Latino Student Sets Example Through A Love of Science
November 29, 2011 by Chiara Austin
When Marisa Tellez was a kid, she loved Steve Irwin – the “Crocodile Hunter.” While her friends played with plastic babies and Barbie dolls, she preferred to read books given to her by her father about sharks, snakes and the wild.
As an adult, Tellez is now pursuing a PhD in Biology from The University of California, Los Angeles. And students like her are breaking the mold in a country where Latinos are decidedly underrepresented in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields.
According to the Pew Hispanic Center, the number of Latino children in the U.S. grew 39 percent from 2000 to 2010. This means that more Latinos are approaching the age at which they begin to enroll in college, but only 13 percent of U.S. Latinos, age 25 or older, has a bachelor’s degree.
Though there are many factors keeping Latinos from attaining a college degree, Tellez said the support of her parents greatly influenced her pursuit of higher education.
“The only reason I am where I am now is really because of my parents or my family,” she said. “My parents came from nowhere. I definitely look at them as role models.”
Tellez explained that her parents had to work hard for success – a situation that motivated her to do the same.
When Tellez was in grade school her parents pushed her to get good grades, but she said they also made studying fun and interesting. They helped her with homework and encouraged her to read books instead of watch television in her spare time.
Tellez, a UCLA graduate student of Mexican-Apache decent, tells other Hispanic students who want to pursue a college education that they can never give up.
Tellez said self-motivation is also important to excel in academics. She recalled a time in high school when her mother told her she could only get her nose pierced if she reached a 4.0 GPA.
“She didn’t think I could do it,” she said. “I got a 4.3.”
In addition to pursuing her PhD, Tellez has a bachelor’s degree in Cultural Anthropology and Zoology and a master’s degree in Biology from The University of California, Santa Barbara.
Her current research project looks at the interaction between crocodiles and their parasites – a relationship that could explain why crocodiles have the strongest immune systems of any vertebrates in the world, including humans. Her study could ultimately explain how to fight diseases like Malaria and other human parasite diseases.
In the future, Tellez hopes to start her own research sanctuary in Africa, Australia or Central America for students from all over the world who want to study organisms, wildlife or the tropics. This is her ultimate goal.
And she said that students in tough circumstances all around the work have to work hard to pursue their dreams no matter what.
“You’re going to hit obstacles,” she said. “But just stay positive, and keep trying. You will become that doctor or that professor. Just keep going.”
Check out Marisa’s blog, Mysteries of a Pre-historic Affair, for more information about her graduate project.
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