Follow Your Dreams - Sigue tus Sueños



Landeros (far right) and her teammates from International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM).

By Adriana Landeros
10 min read 

About a year ago, I was sitting in a cell contemplating what I was going to do with my life. I was facing three felonies and a sentence of 1-20 years for drug trafficking. I knew I could do better than the life I was leading. I decided to write the judge and tell him I missed being in school and doing research. I told him if I was given a second chance, I would not repeat my mistakes, and I would return to the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC) to finish my undergraduate degree.

During my time in jail, I truly began to appreciate reading. I was eager to learn. I subscribed to Science magazine and tried to stay current, so I would be able to ask my future professors questions and engage in conversations about the science news.

Fortunately, my case was dismissed, and I was set free after being incarcerated for seven months. I applied for readmission to UCSC and was accepted for the spring of 2015. Now I am back at UCSC with the same goal in mind but a different way of thinking.

Clearly, not everyone lands in jail, but I’ve met plenty of people in my journey to obtain a higher education that have made mistakes, taken wrong turns, and, well … messed up. I want to share with my fellow students four key concepts I have learned along the way to keep me on my path to a life of science—a life where I am following my dreams.

Landeros (polka dotted dress) as a child and her family

A Little Bit of Background

I grew up in rough neighborhoods, survived domestic and sexual abuse, and worked hard to keep my younger siblings safe while my mom worked long hours in the agriculture fields to make ends meet. Despite the difficult conditions of my childhood, I managed to gain and retain an interest in school. I graduated high school a year early thanks to Diana Basurto, my counselor at Everett Alvarez High School in Salinas. She saw potential in me and, as a high school freshman, helped me enroll in college classes. I started college at Hartnell, my local community college in Salinas, and after four years, I transferred to UCSC to continue my education and earn my degree in molecular biology.

My first year as a transfer student was horrible. Not only was the adjustment from a junior college to a university difficult, I also went through a divorce, my mom got cancer, and I became increasingly dependent on drugs and alcohol. The pressure, stress, and desperate need for money led me to make some extremely bad choices: terrifying choices that landed me in serious trouble.

Gaining Confidence

When I got out of jail, I felt relieved, excited, and scared. I also felt extremely embarrassed about what I had gone through, and I didn’t want anyone outside my family to know about my experience in jail. I felt if I ever went back to school, I couldn’t let graduate schools know about my past. I began to think if I just pretended nothing happened I would be okay. I was scared people wouldn’t want to help me because of what I had gone through. I felt like I had received a second chance at life, and I didn’t want to waste it.I needed help and quick. I remember feeling I should start from scratch and change my major because, perhaps, the sciences weren’t for me although I only needed seven classes to finish my undergraduate studies. I needed to talk to someone about my options. Therefore, I decided to reach out to Bronwyn Moreno, the MESA (Mathematics, Engineering, and Science Achievement program) director at Hartnell and my former mentor. Bronwyn was so helpful and encouraging. It was Bronwyn that motivated me to apply for readmission to UCSC in the first place. She said, “There is nothing different about you and someone who has already done it. The only difference is that you have the extra skills you’ve developed from the challenges you have faced. I want to encourage you not to give up and use those skills and challenges as your drive to increase your ability to succeed.”

 Seek out Resources 

Now that I was heading back to school, I needed to seek resources that would help me be successful while enrolled. I first reached out to the Extended Opportunities Program (EOP) office. There, I was introduced to different offices on campus that offer support to students in different areas such as mental support, housing accommodations, testing accommodations, emergency financial assistance, and free food. I was assured I’d be successful if I took advantage of the different services the campus offered. I had been told about them before, but I was too prideful to accept help from anyone or any program my first time around. I am very grateful for the EOP program and its staff because they also followed through with me and made sure I was getting the help I needed. EOP gave me a laptop, which also contributed to my success because I didn’t need to depend on the library hours to use a computer and do my work. Here’s a list of the offices and programs I reached out to and general tips that may help you become successful at your institution:

  • Financial Aid (make sure your documents are on file)
  • Housing Office (make sure you find a place to live)
  • C.A.R.E. Program (provides assistance with food and emergency financial assistance)
  • Counseling and psychological services (support)
  • Major advisor (make an academic plan)
  • Extended Opportunities Program (time management plan, free printing)
  • Disability Resource Center (accommodations, extra time on exams)
  • Modified supplemental instruction (tutoring)
  • Learning Support Services (extra tutoring)
  • STEM diversity programs (funded research opportunities)
  • SACNAS (Professional development workshops, volunteering, network)

General Tips

  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help
  • Attend your professor’s office hours
  • Attend discussion sessions
  • Talk to your TAs
  • Create a time management plan
  • Participate in extracurricular activities: make sure you set time for yourself in your busy schedule
  • Talk to other students and ask what is helping them be successful
  • Find a quiet place to study

