For every student donning a cap and gown for UCLA's commencement weekend, there is a story. Few of those stories are as dramatic as that of José Rodriguez.
Rodriguez came to the United States with his parents when he was 5. He could not speak any English when he entered kindergarten, and he struggled to learn English through most of his elementary school years.
Now 21, he is graduating from UCLA as a biophysics major, with accomplishments including articles in prestigious medical journals. This fall, he will return to UCLA as the first Whitcome Fellow in the Molecular Biology Interdepartmental Ph.D. program.
"José is an exceptional individual distinguished by his ability, enthusiasm and hard work," said Dr. Manuel Penichet, UCLA assistant professor of medicine and immunology. "He comes from a humble family that instilled a strong work ethic in him and encouraged him to succeed."
Indeed, Jacinta, José's mother, said she and her husband, José Sr., left a small agricultural village in Jalisco, Mexico, and came to the United States because she wanted her children to get a good education.
Although she was only able to study until the sixth grade, Jacinta received her General Educational Development credential once in the United States. José Sr. is now a hotel catering manager. They encouraged their children to follow their lead by doing well in school.
José's sister, Maria, is a biology student at UCSD, and his brother, Benjamin, will attend a small liberal arts college in Massachusetts this fall. Two younger siblings, Noe and Cecilia, also are in school and plan to go to college.
"We couldn't give them a lot of material things, but we always told them they could be someone if they studied and went to school," Jacinta said. "I always told them that it doesn't matter whether you are wealthy or not. You can go to school, study and there will be a lot of opportunities for you."
That advice has paid off for Rodriguez. He is one of five nationwide recipients of the Gilliam Fellowship for Advanced Study from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Rodriguez is co-author of three original publications in medical journals and the lead (first) author of one journal article.
Rodriguez has worked in various labs and at UCLA, he is working with Penichet to find new treatments that would stimulate the body's immune system to act on its own and combat cancerous cells.
He recently penned a column for Nature about his experience as a Latino immigrant student in the sciences.
"Doing science requires a certain level of perseverance, a great deal of independence and self-motivation, and a whole lot of optimism," Rodriguez wrote in the column. "Coincidentally, these characteristics are epitomized by most of the immigrant workers that come to the United States in search of jobs.
"Paradoxically, these people are very underrepresented in science," he wrote.
That is a disparity that Rodriguez hopes is starting to change, one Rodriguez at a time.