Venturing Into the Extremes - Ivan Moreno

My grandfather has always dreamed of having his children become grade-school teachers. He enjoyed seeing the process of learning and he frequently talks to me about how my late grandmother tried her best to teach him how to read and write but he failed at it every time. Math was learned from the daily monetary transactions during buying or selling goods or services at home. When I would talk to my dad about his educational experience, he says there was just no financial means of continuing in Mexico, where the norm was to finish elementary school and then start working. Again, my grandfather dreamed of his kids reaching a “higher education” relative to the norm in a small pueblo near Zamora, Michoacán, so the smile I see on his face when I tell him that his grandson will become Dr. Moreno is priceless.

If you would have told me 10 years ago that I would graduate from college with a degree in Biology, let alone be pursuing a doctorate degree, I would have laughed in your face. Graduating from high school was expected of me, but a path taken afterwards in higher education was something I had yet to witness within my family. My parents have an elementary-school level education and immigrated to Long Beach, California from Mexico in their early 20's. Throughout their lives they worked a variety of jobs, mostly in printing and mailing warehouses, and never made much more than minimum wage. When I was born, my family lived in a one-bedroom apartment near Downtown Long Beach. This included myself, my mom and dad, newborn sister, and two or three of my uncles. By the time I was six, we had moved into a two-bedroom house that my parents had purchased in North Long Beach. While quite the upgrade from a 1-bedroom apartment, one of my uncles soon moved in with his family which included his daughter and wife, both of whom had never been to the United States. My uncle and his family slept in one room, my parents and sister slept in the other, while I slept in the living room and another uncle slept in the garage, which was converted into a third bedroom.

"If you would have told me 10 years ago that I would graduate from college with a degree in Biology, let alone be pursuing a doctorate degree, I would have laughed in your face".

In elementary school, I was an all-star student. My grades were stellar, I was in accelerated classes, and I was even considered as a candidate for skipping 3rd grade. My mom was proud of me, but like many other first-gen Latinx students, it felt like the sole reason I was in school was to learn to read and write so I could help my parents with legal paperwork that I was barely able to understand properly but tried to anyway. Thanks to a combination of Plaza Sésamo and Sesame Street, my local library, and my willingness to learn, I was fluent enough to help with reading, writing and translating legal documents in both Spanish and English by the time I was halfway through elementary. By the time I got to middle school, I was blind-sided by what felt like an absolute need to be cool. I had only felt like a nerd up until that point and I was tired of being known as one, so I began to rebel. Doing homework lost its importance and I started to focus on playing sports and hanging out with friends instead. I figured out how to change the phone number on my school emergency contact to my own or my cousin’s so I would never get in trouble. I would chase the mailman and get my report card before it even reached my house so my parents wouldn’t see it. I swore I was untouchable. When high school came around, it felt like my parents were too busy with other things to care about how I was doing in school, so the bad behavior continued. My grades plummeted, and by my senior year, the carelessness had finally caught up to me.

"By the time I got to middle school, I was blind-sided by what felt like an absolute need to be cool. I had only felt like a nerd up until that point and I was tired of being known as one, so I began to rebel"

I was told by my counselor that I was several classes short of graduating, and the only way to make them up was through a combination of adult school, where folks get their GED, and Opportunities for Learning, a home-school based program where you did classwork at home and took tests at their office. I was completely swamped with classes and disheartened by the reality that I may not be graduating with the rest of my peers. I knew I liked learning, but I had stopped caring about any long-term goals and instead focused on short-term spurts of excitement where I could find them. After this revelation, I begged my counselor to let me take a senior-level biology course to fulfill my graduation requirements. I clearly remember him saying, “Absolutely not, that course is far too much work and given your record, science just isn’t for you… but that’s okay, science isn’t for a lot of people”. I was instead placed into an earth sciences course with freshman and sophomores which was taught by Ms. Kelly Meade, a new teacher at Jordan high school at the time. While initially frustrated with his decision, being placed in that earth sciences course was one of the best things that happened to me. It was the first time in a very long time that I had felt the nurturing process of teaching and learning, and it made me realize not only that there were people at my high school that cared about my intellectual curiosity and growth, but that I had the potential to succeed in science. I finished her course with an A+, which was probably the highest grade I had ever gotten in high school and left with hope that I could be successful despite what others said about me.

