Learning To Pursue Challenges - Dr. Ramirez-Carrozzi
There they were front and center talking pictures, jumping up with joy, and cheering for me as I walked to the center of the stage. I was in the second grade, receiving a certificate of achievement for being at the top of my class back in Peru. Seeing my mother and aunt cheering for me with such excitement fueled my drive to excel academically. It’s what got the ball rolling, as they say. They were both raising me, which provided much satisfaction knowing that earning good grades was my way to thank them for all they did for me. When I was seven years old my aunt migrated to the U.S. and my mom was left to raise me on her own. Her departure was a big deal for us, but life for me changed much more drastically because mom passed away of cancer when I was nine years old, leaving me an orphan. My grandmother and other aunts took good care of me for the next couple of years, but it was almost written in stone that I would live with my aunt because she was already a mother-like figure. This meant moving to San Francisco CA to live with her. She had married and with the help of my uncle they adopted me and raised me as their son. I was very grateful to have the love of a family, and to come to this great country. Still, all the changes made everything foreign, especially school.
I didn't know a word of English when I arrived at age eleven. The fact that I was a shy kid also didn't help. The language barrier amplified because I naturally made friends with students who also spoke Spanish. Making friends with other Spanish-speaking students came so natural. They were mostly Central American or Mexicans that came from many different places. I was learning about different histories, word usages, cultures, and foods that were all new. However, the only problem was that I was not practicing English. I was also missing important details presented during class. I really liked school back in my hometown of Lima Peru, but it was difficult to stay engaged or enjoy something that I didn't understand. I felt lost. However, the one subject that seemed to have crossed borders was math. It was universal language that I always enjoyed. I saw numbers everywhere. For example, I remember seeing them on the back of baseball cards as statistics. I was into soccer and baseball, which made learning about player statistics another interesting aspect of sports. Math helped me tremendously because understanding numbers kept my confidence up even if I was struggling with other subjects.
"I felt lost. However, the one subject that seemed to have crossed borders was math. It was universal language that I always enjoyed. I saw numbers everywhere."
By the time I was in high school, I’d become the only one of all of my friends that was taking calculus. I was also into science because it could be applied to human health, the universe, and just about everything important. I simply did the homework, assignments, and asked a friend when I didn’t understand something, but somehow I wasn't learning much. Instead of causing trouble, I became the quiet kid in the back of the class. I learned to stay quiet because I tried asking questions in class, only to have some students make fun of me because of my heavy accent. I attended a school that had a special arts program located within the same school grounds. I took a couple of painting and drawing classes because I enjoyed drawing and attention to detail. Back in Peru we used to research historical figures and then draw something related to the figure or topic. I remember once drawing an Inca warrior for hours until I could replicate all details from the image precisely. My art teacher noticed my artistic potential and made a recommendation so that I could become part of the Arts high school. I was doing well with art, math, and excelled in sports, which helped me have a GPA strong enough to apply to colleges. But still, I was just getting by and partially making sense of the materials being presented in science classes, which required understanding the lectures, reading comprehension from the book and written assignments.
My uncle (dad) figured this out, became frustrated, and decided to go school to talk to my teachers about my lack of improvement to speak English. I was pulled out of the English as a second language program (ESL) classes and vocational classes such as wood shop and architectural design, and was placed in regular classes, which included the science classes mentioned above. Looking back, it was my own comfort zones that delayed my ability to learn to speak English. I was being pushed in the right direction, which really helped because I never lost sight of my desire to become a college student. The goal was to become a medical doctor. The simple rationale to most of my friends came from the fact that a medical doctor is a very common, and often only response to the question: what do you want to be when you grow up? Well, a very common response aside from “I have no idea”. It seems like Latina moms often hope that someday their son or daughter will become a doctor. I ‘d say because the profession is noble, compassionate, and well-respected. Routine doctor visits growing up, movies on TV, and lack of exposure to other professions added to the common response. And it's a good one, but my personal rationale for becoming a doctor was much deeper.
"The goal was to become a medical doctor. The simple rationale to most of my friends came from the fact that a medical doctor is a very common, and often only response to the question: what do you want to be when you grow up? Well, a very common response aside from "I have no idea”.
