A Journey to Become a Toxicologist - Answers to My Questions
I grew up in Los Reyes, Michoacán, México, where there were a couple of sugar mills nearby that processed sugar cane into sugar. Following a slash–and-burn agricultural technique the sugar cane fields were harvested manually by people using machetes. By the end their workday they were covered with a charred layer over their skin. This did not look normal or healthy to me. As dark ashes fell from the sky due to the burning fields my parents would have me come indoors. Something was not making sense to me. My parents often said that this was bad for me, yet people intentionally went into the burnt fields to harvest and expose themselves to the ashes. I was a young boy when I started to notice this and wondered, why? What is the impact of the ashes to people’s health? I did not phrase it in this way back then, but this is when I began to ask questions about pollution (toxins) and the environment. In my hometown of Los Reyes, there is a river that runs through the heart of town, which was and continues to be highly polluted because of the lack of proper sewage treatment and infrastructure. My siblings and I knew that we could not play in or around the river. Instead my parents took us to play at a different water stream, a clean water stream. The stream was upstream from one of the sugar mills, which was used to process the sugar cane. I could see the water that came out downstream after the sugar extraction process, which was filthy dark water with a strong foul odor. This saddened me because I often heard stories about how there used to be life in the river. Why would people intentionally pollute the river?
On occasion we traveled to México City to visit relatives. Upon arrival to the grand metropolis; I could feel in my eyes the presence of polluted air. I asked why my eyes became irritated and would get general answers about the air being dirty, but I knew there was more to it. What made the air dirty? I was a curious boy with many questions that those around me could not answer. I had no idea of the existence of toxicology or what it was, but I know I wanted to know about the impact that pollution had on people and the environment. I felt a need to understand and find answers to my questions. I did not know exactly how at the time, but I would soon learn that school would help me answer those questions and many more.
My life would drastically change when my parents decided to immigrate to the United States. I entered 3rd grade upon our arrival. Although the transition was hard because of the language barrier, I was fortunate to have cousins and teachers that helped me with all the changes. Even at such a young age I remember having goals. My goals were simple and included being at the same math level, the same science level, the same English level and to be as physically capable as others in my grade level. I have to admit that there was a healthy competitive spirit in achieving these goals and I figured that there was no reason why I could not be at the same level as others. I remember enjoying school. I was improving in all areas, but then within about three years my parents decided that we had to go back to México. Financial stability and freedom from immigration pressures were a major priority for them. At the time I had no choice, but I remember wanting to stay to accomplish my goals.
"I felt a need to understand and find answers to my questions. I did not know exactly how at the time, but I would soon learn that school would help me answer those questions and many more."
After being back in México for about three years, I knew that I had to find a way to convince my parents to let me go back to United States. I figured that I had to speak my parents “language” and make a convincing argument. First, in México they were paying for me to go to a private school in town. This was a sacrifice that they were willing to make because they valued education, especially since they themselves did not have the opportunity to go far in school or at all. Second, I often reminded them that school in the U.S. was “free”. Back then the schools provided paper, pencils, books and free meals! This was a tremendous help as we were of low income. And lastly, I often shared with my parents that I really enjoyed school back in California. My parents talked to family members and eventually made the decision to allow my older brother and I to come back to the United Sates. It also helped that our permanent residency had also been approved. We stayed with my aunt and uncle, both of which have been very supportive and important in my life and to my success. I know that it was very difficult for my parents to allow us to come back to California without them at such a young age.
I was 14 when I arrived to Warren High School as a freshman and was very excited to get started. The vision of the American life, the American dream was ever so present. I recall watching movies about life in high school such as the Halloween party in the Karate Kid movie. I was excited to have the opportunity to partake in homecoming dances, Sadie Hawkins dances, football games, and the many activities that were part of high school. Although I was eager to get going, reality set in when I was placed in low-level classes because of my deficiency in English. I remember being placed in basic math, which started with addition and subtraction. By the end of the semester they introduced basic multiplication and fractions. I remember being bored, frustrated, discouraged and not belonging in that class. I did not understand why I placed in such a low-level math class. Thanks to my previous exposure to English I was placed in a class called reading improvement that was not an English as a Second Language class. I was excited to be in this class, but soon realized that I was reading books that were normally read in 5th or maybe 6th grade. However, being in this class was life changing for me! This is where I met Mrs. Beeman.
"I remember being bored, frustrated, discouraged and not belonging in that class".
At some point during the semester Mrs. Beeman pulled me aside and said “Noe you do not belong in this class” and she helped me transfer into a more advance class that she also taught. I considered the change as progress in the right direction. She was a great teacher! As I look back, I'm so glad that I was willing to listen and be open to being mentored by Mrs. Beeman. I remember her trying to mentor other student’s as she did with me, but they did not seem to get it or were simply not interested. I continued to ask questions to her and on one occasion I asked her: “How can I get to the next level?” She replied: “There is summer school that can help you prepare to advance to the next level”. While my brother was upset at the idea of going to summer school, I was excited and I signed us up immediately! That summer I took math and English classes that would get me to the next level at the start of 10th grade. Although school was challenging at times, I enjoyed school because I found ways to make it fun and enjoyable.
