Falling in Love with Biochemistry... ...Slowly - Dr. Zurita-Lopez

I am Assistant Professor of Biochemistry at Cal State University, Los Angeles (CSULA). Aside from teaching, I’m also a principal investigator who leads a laboratory of nine research students. My experiences at CSULA did not begin as a professor, but as a student. I am definitely a big dreamer, but never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be where I am today. Growing up I was a typical, quiet student who simply loved writing. I was an introvert who appreciated creativity, liked puzzles and board games. I often preferred to be by myself rather than around large groups of people. To be honest, I really didn’t like biology or science early on as a young student. But I did naturally gravitate towards writing about science. My academic journey was not straightforward. I sometimes felt out of my league and in over my head because I didn’t have a clear path. I was uncertain about college, my future and myself. Although this was all normal, it didn’t feel that way at the time. Despite such uncertainty, the most significant factor that helped me reach my accomplishments was that I had support.

My greatest supporters were my parents. Learning about their sacrifices and seeing their hard work through the years was important to the work ethic I was developing in school. It’s a crazy story; both of my parents are from Chile, but had to flee to Argentina during the military dictatorship of the Pinochet government in the 1970’s. At the time, the government arrested anyone who opposed their agenda. In addition to being a Baptist Pastor, my father also worked for President Allende’s government in Chile and one day, he just didn’t come home. A police offer who lived on our block told my mom that my dad had been rounded up at the soccer stadium. My mom sent blankets and food with that police officer and he helped my dad escape. Overnight, my family fled. They drove over the Andes Mountains to Argentina. With the help of friends from church my parents were able to find work. My family lived in Argentina for 8 years, and this is where I was born. When I was five years old, we moved to the United States (U.S.). Their story is important because of the drastic changes that came after coming to this country. Both my parents had stable careers in South America, but once here, my mother cleaned houses and my father began working at the airport rounding up suitcases that were lost or left behind.

Mom and Me

When my parents came to the U.S. they didn’t know any English. Once my father learned English he started his own company doing people’s taxes. Slowly he added a notary service, while also performing marriages for the church. On the weekends he was the pastor for Baptist church. That is how they both made a living and provided for our family. I noticed such humble beginnings. However, more changes came when I was in the fifth grade because my parents divorced and I moved with mom and my two younger sisters. The good news was that I still saw my dad every other weekend. Somehow their separation didn’t affect me much in school through the years because I maintained strong grades. I was a nerd who actually liked school and found school enjoyable. Despite being part of the Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) Program and winning awards, I never thought I was anything special or that I was smart. I remember feeling good about the awards and recognition, but was never the type of person that enjoyed the spotlight. My favorite subjects in school were English and art. I was mostly passionate about writing. I found it very powerful and loved the idea that writing allowed me to create my own stories by using my imagination. I really believe in the saying, “The pen is mightier than the sword”. Written words have the power to provoke thought, pain, love, and our imagination’s wildest dreams. Looking back, I realize that most of my stories were about biology, science and animals. Liking school may seem unimportant or ordinary, but now I can see that it was a vital ingredient for future success in high school and college.

Even in high school, chemistry and biology were not truly part of my interests. I was doing well, however, wasn't asking important questions. What are my interests? How can I connect my interests to a career? I simply knew that I liked writing, but that's about it. Only now, I realize that such simple words and questions are so important to ask at any age. It takes time to answer those kinds of questions, which is why it’s valuable to keep asking. There are so many important things that I learned in high school, but by far the most important thing that I learned about myself was that I was an emerging leader. I became exposed to a leadership program by being part of honors classes and hanging around with friends who cared about school like I did. I didn’t have the charisma my friends had, but felt pretty good about the role I played. I knew that I was a strong organizer and planner. I was the “behind the scenes” type of person, who enjoyed helping and supporting others. I was never the type of person that would have run for class president, but I liked being part of a group that was developing cool school events.

There was a particular situation I will never forget. I supported our student led club by setting up and organizing our events. Out of nowhere, our school’s administrator came looking for me because he wanted to see what I’d developed for an upcoming event. I was called out of the classroom. Using a computer at school, I’d taken the time to create a map that listed all of the student groups and guided where they would set up. Somehow, he found out and asked if I could show him what I created so that he could make sure that everything was in order. I still remember pulling out the piece of paper and showing him my creation. He looked at it and used it to make sure that everything was ready for our big event. There was no better feeling than to receive recognition and validation for my work.

High school would become even more important to me because of unforeseen hardship that was coming my way. My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her ongoing health battle required that I take on added responsibility at home. On one occasion she had to travel to Mexico for several days for treatment. She trusted me and left me in charge of my younger siblings. I was scared, but had no choice. I tried to do my best, but while my mom was in Mexico my little sister, who was in 7th grade at the time, was suspended from school. Staying home was not an option for me because school was important to me. I remember having to tell my teachers that I had to bring my little sister to school. They knew what was going on with my mom and chose to be very supportive. Rather than focusing on the fact that policies wouldn't allow it, they allowed my sister to sit in the back of the classroom while I focused on lectures and classwork. At home our neighbors and my dad constantly checked in on us because they knew we were alone. High school is already tough; I don't know what I would have done without the support of my teachers, my father, and our neighbors during those hard times. During my senior year mom was still going through chemotherapy. Nonetheless, I was determined to continue doing well in school.

With My Sisters (I'm in upper left side)

The idea of going to college was always there because my older brother went to college. He was my role model. Also, my parents encouraged all of us go to college. They just didn’t know the hoops we had to jump through or the pathway to get there. Just like me, I'm sure there are many students out there who have the desire to go to college and excel, but don’t have the resources or the specific pathways to get there. I mostly relied on my teachers and friends to help me with the college application process. I never turned to my parents for help because I assumed they didn’t understand the actual process. However, looking back that was a mistake. If I’d given my mother the chance, I’m sure that she would have found a way to help me. I applied to many colleges, however, I decided to hold back and work to help support my family as mom fought her battle with breast cancer.