In high school I’d decided to aim for the stars and pursue the idea of becoming a doctor to prevent or cure cancer. Losing my mother to such a serious disease left a lasting impression. I figured that becoming a medical doctor was the best way to combat a disease that causes so much harm to people and their families. It was time to apply for college. I’m glad that my school counselor helped me because all of the terminology on the applications looked very complicated at the time. Applying alone would have been very discoursing! I applied to many universities across the country and offers began to arrive. Eventually I decided on UC Santa Cruz. The university had a strong reputation, provided much needed grants, and offered opportunity to live on a beautiful campus. I was eager to experience the college life. I was set! I was planning to major in physics to become a physician. I think I mentioned it to a friend. He asked me why I was majoring in physics if I wanted to become a medical doctor. Well if I want to become a physician, I should be studying physics, right? Physics-physician . . . He called me a menso, which means idiot, laughed at me, and then proceeded to inform me that to become a medical doctor, a physics major is not unheard of, but highly unusual and suggested that I try molecular biology or biochemistry instead. It was clear that my limited English was worse than I thought. Plus I hadn’t taken the time to do some career research, which also showed how unprepared I was.
My transition to UC Santa Cruz was difficult. I was no longer earning top grades and soon realized that becoming a physician may not be for me. That first summer I decided to take an internship at a local hospital. The experiences provided a surprising preview that strayed me away from the culture and responsibilities that come along with the position of being a medical doctor. I was confused and found myself wondering about my future. I’d heard that a friend was attending a SACNAS conference, but wasn't sure what it was. I looked into the organization and learned that they helped Latinos interested in science and math pursue and achieve success in higher education. I decided to tag along with friends as they made their way to Chicago for the conference. This decision to attend the conference for the first time provided lasting direction to my academic career. The conference was filled with graduate students showing off their work through presentations and posters, scientists doing meaningful work in the field, and other scholars looking to become better informed in new advances in science. There were workshops, booths, and informational tables. I wasn't usually the type person who approached or talked to random people, but for some reason I felt comfortable doing so that day. I can trace back that decision to much of what I’ve become today.
I approached an informational table to ask questions, which became an interesting conversation that become a simple roadmap for my academic and professional future. I met Dr. Cliff Poodry, who at some point must have realized that I was looking for guidance. His advice struck me, he said, “challenge yourself”. The more we talked, the more I understood that he was trying to tell me that making difficult choices and taking on challenging tasks is a good thing! I think he was referring to what people call, taking the road less traveled. He also told me that whatever academic path I would take, exposing myself to research was a must. Pursing a scientific or medical path would require learning how to read and understand scientific journal articles. The last key point he mentioned was that I would find out with certainty what path I would take by trying it out. He said that experience was a big factor to figuring out what I saw myself doing as professional for the rest of my life. I took his advice to heart. It was a simple roadmap, but realized that I had to fill in the important details to make it into an action plan. This experience was a turning point for me.
"The more we talked, the more I understood that he was trying to tell me that making difficult choices and taking on challenging tasks is a good thing! I think he was referring to what people call, taking the road less traveled."
Using Dr. Poodry’s advice, I applied for a Minority Biomedical Research Support (MBRS) Program internship and was able to obtain lab experience during the summer. MBRS was a network of students with similar career goals. I learned much from the MBRS students, such as study habits and time management. MBRS also allowed me to connect with a Chemist, Dr. Pradip Mascharak, who invited me to work as a student assistant in his lab. To take on another challenge, I also joined the Academic Excellence (ACE) program, an academic support program where students receive help with math and science course. Also, students work as a teams and mentor other students in order to excel in science and math courses. In ACE, I connected with Nancy Cox-Konopelsky who encouraged me to pursue a major in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. I credit the ACE program and Nancy for teaching me the learning skills, group learning environment and giving me the confidence to excel in science. I was part of a team of MBRS/ACE students who all went out of our way to help each other learn the material required to get the best grades in class. I was also getting straight A’s in science classes, and even in some of the most difficult ones such as organic chemistry and physical chemistry. In fact, I pursued a B.S. rather than a B.A. simple because the department mentioned that it was harder. I had to take a few more classes, but I knew I could do it. My second year of undergrad was like night and day because of two major factors. First, I was studying with all of my friends. This meant that we were teaching each other, catching mistakes for each other that we could see ourselves, and also having fun at the same time.