Somehow I made time to try-out for sports, socialize and have fun. Study sessions were also my idea of a good time. Although I was the type of kid that set up study sessions at home with friends, having perfect grades was not the main focus; it was really about learning. I liked learning. My grade point average (GPA) average was around 3.5 and I was ok with that. Behind the scenes all the study time helped build good study habits that would be invaluable in the future.
"As I look back, I'm so glad that I was willing to listen and be open to being mentored by Mrs. Beeman. I remember her trying to mentor other student’s as she did with me, but they did not seem to get it or were simply not interested."
One of the best things I did in high school was to get to know my teachers! The more interested in school they saw me, the more they wanted to teach and help me learn. Not all teachers were as engaged or interested, but I told myself that I would not let that bother or hold me back. Mrs. Beeman saw my commitment and potential to be a better student. While my counselor advised me to attend a community college, Mrs. Beeman advised me to attend a University of California or a California State University. She took the time to explain the difference between these two academic systems and I gladly embraced the higher standards and expectations.
"One of the best things I did in high school was to get to know my teachers! The more interested in school they saw me, the more they wanted to teach and help me learn".
I was looking forward to my high school graduation, especially because it was a step closer to attending a university. I remember taking pictures with my parents, family, friends and teachers to cherish and capture the moment. At first, the thought of attending a university was overwhelming, but the more I talked about it with my teachers and especially Mrs. Beeman, the more I wanted it. I knew nothing about the university application process, financial aid and much less about writing a “statement of purpose”. Mrs. Beeman was instrumental in all this as she encouraged me, believed in me and helped me with all aspects of the university application process.
My statement of purpose took about six months to complete. Mrs. Beeman and the many set of eyes that reviewed it helped put my statement of purpose into good shape. I learned that attending a university was not cheap and at one point thought that I would never be able to afford it, but I was wrong! Mrs. Beeman also helped me apply for scholarships and grants. I was excited and eager to go to a university, but within all this excitement, I found out that my father thought that I would go back to México following graduation. I missed my parents deeply, but I was excited and committed to make something of myself for them, for their sacrifice and for me.
"I learned that attending a university was not cheap and at one point thought that I would never be able to afford it, but I was wrong!"
After much debate on what university to attend, I finally decided on the University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC). I initially declared as a Spanish major, simply because it was easy, but one particular class changed all of that. A Phonetics class that I did not enjoy literally helped me realize that the easy route was not necessarily the best route. More importantly, the Spanish core classes were not answering the many questions I had as a child. Given that the University encouraged students to have a diverse portfolio of classes, I chose to take Chemistry, Biology, Physics, Calculus, Genetics and other science classes. All of these classes were very interesting to me and I remember that I liked these subjects in high school. For some reason, I struggled with Physics, but was able to pass the class by working hard and much tutoring. I learned that asking for help was a good way to get a different opinion and advice on how to overcome obstacles. More importantly, I had it in me that quitting was not an option. I was ok with taking risks and failing, but not quitting! Eventually, I majored in Molecular and Cellular Developmental Biology with a minor in Chemistry.
Thanks to being part of the Summer Bridge Program that served as an orientation program for incoming underrepresented students, I was able to meet many incoming students and staff from the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP). A year later or so, I obtained a job at the EOP office that focused on encouraging and guiding underrepresented students to apply for scholarships and research internships at other universities. This introduced me to the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Latinos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS), which was instrumental to reemphasizing my interest to pursue of a graduate degree in science. I was able to attend SACNAS conferences where I gained a better understanding of the value of being surrounded by scientists and students interested in science. I became further involved with SACNAS because their mission and principles aligned with my interest and professional aspirations. Participating in the SACNAS conferences exposed me the field of toxicology; this is when I first learned about toxicology. Through SACNAS, I was able to participate in an internship at Princeton University and at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This exposed me to new resources and guidance from mentors who were scientists, which were of tremendous support as I began my journey to become a Toxicologist.
"I learned that asking for help was a good way to get a different opinion and advice on how to overcome obstacles. More importantly, I had it in me that quitting was not an option. I was ok with taking risks and failing, but not quitting!"
I focused my final years on my classes and continued to attend conferences where I could listen and learn from scientists who gave presentations on their work. These conferences gave me a sneak peek of what was to come. I had to make sense of everything, even with so much going on in my life. In addition to school, I also worked part-time. Classes were interesting, but were also becoming ever more challenging.
As graduation neared, I was looking forward to celebrating with family and friends. Graduation was great! Once again, my family and I took pictures that captured another proud moment. I was the first in my family to receive a university degree. I knew graduate school was next. My uncle, whom I lived with during high school knew and understood this. I think it was he who conveyed the message to my father about me going to graduate school. I briefly considered going back to México, but there were no comparable opportunities that could provide the level of training in toxicology that was available in the United States. Also, there were no job opportunities of interest for me out there at the time. I missed my parents and my roots, but it was them and my roots that kept me going and motivated.
"I missed my parents and my roots, but it was them and my roots that kept me going and motivated."
