From Immigrant to Successful Scholar

Why did you choose to pursue a degree in computer science specifically at the University of Minnesota?

I earned a Bachelor of Science degree from the College of Biological Science (CBS). My interest in computational biology was sparked by learning coding from a roommate. Currently, I am focused on studying skull-based tumors at the single-cell genomic level.

How did you become interested in computer science? What are your specific interests within the field?

My father always believed that computers were the future of medicine, a vision that introduced me to the world of computing. This early exposure ignited my passion for molecular biology, particularly at the single-cell level. Today, I am actively involved in the brain tumor program, specializing in single-cell analysis and genomics, at the Venteicher Lab at the University of Minnesota, where I apply my computer science knowledge to medical research.

Congratulations on earning the Regents Scholarship Program! How will this scholarship impact your academic and extracurricular work?

I am employed full-time at the University of Minnesota's Minnesota Supercomputing Institute (MSI), working on a major project, Loris, and I receive a scholarship as part of my employment benefits.

Since my undergraduate days, I have not qualified for FAFSA or any federal financial aid, relying instead on the Minnesota Dream Act. Having arrived in the U.S. at the age of 7, I am classified under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, often referred to as a Dreamer. My family and I were responsible for my undergraduate tuition fees. However, my employment with the Office of Information Technology (OIT) has significantly changed my financial situation for graduate studies, covering most of my tuition beyond what I receive from my salary and scholarships. This support structure is somewhat unique compared to other graduate students but has enabled me to pursue my academic goals without financial burden.

Are you involved in any student groups? What inspired you to get involved? 

During my undergraduate studies, I founded UAIM with the mission of uniting minority undergraduates aspiring to enter professional schools. The initiative proved successful, as all members have since achieved remarkable outcomes, advancing to graduate, medical, or other professional schools.

I recently joined the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SPHE), which has significantly enriched my engineering career. However, I've noticed a gap in the representation of Hispanic professionals in the fields of genomics and cancer tumor research, particularly at the single-cell level. Addressing this gap is a goal I am keenly pursuing.

What do you hope to contribute to the computer science community at the University?

My primary goal is to increase minority participation in the computer science field, particularly in understanding and leveraging the capabilities of supercomputing. High-performance computing (HPC) systems represent the future of computational power, yet the presence of Hispanics and other minority groups in this arena is notably sparse. I envision a more diverse community engaging with the Minnesota Supercomputing Institute (MSI), whether by learning about its potential, understanding its contributions, or actively participating in its projects.

Beyond fostering diversity, I am passionate about applying supercomputing to tackle complex challenges, such as studying tumors, various cancers, genomics, and solving intricate problems in physics and astrophysics. These areas often require the sophisticated analysis that only supercomputing can provide.

As a member of the MSI, I've had the privilege of connecting with individuals eager to explore this field. I am always open to guiding those who reach out and sharing insights on how to navigate and excel in this cutting-edge domain. I aim to not only broaden the representation within HPC but also to harness this technology in advancing research on critical health issues and beyond.

Have you been involved with any research on campus?

Since beginning my undergraduate studies in 2015, I have been actively involved in a range of projects. My journey started with a collaboration with the Department of Hematology, specifically under the mentorship of Dr. Shernan Holtan and Dr. Daniel Weisdorf. This collaboration led to significant findings, notably the 'Low 5-year health care burden after umbilical cord blood transplantation.' This research not only contributed valuable insights into the field but also exemplified the impactful work being done at the University of Minnesota. Following this experience, I undertook various roles that provided me with valuable clinical experience.

Upon starting my Ph.D., I had the privilege of joining Dr. Andrew Venteicher’s lab at the University of Minnesota. Here, I have been focusing on studying skull-base tumors at the single-cell level. This pioneering research has not only enriched my understanding of genomics but has also enabled me to make a meaningful contribution to the field, marking a significant milestone in my journey as a Hispanic DACA recipient. Each step, from my early collaborations to my current research, has been pivotal in shaping my contributions to medical science.

What advice do you have for incoming computer science students?

Computer science is challenging, yet it transcends the mere act of reading textbooks and mastering equations. It's about opening your mind to the possibilities that lie beyond what is written in books. The pioneers in our field, including those who developed groundbreaking theories like relativity, were not content with existing knowledge; they sought more. Creativity in computer science, much like in art, necessitates a willingness to explore uncharted territories and acknowledge that discovery is an ongoing process.

The mindset should not be confined to, “I just want to learn what they’re doing.” Instead, strive to explore above and beyond that; I think that's the key. Engaging with professors and delving into research offers a prime opportunity to surpass the known and venture into the realm of what could be. It’s about aiming higher and pushing the boundaries of current understanding.

What are your plans after graduation?

I am keen to deepen my involvement in the field of space genomics, driven by my profound interest in all things related to space studies. I'm eager for the opportunity to explore space genomics further, aiming to gain insights into the work conducted by NASA and leading space exploration companies. The field of genomics, as applied to space, is poised for rapid growth, although it is still in its nascent stages due to the vast unexplored territories beyond our planet. However, I am optimistic about the future and believe in my potential to make meaningful contributions to this emerging discipline.

Are there any additional experiences you did that you would like to highlight in the article?

As a DACA recipient who arrived in the U.S. at the age of 7, I am part of a community with a shared trajectory. My father's early life in Mexico, spent collecting garbage, and my mother's upbringing in a house made from milk cartons, have profoundly inspired my ambitions and achievements. Their resilience and the challenges they overcame have illuminated the opportunities available to me in this country.

Thanks to various institutions, I've been able to advance my career in the United States. Despite the restrictions that DACA imposes, including the conventional barriers to obtaining a green card, my academic pursuits have opened a door to a potential National Interest Waiver, which could lead to permanent residency. This opportunity underscores that limitations can be overcome with creativity and perseverance.

I believe it's crucial to reach out and connect with others who have faced similar challenges, regardless of their background. It's not just about overcoming individual obstacles; it's about coming together, sharing our stories, and working collectively to create pathways for success. Creativity and unity are key in navigating and transcending the barriers we encounter.