strategies that we'd learn in Mrs. Watkins’s class and developing more on our own. After getting to know Mrs. Watkins I found out that she is Chicana. Her last name didn’t match, but I thought it was cool because it was the first Hispanic professor that I’d come across in the biochemistry department and was an amazing teacher and mentor.
"Concepts that were once so complex began to make sense. I pieced together material within the class and many other concepts covered in previous classes. It all clicked once I taught my friends in my own words. Saying it out loud mattered and hearing my classmates did to. Adding the social element to learning really made a difference".
I still came across tough classes and professors, but I was better equipped to handle them. I was certainly gaining hands on experience in the classroom, but was also gaining confidence and motivation at conferences. Dr. Watkins was conducting experiments for a SACNAS conference. She was presenting workshops for students to demonstrate practical aspects of science. She told me that if I could help her then I could attend the rest of the conference, which was also a grad fair. Again, I signed up. This was the first time that I saw a sea of minorities that were all interested in science. I was amazed and felt great to be amongst so many people that looked like me and that I could relate to. Attending the conference, networking, and filling out some applications led to solidifying my desire to pursue a Ph.D. I was accepted into a summer internship program at the University of Georgia during my junior year. This was an amazing experience because it was the first time that I lived in another state.
I enjoyed the additional lab experiences and was exposed to another scientific environment that helped build new skills and my ability to do better in the classroom. I became very involved with SACNAS and other organizations such as The Society of Mexican American and Engineers (MAES). I made an effort to get involved with these organizations because they are filled with relatable students, industry pros, researchers, and scientists from all fields. These events are about helping one another, being informed, and exposure to resources. All the new study habits and networking pushed me to do very well my senior year. I felt ready for graduate school. Through SACNAS I was able to look into different grad schools. I had a few options but I finally decided on a Ph.D. in Cellular and Molecular Biology at the University of Texas at San Antonio. I wish I could say that it was a smooth transition but it wasn't. I received a rude awakening when I received a C on my first exam. I was a bit overconfident and didn’t dedicate as much time to study and prepare. I had to step it up because a C is considered a fail in graduate school.
For the first time ever I had to learn to sit down and plan out my days with great detail. I figured that organizing myself would push me forward to get things done. I made time for the gym, lecture, lab, rewriting notes, and still practiced writing biochemistry reactions well into the night. Mapping out my days ahead of time allowed me to prioritize enough hours to study and develop a sense of accomplishment along the way. I learned to balance and adjust my personal and academic life. During weekends I set aside time to hang out and watch football games with friends. I also managed to connect with my parents and grandparents every week. They were a great support system. For the first time I truly understood the meaning of working hard and working smart.
The hard work was paying off. As the years went by, I kept pushing myself harder and harder to make sure that I was absorbing all that I could in the lab and in the real world. I was very fortunate because my primary investigator (PI), which ran the lab, was very supportive about the idea of venturing out beyond the lab. From what I hear, most PIs are not very supportive of any activities beyond lab work. He was an amazing man that prioritized lab work, but also knew that he needed to prepare me for any future endeavors that came my way. Because of him I was able to seek real world experiences and was able to apply them as an academic and a professional. For example, with his support I became more involved with SACNAS and started to attend full conferences. During my doctoral program, I decided to get further involved with SACNAS by applying to a board of director’s position. I had the honor of being elected to the national board of directors and take on a central role within an amazing group of professionals. The conferences were even more invigorating because I was a part of the planning process and I could see the results.
"For the first time I truly understood the meaning of working hard and working smart. The hard work was paying off. As the years went by, I kept pushing myself harder and harder to make sure that I was absorbing all that I could in the lab and in the real world."
My PI was also very supportive during tough times. As usual, I called to check up on my grandparent’s right before I left for a conference. I found out that my grandfather had fallen and hit his head the night before. He had suffered an aneurism but was assured by my family that he was in stable condition and there was no reason for me to fly back home. As soon as the conference was over I rushed to my grandfather’s side only to find that his condition had worsened. He was placed on a ventilator and fought for a month until the family decided to take him off the ventilator. My grandfather wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. The night before he was taken off the ventilator I stayed by his side to talk to him. I know he could hear me because I could see tears in his eyes. I thanked him for all that he had done and meant to the entire family and me. The next day my grandfather passed away. I thought I was prepared for anything that came my way, but nothing ever prepared me for the loss of my grandfather – especially because he was always very present in my life.
