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Dr. Elma González - Cell Biologist
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When it is cold and rainy outside don’t you love to crawl under the covers and read a book or watch television? In the same way that the blankets on your bed keep you warm at night, carbon dioxide helps keep the earth warm. Without this atmospheric blanket, the earth’s temperatures would be so cold that the oceans would be frozen!

Carbon dioxide is what you get when carbon reacts with oxygen. Carbon is everywhere. It is the main ingredient in the charcoal for our barbecues, the gas we use to drive our cars, and the sidewalks we walk on. Carbon is also present in the food we eat and the air we breathe. In fact, carbon is one of the building blocks for life on this planet.

Carbon moves around the planet in a number of different ways. The carbon cycle that happens between plants, animals, and humans begins when plants absorb carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air through photosynthesis. (CO2 stands for one atom of carbon and two atoms of oxygen). Another carbon cycle happens between the atmosphere and oceans, lakes, and rivers when carbon dioxide dissolves into the water.

My work as a cell biologist at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), may lead to a better understanding of the global carbon cycle. I study the way tiny organisms called coccolithophores turn carbon dioxide into mineral cell covers or shells. When these coccolithophores die, their shells sink to the bottom of the ocean and become limestone and chalk. In fact, the White Cliffs of Dover on the coast of England are huge chalk cliffs that are actually made up of the ancient skeletons of coccolithophores.

In the same way that carbon is always moving through the environment, I spent the summers of my childhood moving from farm to farm across the country. We would go to Nebraska to thin sugar beets and Wisconsin to pick cucumbers. On the way home we would stop in West Texas to pick cotton. Many years we would return to our home of Hebbronville, Texas after the school year had started. I was actually born in Ciudad Guerrero in the state of Tamaulipas , Mexico in 1942, but when I was six years old my family moved across the border.

I had very good teachers throughout school and they encouraged me to go to college. I decided to go to Texas Women’s University (TWU). TWU was a very good choice because it was affordable and for girls only. These were the two main reasons I was able to get my parents to approve of me leaving home.

Even as a child I had been interested in science. My father was always curious about the world. I remember him bringing home birds’ nests and eggs, snake rattles, wasp nests, and even a dead coyote so my younger brother and I could look at them and ask questions. It was this early exposure, the challenge of science in high school, and the knowledge that studying science could lead to a good career that led me to major in biology.

After college I worked in a lab at Southwestern Medical School for three years and then decided to get my Ph.D. at Rutgers University. After a post-doctoral position at The University of California, Santa Cruz, I became a professor of biology at UCLA. I see myself as primarily an educator and I especially like to train people to do research.

My advice to young students is to take yourself seriously, truly believe that your life matters, and know that you do with your life will be important not only to yourself but to your community.

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