Miguel Mora

Miguel Mora, PhD

It wasn’t easy trying to get an education in my small village in Mexico. The only school was an elementary school that went up to the sixth grade. My parents were poor farmers who had a large family to support and there was never enough money, not even for food. We often ate just tortillas and salt. My parents are Tarascan, which is the main Indian tribe of the state of Michoacan. We’ve traced our family name of “Mora” to our village of Totolán going back to shortly after Cortez’ conquest of Mexico in the 1530s. Although my mother passed away four years ago, my 85-year-old father still lives in the village as well as some of my siblings.

Neither of my parents finished elementary school because they had to work in the fields in order to help support their families. I too, helped my family work during my summers off from school, and it made me realize that I didn’t want to become a farmer. I knew that my parents weren’t to blame for our family being poor, yet I also knew that I wanted more for my life and theirs. I desperately wanted to help my family out financially while obtaining an education for myself.

In order to get more education after finishing elementary school, I accepted a scholarship to a seminary far away from my village. I received an excellent education as I studied English, Latin, Greek, history, psychology, philosophy, and of course, religion. However, my seminary education wasn’t accepted by the Mexican government, so I essentially had to start over when I transferred to a junior high school at the age of 15.

The closest junior high was about four miles away from Totolán. My parents were too poor to own a car and there were no buses, so I sometimes had to walk to school. By the time I was 17 I had finished the 9th grade, and I then decided to move to Mexico City to find a job to support my family. I worked in an electrical factory where we made small parts for radios and televisions. It was an extremely tedious and monotonous job, and it didn’t allow me the time to continue my education. After a year, I passed the high school entrance exam and found a part-time government job during the day to help support myself and my family while going to high school at night.

Nothing mattered more to me than finishing school, and between working, going to classes, and studying, I didn’t have much time for a social life. It was a dream for me to be able to get a university education, and I would have studied anything. Since I was good in math and engineering, I decided on becoming a biochemical engineering major at the Polytechnic Institute in Mexico City. While working on my bachelor’s degree, I had two jobs that helped focus my career goals: I worked part-time as a biochemistry instructor at the University of Mexico and also worked outdoors with research scientists studying birds.

I found working outdoors very satisfying, and it reminded me of growing up in Totolán which, by the way, in Nahuatl means “land of the birds.”  Through this work, I realized how much I loved watching, listening to, and working on ecological studies involving birds. I also preferred not being restricted to the indoor environment of a laboratory. After getting my undergraduate degree, I researched getting my master’s in ecology so that I could apply my knowledge of biochemistry and toxicology to my love of birds and the outdoors.

However, Mexican universities didn’t offer such a program, and I found I had to leave my native land in order to pursue my dream. I ended up attending the University of California, Davis on an international scholarship and eventually received both my master’s and Ph.D. in ecology.

I’m proud of the fact that through the years I’ve become internationally recognized in my field of wildlife toxicology. I’m also very proud of the fact that I’m the only one in my family who made it to college.

Despite my family’s poverty, it was my experiences in childhood that got me to where I am today. Helping my father in the fields gave me an appreciation and respect for nature, and the struggles I went through to obtain an education taught me the power of perseverance and hard work. In fact, if my family had money for me to go to school, perhaps I wouldn’t be where I am today.