Forging a STEM career when you grew up asking, 'What are we eating today?'
To undo STEM's elitism, cancer researcher Tracie Delgado offers burgeoning scientists a network of support.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
I always had questions as a child — especially with the natural world. Why is it that this happens this way versus that way? I was very inquisitive. And so, when I went to middle school and started to learn a little bit more detail about the scientific world, it was just really interesting to me.
My mom didn't graduate from high school, and my grandmother didn't graduate from third grade. There wasn't a lot of educational background in my upbringing. There was a lot of just me doing my thing and her supporting it, but not really being able to help much with it.
I grew up in the city of Bell, which is a small city in Los Angeles County. It's high in poverty, and mainly Latino. When I went to school, it was probably about 95 percent Latino. Many were from different areas of Latin America, some migrant people and some people just born there, like I was, but had parents who came from, say, Mexico or other Latin American countries.
I grew up in a one-bedroom apartment, me and my mom and four siblings. My stepfather was with us for a time, but then it was just her and me and my four siblings. When I was 15, it was pretty much just us trying to survive, just trying to find space for everybody and not having money. My mom had a hard time getting a job, especially while trying to raise five kids.
There was a lot of pressure trying to help my family and babysitting, leaving not a lot of time for studying as I wish I could have done. And I wasn't really taught study skills and things like that, how to better prepare myself for college. The high school I went to was underfunded. It was highly populated; it had 4,000 students in one high school. By the time I finished high school, there were about 700 people graduating from my class. There definitely was about a 50 percent dropout rate by the time you reached senior year.
I was with the honors students and the honors program — the cream of the crop, I guess you would say, of the people there. But even there, I felt like it was still difficult.
Associate biology professor Tracie Delgado, left, instructs seniors Jessalyn Henry, center, and Emily Campbell in Delgado's biochemistry lab at Northwest University in Kirkland on March 28, 2019. (All photos by Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)
I really felt [the difference] more when I got out of my bubble, out of the city and into college, and went to UCLA. I remember the first week of class — I still remember it pretty vividly — taking my first chemistry class and realizing how underprepared I was, realizing that everybody else understood the basic processes of what atoms are, and how they arrange and orbital shells. I realized that I didn't even have the basic skills of understanding what chemistry was, so I had to drop that course right away, which is hard when you’re in your first week of college.
My grades were pretty bad that first year, to be completely honest. I got almost all C’s, and it was really rough to think, "I will not get the career I want at this rate."
Forming a community, getting plugged in with mentors and programs for minorities who come from disadvantaged backgrounds basically saved my academic trajectory. By the time I graduated, I left with all A’s. It was a gradual process of learning basic skills, life skills, to be a student and studying and things like that, and just recompensating for [my] deficiencies.
There was a lot of pressure and, in some ways, good pressure, to make something good out of myself. If I could do it, then my siblings could do it and they could all get a better life. So that December Christmas break, I took a chemistry textbook a high school science teacher let me borrow and I reviewed it before taking college chemistry again in the winter quarter of UCLA.
I think my mom wanted me to be a medical doctor. I think most Hispanic moms do. But, in general, she wanted me to get a good degree and get a job, but also, you know, basically financially support myself and get out of poverty.
I thought I just wanted to become a scientist. That was my career goal, just do science, not as much teach.
The hard part of the community in the sciences was to find other scientists who are like me. You know, coming from this disadvantaged background. It doesn't always have to be the same ethnic origin, but most of the time it is.
There’s an elitism in STEM in the sense that you see other people who didn't have to babysit their siblings or worry about, “What are we eating today?” In that way, it’s apples and oranges. You’re in two completely different categories, where it seems one category always makes it and this other one doesn't. I think for me, to give back is to continue mentoring other students who come from those backgrounds.
I'm involved in the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in the Sciences (SACNAS). It's a national society of thousands of minority scientists coming together. We not only provide support to one another through our own disciplines and scientific fields, but we also provide support to one another in our daily lives and to students. I went to my first SACNAS conference when I was a junior undergraduate at UCLA. I went from treasurer to vice-president to president over time.
There’s this story they always tell at the conference that you hear from the founders about where it started. About seven scientists of color — and these were Native Americans and Chicanos — were at a big science conference and they all, of course, gravitated towards each other ’cause they’re like each other, right? You know, came from similar backgrounds and such. And they were riding an elevator, and apparently, one of them joked and said, "If this elevator were to fail and break down, and we were all to die, we would have gotten rid of all of the Ph.D. scientists of color." Because they were they only ones at the conference.
It was a joke, but in seriousness, it sparked this question: “What should we do about that? That's actually pretty bad. If we all died, it's over. There's no other people.” Right? And so, they started a society. It started with 20 people, and now we're at 4,000 people who annually attend the conference.
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I'm interested in how viruses cause cancer. My actual undergraduate degree is in microbiology, but I did research in a cancer biology lab. I loved viruses. That was what intrigued me. They're not alive but somehow they create huge diseases. When I went to graduate school, I found a lab that not only did cancer research, but also virus research.
One of the key hallmarks of cancer is an increase in metabolism. Every cancer cell must increase metabolism. So my research interest is identifying how viruses, when they infect cells, actually increase the host's metabolism. All cancer cells take in high levels of glucose sugar, for example. It's necessary for the virus to increase metabolism, and this is part of how the virus causes cancer.
The whole concept of cancer metabolism has been known since about the ’50s. However, the discovery that viruses that cause cancer can cause changes in the metabolism of their host cells wasn't really discovered until my Ph.D. time. So [in 2010], I was one of the first people to publish that viruses can increase the metabolism of their host, and this could be one of the many mechanisms that viruses [employ to] cause human cancers.
Long story short: As I continued through my Ph.D. program, I ended up feeling that convergence of wanting to teach and also wanting to do research. So I ended up pursuing a job as a professor at a liberal arts college, which is a smaller, private college — which usually do both.
The students in my lab all are undergraduates. I believe that undergraduates can do as advanced science as graduate students, given the opportunity.
As a researcher, I think it's important to not just do my research, but share my research and talk about it. [It’s important] to show people what scientists are finding so that they can apply it to their daily lives or the decisions that they make in policy — whether it be global warming or climate change or vaccination or how we treat our earth.
I like to tell my students when I teach: “I want you to know the science behind things so that you can make informed choices with the way you vote, but also the way you live your own life.” The way you live your life ultimately does affect the people around you, like a spider web effect. I feel like I'm training scientists of the future who can then, again, train others in those mechanisms.