We spent hours and hours in the library, but they seemed to go by fast. We took turns going to the board to explain and describe step-by-step structures, functions and reactions of molecules. Each description allowed us to learn the concepts in new ways. Experience in the lab was also a major factor. Initially I was simple cleaning and organizing, but I didn't mind because I like the culture. I was around graduate students and saw the struggles and successes. I saw their frustrations and heard their ongoing complaints, but they seemed to be working toward something bigger. Graduate students were all working on projects through hands on experimentation in the lab. I learned that most experiments often fail, which is a natural part of science. Experiments that don't work out still provide information that may lead to the 2% of experiments that are successful. That 2% is incredibly important because they lead to new discoveries and endless possibilities. Their excitement when experiments succeeded was always amazing to see because the news spread fast and everyone celebrated the accomplishment. I also saw graduate students presenting their work at conferences. Attending conferences every year became part of being an academic, especially SACNAS. I was challenged more each year, but each year I did better. Eventually I was allowed to work on my own projects and use very sophisticated and expensive equipment. I was so nervous the very first time I used the equipment to mix chemicals. I was sweaty, wore big gloves, and remember thinking that I didn't want to break anything or blow up the lab. As my senior year neared I began preparing my thesis defense. Graduation was one step closer to my overall goal and a strong reminder to know that learning how to work hard pays off. I remember taking pictures with my mom (aunt) and grandmother that captured such a special day.
It was time to consider what route I would take as a graduate student, but first I had to take care of entrance exams. For complex or academic terminology I still had to literally translate word for word to try to piece together each question. I had no problem doing so, but entrance exams are timed, which meant that I struggled with certain parts of the exams. As usual I scored very high in math, but average in other areas. The fact that my grades were not great my first year meant that med school was not likely, but I was ok with such reality. I’d wanted to become a doctor, but the main purpose was to combat cancer. My experience in the lab and exposure to journal articles helped me realize that I can still aim for the stars, become a doctor, and contribute to eradicating cancer, except that I would be doing it as a scientist. Through SACNAS I was exposed to Project 1000, which was a national program that helps underrepresented students interested in STEM fields apply to grad school. Project 1000 gave me direction and took care of application fees to five different grad schools. After doing my research and visiting campuses I decided to attend the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor because it had one of the best biochemistry programs and the campus was also beautiful, and the culture felt right. I could see myself living there.
I am very grateful to mom and dad for supporting my decision to move. At UC Santa Cruz I was out of the house, but close enough to visit them often. Moving to Michigan was much further, but supporting my decision was their way of supporting my education. I felt ready for grad school, but soon realized that it was going to be much tougher than I thought. My social supports were no longer around, which were such a big part of my study strategies, plus I had a hard time relating to my new peers initially. It soon became clear that most of my peers had parents or family members that were prestigious scientists or professors in academia. Most of my peers often talked about their parents or family member’s accomplishments in the scientific community and that going to ask them for help was common practice. Personally I didn't have such supports. Also, aside from a girl that was from Puerto Rico I was the only Latino in the department. I remember thinking that I felt completely behind early on, while everyone else was ahead of the game. I felt that I couldn't miss any information during lecture because something as simple as dosing off for a minute could result in missing an important piece of information that I surely need to know.
"I felt ready for grad school, but soon realized that it was going to be much tougher than I thought."
I knew that I had to step it up, work five times harder, and do whatever was necessary to demonstrate my proficiencies as a graduate student. During our first year all graduates students did rotations, which refer to rotating to work with different professors to gain different lab experience. I realized that some grad students were dodging one particular professor. This particular professor had a reputation for being formidably strict and some suggested incredibly difficult to work with. I’d already developed an ideology that pursing challenging paths less traveled can be very rewarding. I reasoned that if I could work with him and exceed his expectations, then I could do so with anyone. I gave it a try, and instead I found that Dr. Tom Kerppola was unbelievably smart and creative, a scientific artist. For some reason we got along very well, even though science was about the only thing we had in common, he became a great mentor and friend. I admired the cutting-edge research he was doing at the time, which had the potential for amazing discoveries. I learned so much while working with him; he emphasized a scientific approach to solve problems while always encouraging creativity and to think outside the box. This appealed to the artistic side of me. Tom came up with novel techniques to evaluate molecular structures and this allowed me to answer questions that no one else had previously asked.
