Dare to Believe, Dare to Challenge

By Sofia Romero

With family.

Every morning of my childhood, my dad took seven different pills and punctured his fingers. I thought you only took medicine for a cold or sore throat, so I couldn’t believe my dad had a cold that lasted so long.

“Papi,” I asked often, “Why do you take that medicine every day?”

He would brush my question away, “Para nada importante, mija.” (For nothing important…)

By the time I was in high school, I learned that my dad had been living with type II diabetes for more than a decade.

I could tell he was ashamed of the disease he knew nothing about. He was afraid of not being able to live long enough to see my brothers and I graduate from high school or even college.

I shared this story with my college access advisor at 10,000 Degrees when she started asking me what I might want to major in at university. A nonprofit based in my home town of Marin, 10,000 Degrees helped first-generation students obtain a college degree. I told her I was tired of feeling helpless, especially when I knew countless individuals were suffering from diseases for which we have yet to discover adequate treatments or cures.

With my advisor’s help, I began exploring potential career choices. Based on my desire to help my dad and others facing serious, chronic conditions, I thought I’d be interested in a medical career. I participated in a couple of internships as a medical assistant and medical clerical assistant but found the work really boring and unfulfilling. Knowing I was interested in helping people and I was also doing well in my high school chemistry class, my counselor suggested I apply for a six-week, summer internship at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging.

The Buck Institute

Self-doubt on the First Day

As my mom drove through the dry, golden hills of Northern California, taking me to my first day at the Buck Institute, I had a million thoughts swirling through my head. It was the summer of 2012, and I had just finished my junior year of high school. As far as I knew, scientists were all privileged, white, and male. They were geniuses and wore lab coats. I was the girl child of two non-English-speaking, hardworking El Salvadoran immigrants who never had access to any kind of formal education and who struggled every day to make ends meet. Clearly, I wasn’t going to fit in with a bunch of scientists. What was I thinking?!

The Unfamiliar Language that is Science

My first few weeks at the Buck Institute were immensely overwhelming.

“DNA gets transcribed to RNA and RNA gets translated to protein, but before that we would need to perform a transfection.”

“Remember that human cells are eukaryotes, but not prokaryotes.”

“This is a western blot; this is what PCR looks like; this quantifies mRNA levels. Any questions?”

“Oh, and by the way, read all these papers and let me know of any questions you have.”

What use was reading the papers if I didn’t understand half of what was explained to me?!

On top of all that, I was the only Latina among a cohort of white, privileged students. I felt alienated both intellectually and socio-economically. Most of all, I was afraid of disappointing my mentor and myself.

Throughout the internship, I was under the mentorship of Dr. O’Leary, a post-doctorate at the time. Not only was it challenging for me to grasp the science whenever she would explain concepts to me, but I could also tell it was a big challenge for her to simplify the science enough for me to understand the basics. Now, as a fourth-year undergraduate at the University of California, Santa Cruz, I understand the challenge that comes with explaining biological mechanisms in a simple, yet accurate way.

My mentor played a significant role in helping me cultivate a love of science and research by encouraging me just enough to boost my confidence while also giving constructive criticism. I believe another trait that made Dr. O’Leary an excellent mentor was the fact that I could tell she genuinely cared for my intellectual growth and strong potential as a scientist. Her support helped me understand that if someone I look up to can see my potential then why shouldn’t I believe too?

My Academics and Myself; What Defines Intellect?

Like most parents of first-generation Latino students, my parents were unfamiliar with how the education system functioned. They never had the time nor the language facility to communicate with my teachers. They never questioned why I had to attend summer school every year in elementary school, or why I was always put in remedial English and math classes, or why I had to stay after school for an extra hour because I was not at the average reading and math levels.

I saw how my parents sacrificed everything in order for their children to succeed — to see us advance and become influential people in society. I was overwhelmed with their wishes and hopes as I wondered how I would be able to make them proud when my teachers, grades, and society were telling me I just wasn’t meant to reach for anything higher than average.

Romero with friend.

All of my experiences in elementary school proved my fear that I wasn’t smart enough. And, I was afraid my parents weren’t smart enough either. In the moment my mother and I both struggled on my first-grade homework, I felt so isolated. I thought my parents were supposed to know absolutely everything, but what do you do when you’re left to figure it out by yourself?

It turns out, my parents taught me the most valuable lessons: ones that were way more important than helping me with my homework or talking to my teachers.

They taught me it’s okay not to know everything. They taught me never to let the fear of failing keep me from trying, that fear is a natural instinct that helps protect me from harm, but if fear of the unknown prevents me from taking risks, then I’m just harming myself. And perhaps most importantly, at the end of the day, they taught me that if I don’t believe in myself then who will?

As human beings in a society where we are criticized the moment we are born, we grow accustomed to seeking others’ approval constantly as a measure of our competence. My self-perception and confidence were initially influenced by how well I would measure up to standards: academically and socio-economically. Even though I required extra attention academically as a child and have experienced the lack of minority representation in professional careers first hand, my parents’ core values and incredible strength helped me steadily cultivate my resilience and motivation to disprove the perception that my intellect only went as far as my test scores indicated.

Failure is Just Success in Disguise

And so, at the Buck Institute, I did fail, and I did struggle. I failed to appropriately culture my cells. I struggled to come up with a hypothesis. I struggled to understand the science.

But at the Buck Institute, I learned that failure is the essential ingredient of science.

I learned that from failure and struggle comes knowledge. I learned that without failure there isn’t any kind of significant growth. I learned that I was passionate about science and research. I learned that I was motivated to prove the stereotypes about women of color in science wrong. I learned that the majority of the pressure I felt to know and understand exactly what I was doing came from me. I learned to accept the challenges because I knew this was just the beginning of my journey.

Challenge Conformity

A lot of the time we believe the labels that are given to us are a definite indicator of our ability to succeed, and so we sell ourselves short.

But the most influential and successful people are the ones that refuse conformity and radiate the motivation to help others believe in themselves as well.

I have learned to work hard, be myself, and never to be ashamed of my roots.

My initial experience at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging reminded me of how I felt in elementary school — a below average student. But the purpose of research and the consistent challenges were, in the end, what helped me mature into the best version of myself.

Sofia Romero

Now, entering my fourth year as an undergraduate in molecular, cell, and developmental biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, I am confident of my strengths and clear on where I need to grow. Even though it has only been four years since my experience at the Buck Institute, I have developed intellectually and emotionally in several ways that have helped me become a more confident leader in science. Sometimes it’s easier to sell ourselves short than to experience failure, but if I had, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to have met potential mentors at the 2015 SACNAS conference, spend nine weeks studying how diet influences genetic expression at West Virginia, or even collaborate for the summer with other scientists on current Zika-virus research at Stanford University.

While I have had fantastic mentors both at the Buck Institute and University of California, Santa Cruz, sometimes there is a lack of support and guidance in key periods and that can be discouraging, especially when successful figures and leaders don’t share one’s background.

Be the one to say you will be the first to represent the underrepresented and give a voice to those that don’t have one: be a leader. I strive to be that leader, the leader for that young girl who wondered if she was even good enough.

About the author Sofia Romero

Sofia Romero is a rising fourth-year molecular, cell, and developmental biology major at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She was born in El Salvador and moved to San Rafael, California, when she was two years old. She is the first in her entire family to attend a four-year university and hopes to pursue a doctoral degree in the future.