“I couldn’t understand anybody,” she says. “Everybody talked so fast.”
Earlier this month, Bustamante graduated from UCLA with honors, including awards for her research in molecular biology. She will attend Stanford University in the fall, in a Ph.D. program in developmental biology.
“I want to change the image many people have of Hispanic women,” Bustamante says. “I want to encourage Hispanic girls to pursue their dreams . . . If you work hard, your dreams are do-able. I did it, and so can you.”
Bustamante wasn’t always so confident in her abilities.
“I thought I wasn’t good enough to go to UCLA,” she recalls. “I thought, ‘I’ll apply, and they will reject me.’ I was so excited when I read my acceptance letter. I’m more confident now.”
Born in Venezuela, Bustamante grew up in Cucuta, Colombia. She was raised by her grandparents after her mother moved to California in the early 1990s, to look for better opportunities for her daughter. When Bustamante joined her mother, she spent a year studying English, and then went to Moorpark Community College in Ventura before transferring to UCLA.
“Ever since eighth grade, I’ve wanted to do experiments in a lab and discover new things that can help people,” she says. “That was my dream.”
Two UCLA programs helped her to achieve her dream: MARC and CARE.
Minority Access to Research Careers (MARC), funded by the National Institutes of Health, provided her with funding that enabled her to do research. (For more about MARC, see http://www.nigms.nih.gov/minority/marc.html.)
UCLA’s Center for Academic and Research Excellence (CARE) placed her in the research laboratory of Karen Lyons, an associate professor of molecular, cell and developmental biology, and provided funding for her research.
“Erika is one of the best undergraduates I have ever had in my laboratory. She is working on a difficult project that requires sophisticated molecular biology skills, perseverance, and extreme attention to detail,” Lyons says.
In the laboratory, Bustamante is studying genes that may play an important role in heart development, and may help us better understand congenital heart diseases. “Working with Dr. Emmanuele Delot, one of my research advisers, we have identified three possible candidate genes that may interact with a BMP receptor that, when truncated, causes heart defects,” she explains.
Bustamante won UCLA’s first annual Richard L. Weiss Prize for superb achievement in undergraduate research, with an award of $500. “I feel like this award is for people like me, and that it recognizes Hispanic women in science,” she says. “The award tells me that my dreams are possible.”
Bustamante has mixed feelings about graduating from UCLA.
“I love UCLA,” she says. “It’s sad that I’m leaving, but I think it’s good for me. I like the diversity and the research opportunities here. I don’t feel out of place; I feel like this is my home. You can achieve whatever you want at UCLA if you work hard. UCLA provides all the tools for you. I dream that maybe I’ll come back to UCLA as a professor.
“However much my professors expect from me, I always expect more from myself. When you have high expectations and push yourself, you can achieve your goals.”
How does she feel when she looks back on what she has done?
“It’s as good as I dreamed,” Bustamante says with a smile.