From a Community College Student to an NSF GRFP Fellow

— Celena Lozano

January 2014

I began community college  with Intermediate Algebra, supplemented by Intro to Computers (“Hmm, I like computers. This may be fun.”) and Cultural Anthropology (no idea how I chose that). I did not speak to a counselor, so I was clueless. I figured that taking classes at a community college would help me look good when I went up for my juvenile court case.

Although I began community college, I had not yet separated myself from what put me in that situation in the first place. In fact, I specifically remember a day where I rode Bay Area Rapid Transit at 5am with no sleep to get back to the city where my class began at 8am.

However, I still easily obtained A’s in Algebra 2 and Cultural Anthropology and a B in Intro to Computers (we had to create our own program and I was NOT going to ask for help so my program didn’t run). Getting good grades gave me this warm, satisfying feeling that reminded me I’d always loved school, but I stopped trying in high school when I became pre-occupied with a way of life that seemed much more intriguing than school.

Spring 2015

I began taking classes to satisfy general education requirements. To satisfy the biological sciences requirement, I took Ecology and Environmental Science. I remember wondering “What is ecology? And what is science?” (Yes, I took biology and chemistry in high school, but I never thought of it as more than something I just had to get through). My instructor defined ecology early on: the study of interactions between organisms and their environment.

OKbut what is science? I still could not wrap my head around it.

My entire perspective of life changed when I learned that humans are essentially ruining the earth through what we eat, what we drive, what we materialistically consume and how we handle our waste. Oh, and natural resources like water are finite (WHAT?!). I know it may sound senseless, but I am being completely honest when I tell you these things NEVER crossed my mind. I never thought of global-scale issues because I was always too wrapped up in my own personal issues. I kind of became a stickler about environmental concerns after this. For a period of time, I hated humans (don’t worry, since then I’ve figured out that I am in fact human as well).

Water! In Mt. Diablo State Park, not too far from home.

Late 2015

Fast forward. I decided to major in biology after taking that Envi Sci class. I then took cell bio with the same instructor. She knew me very well by now because I consistently had been in her office hours asking her off tangent biology-related questions (“Why does it hurt when you do a belly flop?”) and founded the Environmental Sustainability club under her mentorship.

Me: I’ve been looking up what exactly I can do in science. I think I’d be interested in neurobiology.

She sent me this email …

….and then she continued:

Instructor: There are summer research internships called National Science Foundation (NSF) Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) where participating institutions across the US provide you a stipend to conduct research over the summer in a lab. This might be a good step to see if you’re interested in research. This is how you get started …

Then this happened…

No way! This was the only REU I applied to and my instructor said these are competitive! There have to be so many more candidates that are more qualified than me.

Was there a mistake??

 

July 2017

CONFIRMED: I love research.

In my REU, I studied how treehoppers use vibrations to communicate. No, you can’t see the treehoppers but you can admire the way cool instrumental apparatus.

April 2017

I had my mind set on UC Davis for a while. Not only was it close to home, I liked how the Neurobiology, Physiology and Behavior major seemed more integrative than other programs that seemed very neuro-centric.

OK, so not only was I accepted into the school I’ve longed to attend, but I am being given money to attend this school?! Aaaand I’ll be in the University Honors Program? And I’m a Regent’s Scholar???

Nope. This isn’t right.

I don’t belong at this university as it is, much less among a group of honors students.

 

Synopsis of my time at UC Davis: It was difficult. I struggled. Mentally, academically, financially … I struggled. But I did it! I graduated with a B+ average. I balanced my jobs, schoolwork, and working in a research lab. I stayed somewhat mentally sane. I overcame all of those times I told myself “I don’t want to be here. I don’t belong here. I can’t do it. I am different than everyone here. No one understands what I had to do to get here.”

I finally realized that everyone has different struggles and if you’re already there, that IS where you belong. Following my sister, I am the second in my family to earn a college degree!

September 2019

I joined PREP@UCD. We were applying for the NSF Research Graduate Fellowship, a highly competitive research grant that provides three years of funding for graduate school (see Colton’s blog post about this and notice all the comments in red). Throughout the process I thought to myself, “Even though I won’t get this grant, this is a good exercise for writing grants in the future and I’m getting a lot of good feedback on my personal statement for grad school.”

February 2020

Six years ago, I had no idea what a PhD, was but now I will be getting my PhD in Neuroscience from UC Davis!

30 March 2020

And then THIS happened.

OK … but what is science?

Science is hydrogen bonds breaking, releasing energy, and causing physical pain when you do a belly flop in a pool. Science is the process. Science explains.

Science is different for everyone. If I had one wish, it’d be that all people had the opportunity to view the world through an introspective scientific lens.

For me, science has given me life. It has shown me who I am and what I am capable of.