Be Active and Find a Mentor

I felt intimidated at first about asking professors for help or inquiring about research opportunities. I had been absent from the laboratory setting for a period of two years, and I felt I needed to get back into a lab if I wanted to pursue graduate studies in the near future. I decided to visit my former mentor, Yuliana Ortega, STEM Diversity Program director at UCSC. Yuliana suggested I apply to the STEM programs for the summer, but she was also serious when she said, “Adriana, you need to focus on grades first: attend office hours, apply for extra tutoring and maybe ask other students what helps them be successful before thinking about pursuing research.” She said this because she knows I avoided getting tutored before, and I was not successful. So I took her advice; I got the extra help and found out from other students that I needed somehow to balance school with time for myself. Keeping all of this in mind, I got assistance from my EOP counselor in creating a time management plan to properly manage my time with classes and study time. Looking back, I know that if I hadn’t had the confidence to reach out, I would never have been aware of any of the resources available on campus.

Landeros (center) with her SACNAS chapter recruiting members.

Through talking to my peers, I found out about research opportunities offered on campus. There are many research programs that will provide you with a stipend and sometimes housing over the summer. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and guidance to reach your career goals. My scientific curiosity, asking questions, and seeking internship opportunities led me to a paid research experience in the summer. I became part of the International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) team. During the summer of 2015, I worked really hard with a team of fellow undergrads on a research project regarding biofuels. We are engineering a microbe that can convert paper, plant, and food waste into a biofuel. The idea is to eliminate the use of fossil fuels and combat global warming by switching to a renewable source of energy.

Professor David Bernick, principle investigator for the iGEM project, has been a great mentor and really inspiring teacher. He was the one who inspired me to share my story. As part of iGEM, Dr. Bernick asked us to write about what we had learned about the project so far and what iGEM meant to us. I started my paper with the first sentence I used in this article. After reading my story, he emailed me:

Hi Adriana -

[T]hank you for your progress letter. I’m sure you know how much you and your iGEM teammates mean to me. I want you to clearly know how much of a difference you are making in the world. Your work on the field team, you[r] persistence, your commitments to team and family and community - I can hardly express. 

I think I now understand a little more about the depth of your life and history. You have truly taken a far better path. 

Let me know if I can be of help - and that goes well beyond iGEM.

best - David 

After reading this email, it hit me: I needed to share my story to really feel like I was making a difference in this world. Suddenly, the embarrassment of going to jail went away. I prepared a PowerPoint and asked two friends to do the same. We went to middle schools and shared our history and research projects.

Be a Role Model

I am convinced there are many people out there with a background similar to mine who perhaps didn’t have the best upbringing or the financial stability to avoid making bad decisions. I feel I need to share my story and prevent anyone from making the same mistakes I did. I want to lead by example and be a role model for my community.

Rolando and I.
Landeros and Rolando Perez, a friend who inspires her to mentor.

I learned a lot about being a role model from my friend, Rolando Perez. Rolando and I grew up in the same area. His second chance at life came when he found himself looking down the barrel of a gun during a fight. The trigger was pulled, he heard a click, and nothing happened. It turned out the gun was unloaded. But that was the wakeup call Rolando needed. He started going to Hartnell College, transferred to UCSC, and is now pursuing graduate studies in bioengineering at Stanford University.

Rolando became the outreach officer for the physics club at Hartnell. He wanted to reach out to kids with backgrounds like his and try to get them interested in science. He told me he once went to an elementary school for a physics demonstration. He was wearing a backward baseball hat and a snug shirt. At the beginning of the presentation, only a couple of kids raised their hands when he asked who liked science. Rolando told me, “At the end of the presentation I asked them again, ‘Who likes science now?’ and everyone raised their hands. Before I left, one of the students said, ‘we like muscle science,’ referring to the way I looked in my shirt, I guess. That’s when it hit home. I realized that by just being me, I’m already a role model, and I have a responsibility. I am going to do what I can to be the best role model that I can be.”

Sharing my knowledge and experiences with others has helped me grow as a person. I enjoy volunteering on panels for new transfer students and letting them know the transition into the university is not an easy one.

Building a Scientific Community

Knowing I wanted to integrate myself into the scientific community, I joined the UCSC SACNAS Chapter and was elected co-president this school year. I am using my involvement in the chapter to become a leader in my community and make a difference in the lives of others. Know that it is up to you to build your support team, ask questions, and seek guidance when needed. Programs and organizations like SACNAS are there for support when you need them.

Don’t let difficult circumstances keep you from reaching your dreams even if at times they seem far away or impossible. My mother always told me, “Sigue tus sueños” (follow your dreams). I remember her words when I feel like an imposter and it helps keep me going. Rolando’s advice also helps me. He always says, “Remember, perseverance is key.”

About the Author

 Adriana Landeros is a 5th year of Molecular, Cell and Developmental Biology at UCSC. She is a California Alliance for Minority Participation (CAMP) Scholar. Adriana was elected Co-President of the SACNAS Chapter at UCSC for the 2015-2016 academic school year. 

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