The majority of my work experience after high school was in an international business program at USC, later at a non-profit organization called Fiesta Educativa and finally at White Memorial Medical Center where I met my husband. My work experiences opened my eyes to see the importance of an education. I recognized that without it, my opportunities would be limited. I was inspired and motivated to go back to school. Although some time had passed, I never let go of the idea of reapplying. I pushed forward and was accepted at CSULA. I believe that it was my mother’s illness that inspired me to study biochemistry, which was my official major. I was also thinking about applying to medical school. I assumed that understanding the chemistry of the human body meant medical school. I didn’t know there were other majors I could dive into. The one thing I was sure of was that I was in the right path towards getting an education. The primary reasons that I applied to CSULA was simply because it was close to my family and it was affordable. I felt at home at CSULA because of supportive professors. I had professors in the biochemistry department such as Dr. Garcia, who looked like me. Observing professors of color in those positions was inspiring because their presence silently told me that I could be in their position one day.

Their support came in the form of guidance and at their suggestions I got involved in research. I had no idea what research was initially, but such exposure introduced me to labs, graduate students, and a whole new world of academia. I also became aware of the underrepresentation of LatinX students in STEM fields. I was slowly emerged into a whole new world of science that was doing such important work. Biochemistry is an exciting and creative discipline, but also challenging. I had to attend countless hours of tutoring to study and get work done. As a strategy, I studied in groups when I wasn’t motivated to study by myself. In any major, you are required to take courses that aren’t always interesting. It was a matter of putting extra time and finding ways to motivate myself to get the job done. But I believe hard work pays off. The first time I contemplated a Ph.D. program was as a sophomore undergraduate. My chemistry professor asked if I wanted to work with him as a researcher. I was beyond excited to give it a try and realized that research was a whole career option. Experiences like research, outside the classroom, are important in determining a career path. Trying to figure this out in our heads often does not work.

The more I did, the more I learned. I was close to graduation when my mother passed away. Our family struggled with our loss, but my professors, family and friends were all very supportive. Kind gestures mean so much during hard times. I was still a poor college student at the time and we didn’t have money to pay for the funeral expenses. One of my professors wrote seventy-five dollar check to show support. It meant a lot to me. I contemplated taking a break from school, but the support around me kept me wanting to continue on my path as an aspiring academic. For me, this meant pursing a graduate degree. What made this possible was that I qualified for a fellowship through the Minority Opportunities in Research (MORE) Program, which supports underrepresented minorities interested in Ph.D. biomedical science degrees. Early exposure to research and a strong GPA gave me the confidence to believe in myself. I was accepted to UCLA where I would dream big and go after a graduate degree in Biochemistry & Molecular Biology. I thought I was ready, but shortly after arriving there, I felt underprepared. I struggled with thinking that I was out of my league and in over my head.

In the Lab

As an underrepresented student of color, I felt different and I didn’t feel included. There was low representation of Latina students in the Ph.D. programs. I focused on my mindset and refined my study strategies and yet again, added more time to difficult courses. Studying in groups continued to be important because we guided one another. Hearing a complex concept being broken down in multiple ways was key to truly understanding something we struggled with. This strategy was also inspiring because I was surrounding myself with other students who were going through the same obstacles. As I look back, I now realize that I wasn't in over my head and was more than ready. But none of it would have been possible if it weren't for the strategies I developed to overcome those struggles. It also helped to have a Ph.D. advisor who was very patient and supportive. Developing a growth mindset undeniably pushed me forward. Throughout my Ph.D. program I made good friends and created s strong support system around me. I had a great support system not only from my friends and professors, but also from my husband. Our initial plan entailed an undergraduate degree, but he supported me all along the way. He understood that my graduate degree was important to me, our future, and that it would require tremendous commitment.

Love at first sight is rare. I fell in love with biochemistry slowly as I immersed myself in my graduate program. True understanding and passion arose after I dove deep into research and developed my own hypotheses and conclusions. The more I learned the more I enjoyed the world of science. I moved on and completed some postdocs at UCLA, Caltech, and USC. It took me three years to complete my post docs, but I couldn't be happier with the path I decided to embark on. I also know that it was something my mother would’ve liked me to pursue. She would have been disappointed if I would’ve quit. My commitment and dedication led me to where I am today. My dream was to one day teach as a professor, but never thought it would be back at CSULA, where I was once a student. Amazing professors that were once my supporters are now my colleagues. I still dream big. I’m always working on improving my teaching skills and my capabilities as a scholar. However, my dreams now include my students.

My goals involve my students developing and achieving their own successes through education. I remind my students that science needs them.

Graduation at UCLA with Familia

Science is vast, involving many different disciplines, and it is a very creative endeavor. Just because you may not like biology doesn’t mean science isn’t for you. You have the option of studying living organisms such as animals, birds, people, the ocean, and countless other phenomena. Science is very personal and is fundamentally grounded in observation, which is unique to each individual. Creative minds and each new set of eyes can help uncover endless new possibilities and discoveries. Such new and different perspectives make the future very exciting. My hope is that my students are even more successful than I am. I wholeheartedly believe that all students can amount to greatness with the right guidance and support. I remind my students to never pursue the journey alone. Who would have known? I’m back supporting students in the MORE Program, the same program that guided me! I can humbly say that I’m very fortunate and grateful for all the support throughout my journey. For those reasons, I look forward to building a new generation of scientists.