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When No One Opens the Door and the Pathway Is Convoluted, Creativity Rules

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Non-traditional students always have to learn to jump over and circumvent the many hurdles they face.

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Jose Ortiz is well on his way to completing a PhD, but his was not an easy journey. He describes himself as someone who “wasn’t the perfect student,” “didn’t get the highest grades,” has a “different way of thinking,” and who found that “not knowing English was really difficult” when he came from Mexico and settled with his family in the US at age seven. These and many other factors have influenced his academic journey as a non-traditional student and person of color. He is now on target to complete his doctoral training in 2022 from the Irell & Manella Graduate School of Biological Sciences (part of the City of Hope Medical Center in Duarte, CA). With a strong sense of resourcefulness and willingness to adapt and the foresight to engage a new mentor just two years ago, he has a newfound confidence and proclaims to have “got the hang of research finally.” He intends to follow his degree with postdoctoral research and then find a position in the academia, industry, or non-profit sector that helps benefit society along the way, doing what he can to instigate new ways to improve diversity in science.

“I come from a humble background where education wasn’t always accessible, and from a different way of thinking. My mom was a single parent in Mexico who, after seeing an ad for work in the Pennysaver, made the drastic decision to immigrate to the US. She was a risk-taker, and I admire her for it because she really changed the lives of me and my two sisters because we were able to access education that she couldn’t when she was growing up. As a young boy, I did not understand all the socioeconomic struggles, uncertainties, and fear we would go through as immigrants. But my mom taught us all the things that we’d need to survive, and if you want to be successful you have to work for it…but she also asked people for help when we needed it from the community.”

When Jose, his two sisters, and his mom arrived in California, they had a tough time making the transition. Money was tight and English was difficult to learn, but Jose compensated with his curiosity—learning from the images in science textbooks, becoming skilled at drawing from life, and taking joy in the “fun” of math where the universal language of numbers wasn’t an impediment. It took a few years before he met a teacher who saw through his English-as-a-second-language difficulties to credit him instead for his intelligence. Her positive outlook made a huge difference in how he began to see himself. However, there were more obstacles to overcome as a first-generation immigrant in his primary and secondary education, as well as a daunting pathway to further his education as an undergraduate college student.

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Figure 1: Image of post-natal day 7 (P7) mouse pancreas tissue slide stained with DAPI and insulin (in green) to find immature beta cells that are surrounded by acinar cells that continue to express Tff2 (in red). 20X magnification.
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Figure 2: Image of mouse pancreatic islet stained with DAPI and insulin (in white) to detect insulin-producing beta cells that express the maturation markers Glut2 (in green) and MafA (in red). 20X magnification.

Finding resources (especially on the financial side) has been an ongoing challenge. To start, as a non-traditional immigrant student, Jose had no initial access to financial aid. Fortuitous or not, he was too busy to complain, and he was steadfast in his commitment to graduating. He refused to have an excuse NOT to graduate. He began building an arsenal of emotional intelligence that plays a large role in how he approaches his life, reminding him to focus on changing the aspects that are within his control. He compensated for a lack of resources by borrowing books from the library, seeking additional funding for his education, working as needed, living at home, cooking his own meals and finding free food sources, and more. Eventually, when the state changed its laws in regard to immigrant students, he was able to access in-state tuition rates and financial aid, and earned a BS in Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology from UCLA in 2015.

“I honestly didn’t know what to expect from grad school. The brochures don’t tell you much. As an undergrad, I knew I wanted to do something in research, but didn’t know how. I thought about going to medical school, but I didn’t have money to apply or to pay if I was accepted. My undergraduate research mentor suggested that I should apply for a PhD. Then, if you get in, they pay you. That was something that I didn’t know. I was thinking about being a research assistant to find some stability after college. I applied and was accepted at several places but decided to attend a private research institute (here at City of Hope) because they gave me more funding opportunities and I wanted to have 1-on-1 mentoring that smaller institutions can give.”

Fast forward to today, Jose is working toward his thesis. After a few years in a situation that was not the best fit for him, he switched labs, finding a mentor who uses a constructive approach to build up confidence, rather than the destructive approach—still in use by some academics—that had affected his confidence throughout his youth. The positive approach works well for Jose, because he can often see more than one way to do things—devising new methods that don’t always align with traditional, scientific, or logical order—having an advisor who gives him the freedom to explore while providing valuable constructive feedback, creates an environment in which Jose can learn and grow.

Diabetes research is one of the many programs supported by the City of Hope that aligns with Jose’s societal benefit goal. He’s studying pancreas organ development and regeneration, spending his days (and nights) thinking about intestinal growth factors and insulin-producing β and islet cells. He describes himself as “very visual” and might have pursued art “if he could have figured out how to make money at it.” Inadvertently, by using immunofluorescence to show the location of protein, he is using art in his career and sees not only the beauty and complexity in it but also the knowledge it communicates. He also finds satisfaction from the unique experience it provides: as the first person to see it, he gets to choose how to explain it.

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Figure 3: Image of injured pancreas tissue section stained with DAPI and E-cadherin epithelial marker (in red) to find all pancreatic cells that undergo proliferation (in green). 20X magnification.
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Figure 4: Image of E16.5 mouse embryonic pancreas tissue slide stained with DAPI and Insulin (in green) to find early beta cells that are surrounded by pancreatic acinar cells that express the intestinal growth factor Tff2 (in red). 20X magnification.

“I love science — because I see the connection between art and science… and that helped me survive when I couldn’t understand English… I do a lot of immunofluorescence and feel it’s very creative and visual. Right away you see answers to your questions about whether a protein has been expressed, where it’s been expressed, and how the cells look in terms of morphology and architecture… I get to take lots of images and I sometimes feel like a photographer, and the images are fun to look at… I also think about how to arrange data and figures for presentation that is also visually attractive, but also meaningful… Not only do I want to hear that the data is good and solid, but I want to show that it can be beautifully arranged… I see papers as art pieces… and I love the creative aspects of manuscripts, posters, and presentations.”

Jose has taken on a mentorship role for nine students so far — of high school, college, and graduate age — as a way to help remind him why he should be in science. Seeing students grow is important to him, and he hopes that his story touches someone, helping them to feel not so alone in their own journey. He looks forward to a leadership role where he can mentor a diverse group of scientists, non-traditional students, or any team toward success. Given the chance to offer some wisdom to potential grad students, he would advise that they “learn to listen,” understand that “even tough feedback will help you grow,” and be sure to work on their emotional intelligence and self-awareness “to help you work well with others.” If he could offer insight to a younger Jose, he might opt for this: “I learned that my biggest fear, which was English and writing, turned out to be one of the best skills that I have — and that’s because I am an immigrant.”

Jose has a great attitude towards overcoming adversity and has learned to appreciate his background and history. For example, when Jose entered one of his images into Vector Labs’ photo contest, he honestly wasn’t expecting to win. But in December 2020, he did just that with a cross-section of a 3-d human pancreatic colony using the Vector® TrueVIEW® Autofluorescence Quenching Kit and VECTASHIELD® Vibrance Antifade Mounting Medium. To some, this may seem like a “small” win, but to him, it was an emotionally (and monetarily) rewarding and motivational experience. Coming from a humble background and being driven to succeed through hard work helps him appreciate how far he’s come and reminds him what to take along as his journey continues.

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Edna M. Kunkel