My last year of grad school was the hardest. Within a year I’d lost my grandfather and my cousin to cancer. Still, I had to find a way to focus and finish what I started. I knew that it’s what they would want me to do, but first I had to get through my dissertation. The dissertation process was both intense and challenging. At times I felt lost, but tremendous support from my family, friends, girlfriend, and PI helped me push through. Getting pass my dissertation meant hours of writing, seeking direction, making adjustments, and staying determined. Graduation day was finally in sight. The day was very surreal because I’d earned an important accomplishment, but also knew that my grandfather was not there with the rest of our family. Still, the celebration was a family affair. My family celebrated my graduation at the Echo, which is a historic hotel in the valley. It was very symbolic to see “Congratulations Dr. Rodolfo Jimenez Jr.” on the marquee, especially because back in the day Mexicans were not allowed in the hotel, not unless you were a cook or waiter. I was the first in the family to reach such an achievement. Life has its way of guiding us sometimes. I began to research postdoc opportunities, but received professional opportunities that I had to consider.
"My family celebrated my graduation at the Echo, which is a historic hotel in the valley. It was very symbolic to see “Congratulations Dr. Rodolfo Jimenez Jr.” on the marquee, especially because back in the day Mexicans were not allowed in the hotel, not unless you were a cook or waiter."
I’m sure that my grandfather’s words have guided important decisions. It was him who told me to never forget where I came from and to help others. Interestingly, that is exactly what I do for a living - help young students that come from very similar backgrounds. I am a STEM Coordinator and Assistant Director for a Summer Bridge program at the University of Texas at Austin. In both of these positions, I have the opportunity to guide and teach underrepresented students looking to pursue degrees in STEM. I enjoy the work I do and the interactions with students. I can relate to them because I was once in their shoes. I can also guide them as many others once did for me. What I enjoy most is that I get to help students surpass struggles and become part of their successes. Doing so requires overcoming barriers that prevent academic progress. I often see reoccurring issues and strengths that affect their academic path. Those that are low income struggle because they often have to work to contribute to their family. The long hours dedicated to work interfere with study time or meeting with professors during office hours. STEM disciplines are challenging and require much dedication. I encourage students to take advantage of work-study programs that the university provides because they understand the need for work, but also the importance of their academic performance. Other students often struggle because they are stubborn. This may sound minor, but being stubborn can become a significant barrier because these types of individuals frequently don't ask for help. Also, they don't take direction very well. And lastly students also struggle because of distractions that occupy their mind and time. Many of these distractions will not matter one minute, day, month, or a year from now. Still their attention is glued to social media and entertainment figures that will not help them succeed. I often ask them, what really matters? Who really matters? What decisions and actions can you take today that will matter one minute, day, month or years from now? Many really do get it. I can see their effort as their grades and confidence rise. I’m glad to be a part of many successes and look forward to many more.
"I often ask them, what really matters? Who really matters? What decisions and actions can you take today that will matter one minute, day, month or years from now?"
My own successes have been the result of hard work, but I could have never done it without the guidance from my parents, grandparents and other family members. I had a good habit of checking in with them at least once a week. Their words and support had a way of keeping me grounded and motivated each week. Initially I felt that life was unfair because my heart condition took away my ability to pursue athletics at a higher level. However, my heart condition actually gave me two important things. First, my heart condition gave me perspective. My grandfather often told me that that we are all living on borrowed time. I could relate to his words deeply because of my heart condition. I learned to appreciate life a bit more. After all, aren’t we all living on borrowed time? It was this perspective that pushed me forward as an academic, during my dissertation process, and other tough times. Secondly, my heart condition led me to meet my wife. I had to live off campus because of my heart condition. It allowed me to get the right insurance that could cover costs. Well, my upstairs neighbor became a good friend, then girlfriend, and now she is my wife. She stuck by me during many strenuous times, which made it clear that she is a keeper! I’ve figured that things happen for a reason. What’s next? I look forward to spending time with the family and building my own. I will keep being involved with programs, projects, and organizations that seek to help students pursue academic achievements in STEM because education matters. And lastly, I will certainly continue to make the best of borrowed time, as my grandfather would have wanted.