When Maria Elena Zavala was in high school, her teachers urged her to take typing instead of math or science. Latinos do not become mathematicians or scientists, she was told.
Today, the Cal State Northridge biology professor has a doctorate in botany. Two years ago, former President Bill Clinton saluted her with a Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering.
This month, public television station KCET and Union Bank of California are honoring Zavala and seven other individuals for their contributions to the community, in connection with National Hispanic Heritage Month, September 15 to October 15.
Profiles of Zavala and her fellow honorees, designated "Local Heroes," are airing on KCET, detailing their dedicated efforts in the social services, business, arts, community activism and education.
"The credit really belongs to the young people who took what tools I gave them and went on to successful careers," said Zavala, who joined Northridge's faculty in 1988. "I am just among the first of many who opened doors to careers in science and research for people who didn't think it was possible."
When Zavala received her Ph.D. nearly 25 years ago, she was the second Chicana in the country to earn such a degree. Today, statistics are not much better, she said.
In response, she has built up the university's Minority Access to Research Careers and Minority Biomedical Research Sciences programs. Over the years, she has brought in more than $5 million in grants to support both programs, and has personally mentored more than 125 students, many of whom have earned doctoral degrees. The professor also assists elementary school teachers who work with underprivileged children, helping them make their science classes more interesting.
@csun | September 22, 2003 issue
Public Relations | University Advancement
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