My mentors suggested that I gain some work experience after graduating from UCSC. I was presented with an opportunity to work at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) where I expanded my lab experience. I was responsible for the extraction, harvesting and fixation of cells slides to analyze chromosomal aberrations due to radiation. This valuable work experience was a result of networking at the SACNAS conferences. During my time at LLNL I continued to take a class each semester, not because I had to, but because I enjoyed learning and it did not hurt that work paid for the classes. I took this job and classes to help prepare me for graduate school. After one year at LLNL I was off to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which was my top pick for graduate school. UW-Madison is a premier institution in many educational areas, but for me it was the reputation it has for having produced top experts and researchers in Toxicology. Also, their Ph.D. program focused on Molecular and Environmental Toxicology. The molecular component was important to me because it was relevant to human exposure to toxins. Looking back, the academic interests I chose stemmed from and aligned with the many questions I had as a young boy. The questions persisted throughout my academic career and I was eager to continue finding answers.
"Looking back, the academic interests I chose stemmed from and aligned with the many questions I had as a young boy. The questions persisted throughout my academic career and I was eager to continue finding answers".
Graduate school level learning was the greatest experience I have ever had because they strayed away from standardized testing. The focus was on deeply understanding the science that can be applied to real problems that affect people and the environment – the goal was to understand and provide solutions to problems. The environmental toxicology component of the graduate program was not easy, but I succeeded by putting extra time and staying focused. Much of my time was spent in the laboratory studying how toxins and their metabolites impact the immune system. The hours and days in the laboratory added up. The graduate student lifestyle was great; I developed great friendships, studied a discipline that challenged and fascinated me. I enjoyed getting to know Wisconsin and the Midwest culture; however, being a minority had its quirks. The perception of many people out there was that a Mexican or Latinos, did not have the potential to get a Ph.D., but I was glad and more than happy to prove that the perception was wrong.
I continued to refine the skills that helped me throughout my graduate program and focused on the preparation of my dissertation. Writing each chapter of my dissertation required me to be focused, disciplined and dedicated for countless days and nights. This was challenging, but I was very excited and motivated to keep going and looking forward to one final graduation. I purposely thought about the best way to celebrate my accomplishment and share a glimpse of life in Wisconsin with family and friends. To that end, I decided to participate in the commencement ceremony held in December because I wanted my family and friends to experience winter like I did. Sure enough, my parents, uncle, aunt, siblings, cousins, and friends were there and they experienced winter. My final graduation was amazing! Best of all, I had an opportunity to express my gratitude for the work ethic my parents taught me and to the many who helped me throughout the years. The talks with my father, mother, uncle and aunt were especially important along with their support. My goal after graduation was to find a post-doc in California so that I could be closer and spend more time with the family and friends. My learnings in graduate school and from SACNAS were key to opportunities at prominent laboratories that would propel my own growth as a scientist.
I accepted a post-doc at UC Berkeley. During my post-doc I was able to be part of a multinational team that conducted fieldwork research in China. Since then, my professional career has advanced immensely. I have worked with great companies that make a difference in people’s lives. The first company I worked at was The Clorox Company. Growing up I saw their products in stores and at home. Never did I think I would be part of the team responsible for developing those products. My work as a Toxicologist consisted of conducting risk and safety assessments for products that people use in their homes every day; I had to ensure that products were safe for all consumers. It took time, but it was rewarding to see the final products that I worked on in stores and in homes. It felt great to know that I was helping develop products that people can use safely. New doors opened as I continued to develop and grow as a Toxicologist. I moved on to work at another great company, Amway. I was hired as a Toxicologist that led and supported their Nutrition sector. I later became Manager of Global Safety Technical Services. As Manager I led a group of toxicologist and scientists that supported a wide range of products sold globally.
Currently, I am a Senior Director of Quality Assurance at Beachbody, which is a growing and exciting company that focuses on nutrition and fitness. I lead and support the Quality Systems, Consumer Affairs and Analytical teams. These teams are made up of scientists and engineers that support our nutrition products. I work closely with team leaders to assure that they and their teams have all the tools and training needed to ensure that every product under our development is safe for consumers and make their lives better. Further, as I leader I play a key role in the development of strategies and tactics to assure the quality and safety of raw materials and finished goods, and I also serve as the company’s Toxicologist. My education and work experiences have been instrumental to my success. I truly enjoy what I do for a living and continue to do challenging and rewarding work as I collaborate with remarkable scientists that develop products that people use to improve their lives.
Life outside of work has also been great, especially for two main reasons. First, my work has allowed me to spend more time with family and friends. My parents, other family members, and friends have visited me at various locations where I’ve lived. Each city led to new experiences and memories - site seeing, walks, and dinners that we have experienced together. My parents often reminisce about their visits to northern California, Wisconsin for my Ph.D. graduation, and other amazing places. Secondly, I have had the opportunity to travel the world, for business and for pleasure. I get to explore new cultures, try new foods and learn about new customs. I continue to be an active member of SACNAS and the Society of Toxicology. I have been involved as a mentor and presenter to encourage others to pursue a career in Toxicology – ultimately the goal is to inspire and develop future scientists.