After making up all the courses I had previously failed, I graduated from high school and got a job at a telemarketing agency and at a retail store over the summer. That fall I enrolled at Long Beach Community College and began taking courses to fulfill the requirements for their automotive technology program while continuing to work at the retail store. I was focused on finishing a program that would enable me to quickly get a job and move out of my parents’ house. About halfway through this program, I realized I wasn’t doing something I was truly passionate about and would end up hating my job for the rest of my life. While taking those automotive technology courses I began sitting in the back and reading my biology textbook that I kept after high school and I became fascinated by organisms that manage to survive and thrive in extreme environments. The next semester I switched my major to microbiology and began focusing on finishing the prerequisites for transferring to a university. Because of my poor studying skills and bad habits, I had a 2.4 GPA when I applied for transfer. Knowing that my chances of getting into any of the more widely recognized local universities were slim, I only applied to California State University, Dominguez Hills (CSUDH) where I was offered guaranteed admission so long that I kept my GPA above a 2.0. Thus, by the fall of 2014, I had begun my major studies at CSUDH. I was off to a very rocky start, given that this was the first time I was taking only science courses and I had also started a new job where I was working very odd hours. This new job was in the biomedical field, where I harvested corneas for donation from patients who had just passed away. Due to the amount of experience I knew I‘d attain from this job, I decided to become a pre-med major and focus on getting into medical school. A biology faculty advisor recommended conducting research as way to bolster my medical school application, and my previous interest in microbiology led me to the lab of Dr. Karin Kram.

After just one semester of working in Dr. Kram’s lab, I decided that I wanted to pursue a biomedical related PhD, where I could combine my medical and microbiological interests. My first opportunity at presenting my work to a wider audience was at the CSUDH school-wide symposium in February of 2017. Being able to convey my work to those who are unfamiliar with it in a way that showed significance to them was incredibly rewarding and then following with my future goals made me want to get back into the lab. I realized that research, regardless of topic, followed a very similar path where we work on a topic we’re (hopefully) passionate about, relay those findings to the scientific community and that inspires others to formulate hypotheses and then design projects of their own. This interconnected web of ideas that was the scientific process encouraged me to branch out much further from anything that I found lucrative about the biomedical field (nothing against biomedical researchers, just wasn’t something I was truly passionate about) and pursue work in the field of environmental microbiology instead.

At this point, I continued to work around 20-30 hours per week, on top of being a full-time student and now an undergraduate researcher. I quickly became interested in doing environmental microbiology work as I found that it was the reason I initially switched to a microbiology major, so on the advice of Dr. Kram I looked into summer internships called “Research Experiences for Undergraduates” (REU). An REU is a fully paid summer internship, most with housing expenses covered, where you conduct research over the summer full-time. On a long shot I applied for the REU program at the world-renowned Scripps Institution of Oceanography. About 5 days after I submitted my application, I got an email from Dr. Jane Teranes titled “SURF Admissions Offer”. I ran out of my chemistry tutoring session and into Dr. Kram’s office, both her and I nearly crying out of excitement. On top of all this excitement, I was offered a position in the lab of Dr. Brian Palenik, where I’d get to study extremophilic microbes living in freshwater hot springs. It was a near perfect scenario.

I spent the summer doing DNA extractions, trying to identify the different cyanobacteria living at these hot springs by sequencing their DNA. It was nothing short of amazing to be paid for something I was passionate about and loved learning about. The following semester I was dead set on applying for PhD programs where I could study extremophilic microbes. I was encouraged by my mentors to apply anywhere and everywhere, but by then I had my sights set on returning to Scripps. I remember stepping outside of my organic chemistry lab course to cry for about 15 minutes when I got my acceptance email. I re-read it about 10 times before it hit me—I was going to be pursuing a fully funded PhD at Scripps. The sleepless nights of working and studying, going to class with only a few minutes of sleep, crying in my car out of frustration from feeling like a failure but still pushing through – it all paid off. Despite all the negative comments and people who didn’t believe in me, I was going to get paid to do something I was passionate about and continue my education. Though my parents and most of my family don’t understand what I’m doing they support me and I’ve built a successful support system that includes my many academic mentors, my friends who pushed me along the way, my equally hardworking girlfriend and now wife and they were the reason I made it. The phrase “it takes a village” couldn’t be truer.

"I re-read it about 10 times before it hit me—I was going to be pursuing a fully funded PhD at Scripps. The sleepless nights of working and studying, going to class with only a few minutes of sleep, crying in my car out of frustration from feeling like a failure but still pushing through – it all paid off".

Now as a second year PhD student, I’ve continued my work on extremophiles in the Palenik lab and have had a great time so far. While graduate school can be incredibly challenging, I’ve made friends and surrounded myself with those who support me and help me, and for that I am eternally grateful (shout out to the Hubbs Homies). I hope to inspire those who are underachieving in their high school classes and my younger family members and friends who aspire to be greater than their stereotypes. I’ve learned, and continue to learn, how to reconcile my mental health and work-life balance so I can experience maximum growth in my academic career. Someday, I hope to one day be one of the mentors I mentioned in my story, who believed in me and changed my life and mindset. If like them, I can play a major role in changing the life of a student who wants to pursue a higher education, together we can help uplift entire communities like those in North Long Beach through instilling positive outlooks, confidence and mentorship.