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Jose Ortiz

Eugene and Ruth Roberts Summer Student Academy 2012 & 2013

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How the Right Mentors and a Courageous Mom Enabled My Journey from the Barrios to the Laboratory

01/23/2014 04:02PM | 12912 views

I was born in the barrios of Tijuana, Mexico, a neighborhood riddled with extreme poverty and violence.

With my father gone, my mother was left to raise my two sisters and me on her own. She worked as a maid and cook, but these jobs were not enough to make ends meet. Soon she realized Tijuana was not an ideal place to raise her children. For that reason, in 1998, my mother made the decision to migrate from Baja California, Mexico to southern California, USA. 

Although our new neighborhood was more conducive to family life, my mother still had to work three jobs to make ends meet. Succumbing to the manual labor jobs of society, my mother would work in the morning at a factory assembling socks and gloves, before leaving for her next job cleaning restaurants at night. On the weekends, my sisters and I would help her clean houses and we also picked up recyclables to earn more money for food. During this time, I did not realize that my mother was carefully training my siblings and me to work independently and become more resourceful – essential skills necessary for success on any career path.

Hoping to provide a better life, my mother enrolled us in school after filing her taxes and receiving a tax identification number for all of us. My first experience of the American school system was standing in line for a free lunch. Unfortunately, the free lunch remained the highlight of my day. It became the only reason I liked going to school. Bullied by my peers for not knowing English and punished by my teachers for not following instructions written in English, I had a negative impression of school. In 5th grade, my teacher took me out of class and said to me, “Why are you so stupid, Jose?!” Scared and confused, I was silenced by her words and once again alienated in my own struggle.

Economic stressors consumed my school years as I strived to help my family. By middle school, I was getting up at six in the morning to make my mother food for work before going to classes. Daily life was hard, but I was grateful that I could help. Seeing what she was doing for our family made me appreciate even more the sacrifices she was making for us.

It was around this time that I began to realize not every family was the same – everyone had struggles but they did not have our particular trials. Many of my peers were being raised in good stable homes, where the parents worked well-paying jobs. But no matter what our background, status, or identity, we did have one thing in common – we were all pursuing the American Dream.

In high school, I began to believe that I could obtain a better life by striving for a higher education. I intentionally sought to learn from classmates who came from more privileged households. Particularly, I copied what they were doing to prepare for college. Since my mother was unable to advise me, I took it upon myself to do what was necessary to excel in school. I took as many AP classes as I could and volunteered to build up my extra-curricular activities. At one point I worked up to three jobs during my high school career. All of my efforts paid off when I was accepted to UCLA, among other top universities.

At UCLA I did not know what to expect. Initially, I felt lost and out of place. It was like coming to America all over again. I’m grateful to have adapted quickly to college by finding my support network, IDEAS at UCLA—a group of students composed of immigrants and allies.

A tremendous opportunity in my undergraduate experience was interning at City of Hope’s Eugene and Ruth Roberts Summer Student Academy. At the academy, students are paired with mentors who share their interests and then get to work on hands-on research projects. I had two great mentors, Dr. Jeffrey Weitzel and Dr. Felix Wussow. Through my experience at City of Hope, I discovered a genuine desire to become a scientist. I then learned what I needed to do to achieve my career goals. The clinical work I completed for Dr. Weitzel taught me about the need to increase genetic screening among high-risk Hispanics in the U.S. for early cancer diagnosis. Through my laboratory work with Dr. Wussow, I was able to make a vaccine against the Human Cytomegalovirus using a two-step marker-less Red Recombination system.

City of Hope inspired me to seek out mentors at UCLA. This led to my current interest with viruses, including HIV and Hepatitis. Further research in this field has taught me how to clone viruses and make vaccines. This is an opportunity I may not have had if I had not found the right mentorship during this crucial time in my education.

Here are three tips for finding a mentor and building the relationship: 

  • Don’t be afraid to ask a lot of questions. Boldly take advantage of any opportunity that comes their way. It is important to build a strong support network of good friends and great mentors because they have valuable insight to share. With an understanding that a career in science is challenging and will require a strong commitment, you must learn how to persevere. My experience in research has taught me that you will make mistakes that can discourage your career aspirations to be a scientist. However, you must learn from your mistakes and humbly improve. Remember to be confident in your work and not be afraid to ask for help when you need it.
  • Don’t forget trailblazers within the Latino community who cleared a pathway for future generations. Events such as the L.A. walkouts, which empowered Latinos to demand educational equity, all contributed to our current success. The farm workers struggle for labor justice, which allowed marginalized people to defend their rights for better working conditions, challenged dominant power structures that have benefited thousands of other workers. In my case, I will always remember the courage my mother had to leave Mexico and bring my siblings and me to the U.S. for a better life.
  • Don’t forget to pay it forward and give back to your community – especially when you find yourself in a position of power and privilege. Find new ways to get involved in the community and become a mentor to others. Share the knowledge you have acquired from your experiences, such as how to stay motivated and remain patient when the road is arduous – as it once was for me.


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