NORTHRIDGE, Calif., Oct. 24 (AScribe Newswire) — Growing up in rural Los Angeles County in the 1960s, Cal State Northridge biology professor MariaElena Zavala routinely encountered teachers and other authority figures who scoffed at her dreams of becoming a scientist. A stellar student, the Latina even had a high school counselor try to steer her away from college-prep courses and back into a typing class because “Your kinds (sic) of people needs (sic) some kind of skill.” But she also met teachers, librarians and other mentors who encouraged her to pursue her dream, offering a helping hand or valuable advice along the way.
Zavala, who was the first Chicana in the nation to receive a Ph.D. (from U.C. Berkeley) in botany has joined eight other Latina scientists in contributing their personal stories to a book, “Flor y ciencia: Chicanas in Science, Mathematics and Engineering,” to serve as encouragement, inspiration or just plain proof that despite continuing stereotypes and prejudices women of color can go into the sciences and succeed. The book was published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science with some financial support from the National Science Foundation.
Zavala admitted some trepidation when she was first asked to take part in the book. “Scientists usually don’t really reveal that much about themselves,” she said. “But I realized that it could be useful to share my story with young women thinking about pursuing a career in the sciences.”
Zavala, a plant biologist, has received millions of dollars for her research and science education activities in the 18 years she has been at Cal State Northridge. She is director of the highly successful Minority Access to Research Careers Undergraduate Science Training and Academic Research (MARC USTAR) and Minority Biomedical Research Support (MBRS) and its programs.
She has mentored nearly 200 minority students. Her undergraduate and graduate students have succeeded with completion rates above 90 percent, and minority students participating in Zavala’s programs are nine times more likely to enter Ph.D. programs.
In 2000, Zavala received the Presidential Excellence Award for Science, Mathematics, Engineering Mentoring from then U.S. President Bill Clinton. She was selected in 2001 to receive the CSU’s prestigious Wang Family Excellence Award in recognition of her extraordinary commitment and dedication to her academic discipline and for the impact she has made on her students.
Zavala says getting to where she is today has not been easy. In high school, a counselor openly ridiculed her plans to apply to Pomona College and several University of California campuses, assuming that since she was Mexican-American she didn’t have the grades to get into any of those schools. She was accepted to all of them.
Though she’s a university professor, people often have mistaken her for a janitor because she didn’t “look” the part.
“We have different stories and took different paths to get where we are,” Zavala said, referring to her fellow contributors to the book. “For me, I didn’t know any better. I didn’t know that I was breaking new ground. I just knew I wanted to be a scientist and did what I had to do to become one. I didn’t really think about what the cost was going to be.”
The other scientists sharing their personal stories in “Flor y ciencia” are Elma L. Gonzalez, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UCLA; Aida Hurtado, a psychology professor at UC Santa Cruz; Diana I. Marinez, a biochemistry professor and dean of the College of Science and Technology at Texas A&M University in Corpus Christi, Texas; Cleopatria Martinez at Phoenix College in Arizona; Lupita D. Montoya, assistant professor of environmental engineering at Rensselear Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York; Elvia Elisa Niebla, national coordinator for the USAD Forest Service Global Change Research Program; Elizabeth Rodriguez-Johnson, a senior policy analyst with the developmental test and evaluation/systems engineering office within the defense systems directorate of the federal Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition; Elsa C. Ruiz, a doctoral candidate in mathematics at Texas A&M University, College Station; and Martha Zuniga, a professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology at UC Santa Cruz.
“They are such an extraordinary set of women. Many were pioneering in their fields,” Zavala said. “It was great to sit down and listen to them as we shared our stories. We all chose different paths, but we have all received some level of success in our chosen fields.”