|We are all programmed to move away from danger and towards a better situation to survive. Unconsciously, our skin feels heat and we move away, while consciously we search for ways to improve our lives. My own story begins with my mother’s conscious decision to endure significant hardship and unite her family in the United States. After my parents were married in Mexico, my father returned to the States and my mother stayed in Mexico with his family. My parents had decided that the best survival strategy for the family would be for my mother to stay in Mexico while my father worked in the States to save money. However, when my mother was seven months pregnant with me, she decided to speed up the immigration process. With only a second grade education, she made the difficult journey to the “consulado” in Mexico D.F. to obtain the necessary paperwork. It had become clear to her that the best survival strategy for the family was for her to join my father in the United States so that I would be born an American citizen. Our move to the United States and my birth as an American citizen of Mexican ancestry has shaped my world in ways that are difficult to describe. It is clear that my mother’s tremendous investment of energy into getting us across the border has resulted in a family that has not only survived, but actually thrived in this new environment.
When we sense danger, we naturally want to run away. Now imagine that you had to grow legs to run away, or to find food. As a research professor this is exactly what I study in my laboratory. I study a soil bacterium called Bacillus subtilis that is able to move toward a better environment and away from harsh conditions. B. subtilis has developed the ability to move around in its environment depending on whether or not there is enough food present, or whether or not there is the threat of danger. It is a survival strategy. The bacterium has receptors, which gather information about the environment. If it suddenly finds itself without food, or in the presence of a dangerous chemical, a decision is made to do something about it. The bacterium will actually grow flagella, or small motors, so as to propel itself towards a food source, or away from danger. This movement, however, comes at a high cost to the bacterium since it must expend a great deal of energy to produce the structures necessary to move toward better conditions. Therefore, the ability to move is highly regulated in this bacterium and only used under the appropriate circumstances. The receptors used to gather information about the bacterium’s surroundings basically “talk” to the regulatory proteins in the bacterium that control its genes, allowing it to make a decision about whether to produce flagella or not. In my laboratory we study the molecules in the environment that control whether the bacterium moves or not, as well as the genes that must be turned on or off to allow for this movement.
The desire for survival is part of us. In my laboratory I study the survival strategies of bacteria. In my classes I tell my students about the survival strategies necessary to succeed at the university. Our community needs more of us to survive and thrive at our universities.