|I was born in Las Vegas, New Mexico in 1950. We were a family of nine living in a barrio of Las Vegas in a house without natural gas. Because of this, I remember that every weekend my family went out looking for wood to heat our house. As the third oldest child, I felt that I had to help my parents take care of my younger brothers and sister. In the sixth grade, I would wake up at 4:35 a.m., go to work mopping floors at a nearby bakery, go to school, come home to do chores, and not go to bed until I finished my homework. I knew what it was like to be hungry, not just for food, but for other things as well.
Education was always important to my parents. Even though they both had little schooling, they knew that getting a college education would let us children become anything we wanted to be. For me, changing from elementary school to junior high school was very scary. This new school on the east side of town was very different than the west side elementary school that I was used to. I didn’t know any of the other students. I felt alone and I didn’t fit in. At first I felt that I wasn’t as smart as the other kids. I studied hard and I survived. I was lucky because I always had at least one teacher who recognized my willingness to learn and spent extra time helping me. Those teachers were very special. They made me feel as good as the other students in my classes. Although I had no clue about what I wanted to be when I grew up, I did go to university. In 1991, I became a professor of microbiology at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio.
What does a microbiologist do? A microbiologist studies both good and bad germs. These germs can only be seen by a microscope, which makes things appear bigger than they really are. Good germs are all around us, and many help us become healthier. Helpful germs make yogurt from milk, sauerkraut from cabbage, and wine from grapes. Good germs can also help clean up our environment, like in oil spills. Unfortunately, bad germs are also all around us, and can make us sick. When you get scratched, you see that the skin turns red, and sometimes pus oozes out. This redness and pus are full of armies of cells, called platelets, and ”soldiers” that help you destroy the germs and stop any bleeding. The ”soldiers” belong to another army of cells and are called antibodies, which also come to kill the germs. Some germs can live inside us for a long time. They damage our bodies, and sometimes our soldiers and armies of cells cannot destroy them. Scientists don’t know why this happens, but if we can learn something about these bad germs, then maybe we can help. This is what I do in my laboratory. I study a parasite that causes a sexually-transmitted disease. If the parasite gets into a person’s body, that person will have a higher chance of catching HIV, the AIDS virus. Everyone that works in my laboratory is finding out how the parasite lives in our bodies so that we can make a vaccine to protect you. We have found antibodies that we know can kill the parasite. Companies that make medical drugs are now studying these antibodies to see if they can be used to help humans infected by this parasite.