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Dr. Vernon Avila - Biologist
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I was born in 1941 in Segundo, Colorado, in a coal mining camp where my father worked. I am the oldest of three sons and we all grew up in the south valley of Albuquerque, New Mexico, which back then consisted of small farms and alfalfa fields. We did not have indoor plumbing until I was twelve. We were poor, but I did not know this until the invention of the television. Television allowed me to view many things that other people had that we did not. Nonetheless, I felt wealthy in that my parents had given me strong values. My mother honored formal education. My father, who had completed school up until the sixth grade, did not regard formal education in the same way. His teachings always reinforced the importance of hard work.

The elementary school I attended did not encourage the Hispanic students in the same manner as the non-minority students. Because I was an extremely curious student who always wanted answers, I was often reprimanded for being inquisitive. I became restless when we weren’t learning anything new in class. For example, in the fourth grade we did a unit on the uses of water for irrigation. When the teacher asked the class what water is used for, I said to build houses. “Haven’t you ever heard of igloos?” I asked the teacher. My creativity was rewarded with a trip to see the principal. I guess you could say I’ve always viewed the world differently.

When I heard that the Soviets had sent Sputnik, the first man-made satellite, into space, I knew I that had to go to college. Even though I didn’t excel in high school, I was able to get into the University of New Mexico on the strength of my college entrance exam scores and the recommendations from teachers and counselors who believed in my scientific ability.

I earned my Bachelor of Science degree in two years and ten months, and decided to become a high school biology teacher. During the next ten years of my career I admired those who were doing scientific research, not just interpreting it as I did. I believed a person had to be unusually intelligent to attend graduate school, and that I didn’t have what it took. I was wrong, but it was not until participating in a National Science Foundation summer program for teachers that I realized I was capable of doing Ph.D. level work. I aced the course and a professor in the program asked me to work on my master’s degree with him! Due to my professor”s encouragement, I went on to earn my master”s degree at Northern Arizona University, and my Ph.D. at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

While at the University of Colorado getting my Ph.D., I joined one of the many Chicano organizations on campus. We would often protest to draw attention to the problems affecting our community. That was the best way we knew of to have our voices heard. Unfortunately, the attention we would draw to ourselves became negative attention. Newspapers would take pictures of police clubbing and hurting a group of these unruly demonstrators. I started to think that the real way to institute change was to get the necessary credentials, and then to go Washington to support what we proposed with rational arguments. So, I earned my Ph.D., gained research experience, and moved to Washington to address issues at the national level. I worked as an administrator at the National Institutes of Health in the Minority Biomedical Research Support (MBRS) program.

Today I am an associate professor of biology at San Diego State University, administering the Minority Biomedical Research Support program which trains minority students to become biomedical researchers. In addition, I am the president and owner of Bookmark Publishers. I write textbooks designed to bring biological literacy to students while including profiles of scientists from all ethnic backgrounds. My hope is to illustrate the diversity of talents within the sciences. We are presently working on a fitness book for the Olympic committee. I also write medical mysteries and I just finished a novel titled Smokescreen. In addition to these accomplishments, I am very proud to have been a founding member of SACNAS.

Overall, I have dedicated my life to developing programs to encourage minority students to think of science as a career option. My goal is to provide opportunities for talented students to discover their interests and abilities. I hope to encourage creativity and curiosity while teaching students about the process of how science works. Don”t be afraid to dream big and believe in yourself. It”s so important that what you do is your passion, because if it”s your passion, it”s not work. The quality of your work will also show, and you will be recognized for it.


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