To the world our research was new. Which meant that few were interested as I initially began presenting my work at conferences. My artistic side always pushed me to work extra hard to develop my posters. Many passing by often complemented the vibrant colors and design of my graphs and figures, but didn't say much about the meaningfulness or difficulty of the work. While I was getting a few individuals coming by here and there, other posters across the way were crowded. To anyone not familiar with the specific work that we were doing, the language seemed foreign. Sometimes I felt discouraged, but that changed when presenting at a SACNAS conference. As I prepared to present my poster and research, I noticed that my poster had a post-it with a mark on it. Then a couple of judges came by to ask me about my poster, they were very excited about my work, and appreciated the novelty and impact. I was awarded a best poster award at SACNAS, and that was just the boost of confidence I needed to continue with my project. That award was very meaningful to me and also for Tom, because it was the first proof that our work was appreciated. We then published the work in a series of publications, which were key to obtaining my PhD and graduating first in my class. A couple of years later, I went back to a SACNAS conference, this time I felt that I wanted to share the success of my work to my SACNAS family by giving an oral presentation. As it turns out, I was awarded best presentation as well, I recall walking up to the stage to receive my award. I felt the warmth of the conference attendees padding me in the back and taking photos with me. After this experience, I decided not to attend the graduation ceremony in Michigan; I had already had one at SACNAS.
I decided to stay one more year in Michigan to complete one last final publication. This last publication was tough because my advisor purposefully challenged me to do every aspect of the publication on my own. In addition, I still had to write my dissertation. He knew that I was more than capable. And I was! It all seemed to work out because mom and dad decided to move to Michigan just to be close to me. The Peruvian home cooked meals were the best! Along the way I made new friends, overcame obstacles, and was more than ready to graduate. Graduation day will always be very special because our family came together to celebrate an accomplishment that we all made together. My success was our success. Still, some relatives still didn't get that I wasn't a medical doctor. They simply heard that I was a doctor, which often prompted them to approach me to ask me for medical advice. I always smiled and reminded them that I became a doctor, but as a scientist. Then they asked if I was a “mad scientist”.
The next step was getting a postdoc. Due to the success of my graduate work, Tom encouraged me to find the best lab that I could possibly find. “What is your dream lab?” He asked me. I picked the lab of a very famous scientist in San Francisco, but at the same time, Tom, always a mentor, suggested that I also visit this up and coming extremely talented scientist at UCLA, Dr. Stephen Smale. Although both labs offered me a position, I went with Steve, mostly because he was a molecular immunologist, and that again was a challenge to me. An entire new field at the time, and in an area that I was not very good at: immunology. Of course UCLA also had a beautiful campus and culture. So there I was a PhD in Biological Chemistry working in the Microbiology, Immunology & Molecular Genetics Department. Steve was a great leader and mentor. I never stopped learning, made great friends again and used the skills I learned at UC Santa Cruz, MBRS, ACE and Michigan to succeed. My work with Steve at UCLA resulted in a series of publications that made a significant contribution towards understanding the mechanisms of gene regulation during inflammation. Time seemed to go by quickly, and I was having lots of fun. I truly enjoyed my life as a postdoc, but was still undecided as to what career path to take. Eventually I decided to pursue a career in the biotechnology industry.
I was looking forward to possibly returning back home to San Francisco after completing further lab experience in the lab to focus on building a family and career. My previous research and networks that I developed at SACNAS helped me find the right place where I would be doing meaningful work. Today, I am a Principal Scientific Researcher in the Department of Immunology at Genentech, Inc. My research involves the discovery and understanding of new biological pathways. The goal is to determine whether new pathways play a role in human inflammatory diseases. It is highly motivating to know that our experimentations in the lab can lead to therapies that improve the lives of patients with autoimmune diseases. Perhaps one day my contributions can help eradicate cancer. I like the fact that I can balance work and home life. I have two wonderful children and a wife that I can spend time with. Great friends, mentorship, and family have definitely helped me get here. I ran into Dr. Cliff Poodry many years after our initial, and only conversation. I thanked him for the simple words that he provided. I am sure he did not remember me, but I was encouraged by the thought that just like his advice to me, he has probably touched the lives of hundreds of other students attending SACNAS conferences. The timing was perfect, he was willing to give advice and I was willing to listen, strategize, and turn words in a new way of thinking. I’ve learned to like the idea of pursuing challenging tasks and excelling. Embracing challenges brings tremendous confidence, proud achievements, and new skills. I’ve already experiences many successes and look forward to many more. Now I would like to center my attention to help other young academics that are interested in becoming scientists.