Sindy Ramirez watched worriedly as her truck-driver father limped on a badly swollen ankle and struggled for breath.
Several doctors dismissed his symptoms until, one day, a maverick physician decided to run a few tests. He diagnosed Ramirez's father with Valley Fever, a fungal disease that can cause severe breathing problems and even death in susceptible populations.
"When my father got sick was when I realized medicine wasn't enough," says Ramirez, who is majoring in molecular, cell and developmental biology at UC Santa Cruz with minors in chemistry and history of art and visual culture. "That's when I knew I needed to do research."
Today, the 22-year-old Ramirez, who will graduate in 2015, is working in UC Santa Cruz Professor Karen Ottemann's lab studying a stomach bacteria called Helicobacter pylori, which infects about half of the world's populations and can lead to gastritis, ulcers, and even cancer.
"People forget simple organisms can attack the body just like a fungus attacked my dad's body," said the Oakes College student, who spends her days in a lab coat cultivating and documenting a mutant strain of H. pylori. "That's why I'm even more interested in the bacterium I'm working with."
That desire to understand medicine's mysteries is what drives Ramirez, who says she was discouraged from studying science by counselors at her San Bernardino County high school because they thought it might be too difficult for her. She plans to go on to medical school and not only work with patients but also do research.
Ramirez, a woman with a quick smile and open manner, has not walked an easy path. Her mother, one of 24 children, came from Mexico without ever attending school. Her father was a refugee from the war in El Salvador and spent some time in jail. She was raised by her grandmother and her aunts after her younger brother was hit by a car. Her parents lost their home when her father became ill. A short time later, her mother had to leave her factory job because of repetitive-motion injuries.
"But, at the end of the day, I wanted to go to school," Ramirez said. "I saw how important, as a woman, it was for me to succeed."
Accepted by two Ivy League schools, Ramirez chose UC Santa Cruz, where she was elected to the Student Union Assembly, lobbied state legislators on higher-education issues, organized a protest against proposed tuition increases, and also founded a UCSC information and support group called Women of Color in Science Coalition. She also received a coveted internship at the Columbia School of Medicine in New York, where she shadowed physicians at work for two-and-a-half months and is preparing an art project she titled "Lonely Chicanos in Organic Chemistry" using some of the videos she's made in her H. pylori research.
Sitting in a small office in UC Santa Cruz's Biomedical Sciences building, Ramirez says the lack of women of color in science is a problem she's encountered firsthand. Not only does she see it when she looks around some of her science classes, but she also came face-to-face with the problem when she shadowed a physician at a Santa Cruz County clinic. "Almost all the patients (at the clinic) were people of color. I could see they were afraid of the doctor but they felt comfortable with me because I looked like them. They could tell me things. If you don't make the patients feel comfortable, they're not going to listen to you."
Ramirez relies on a few grants, along with her jobs in the lab and as an RA during the school year to pay her way through college and also send money home to help her parents with their rent. But she worries how she will finance medical school and also support herself when a grant for her research position runs out this year.
Still, she takes inspiration from her grandmother, who came to the United States from El Salvador without a high school education and five children in tow. Her grandmother got a job in a water lab, eventually doing basic chemistry work there.
"My grandmother inspired me to see that you can do whatever you want if you work hard enough," Ramirez says.