BUILD PODER Scientist of the Week: Paulo Sitagata

November 8, 2017

Paulo Sitagata

Cruising across campus on his pennyboard, BUILD PODER Scholar and Kinesiology major Paulo Sitagata is always on the move. From class, to BUILD PODER student meetings, to his research position at the CSUN Center of Achievement Through Adapted Physical Activity, Sitagata is known by his friends and community as a positive individual who always progresses toward his goals.

Few would guess that the smiling and energetic co-president of the BUILD PODER student body club has traversed a long, difficult road to get to where he is today. Born in Orlando, Florida, Sitagata moved back and forth between his hometown and North Carolina before his family packed their belongings on a Greyhound bus chartered for California. It took five long days to travel over 2,000 miles across nine states, to the opposite side of the country.

Then 13-year-old Sitagata and his guardians—his great aunt and uncle—arrived at their final destination in Sun Valley, staying at a local motel. Those first months were challenging for thirteen year-old Sitagata. The temporary motel stay ended up extending into a permanent residency. He was away from his childhood friends and his community, and his small Los Angeles County neighborhood was much dirtier than in Orlando.

Though moving to a brand new town would make it hard for any teen to find a new community, Sitagata faced another hurdle. Due to a lack of proper documentation—as his great aunt and uncle were not his official legal guardians, and had complications gaining custody of him—Sitagata was unable to enroll in school. Though Sitagata was officially homeschooled as a child back in Orlando and North Carolina, he didn’t have that option in his new setting.

From ages 13 to 17, Sitagata had an unofficial homeschool education, using books that his great aunt and uncle could afford. He spent most of his time at home, studying what he could with his guardians, who served as his parents and teachers. Though his adolescence was marked by atypical situations, Sitagata fondly remembers the kind of supportive and warm environment that his aunt and uncle—whom he calls his parents—worked hard to provide.

“Though we weren’t able to do a lot of traditional things, my parents loved me and I never felt unloved,” Sitagata said. “They greatly cared about me and they did everything they could do for me. It was hard, but I developed a great deal of resiliency through all that.”

Sitagata also got involved at a local church and served in their youth ministry, a place and community that became a second home and family.

“My faith is definitely a big part of my life,” Sitagata said. “My friends at church helped me to cope with everything I was going through and helped me to keep a positive attitude. Church is also where I learned that I like to help people.”

Sitagata’s strength and positivity was tested when his father became ill.

“It was tough not having access to the resources that school could provide and not knowing what was going to happen in my future,” Sitagata said. “My dad was slowly dying and he kept getting worse and worse.”

His father eventually passed away when Sitagata was 17 years old, one year before his great aunt adopted him and officially became his mother. When he turned 18, Sitagata decided that he was going to pursue college. His last set of homeschool books were at the 9th grade level, but he wasn’t going to let his lack of a formal education stop him from achieving his goals. Sitagata figured out that getting a GED would be quicker than getting a high school diploma, so he attended adult school in Burbank and bought a GED prep book. After a couple months of studying, Sitagata passed the test and earned his GED, opening a door to his educational future.  

Sitagata began his higher education journey at Los Angeles Valley College and Los Angeles Pierce College.

“I was super excited and motivated to start college,” Sitagata said. “Going through the GED class, I realize that if that is supposed to be the measure of a high school education, I wasn’t too far behind.”

Sitagata scored high on English placement test and enrolled in English 101 right away. However, he struggled in math and had to take remedial classes that didn’t count for college credit until he could take higher level courses. But Sitagata didn’t let himself discouraged from moving forward. He biked to school, taking classes during spring and fall, summer and winter, for about three years.

Then, he heard about BUILD PODER from his physiology professor at LAVC. Valley college is one of four community college pipeline partners BUILD PODER supports. After learning more about the financial support and educational experience the program would provide, he wanted to apply, though he wasn’t feeling very sure of his chances of being accepted.

“My GPA was pretty good, but I wasn’t feeling confident about it and I thought there was no way I could get in,” Sitagata said. “I didn’t have research experience. I was late on the application and one of my recommenders didn’t fill out the recommendation, so I thought it was too late. But luckily, the deadline got extended, I got a different recommendation and I ended up interviewing and getting in.”

With his LAVC faculty mentors, Pamela Byrd-Williams and Erika Brockmann, Sitagata worked in a biology lab investigating the effects of chia seed extract on mice white blood cells.

“It was challenging because I didn’t have a strong bio background and I didn’t take a lot of classes that my other BUILD PODER lab mates had taken,” Sitagata said. “I was being introduced to a lot of stuff I had to learn quickly. It was very overwhelming, but my mentors and lab mates helped me out a lot and I followed their lead. I learned how to read research articles, plan experiments, order supplies, do cell cultures and pipette.”

Though his liking of research was sparked by his lab at LAVC, it wasn’t until he transferred to CSUN that he came to love it. He chose to work with CSUN kinesiology professor Taeyou Jung, Director of the Adapted Therapeutic Exercise Program at theCenter of Achievement through Adapted Physical Activity, which provides fitness programs for people with disabilities. He had been interested in exercise science since high school and considered becoming a trainer or a physical therapist. Through working at the Center, Sitagata saw that the landscape of kinesiology included many different paths to different destinations.

“Being there opened my eyes to what is possible to the field of kinesiology,” Sitagata said. “I didn’t know there were more choices than becoming a personal trainer or physical therapist, and that you could go into biomedical research.”

A mixture of clinical practice and research, Sitagata said that working with professor Jung at the Center provides an in-depth experience that helps him understand both theory and application. The clients who use the Center are research participants and provide data, and sometimes research is part of the training. His experience at the Center has made him a competitive candidate for a graduate program in kinesiology. But for Sitagata, the Center is much more than an educational training ground—it’s a space for challenging one’s limits, making the impossible possible, and inspires an unrelenting dedication to progress, all of which Sitagata is personally familiar with.

“I feel inspired by the clients who use the center,” Sitagata said. “A lot of the people are either elderly or they have gone through so much, but they are there working out and exercising harder than I do. They are consistently trying to live the best life they can with what they have. It’s a really special place.”  

Sitagata plans to earn a doctorate of physical therapy and a Ph.D. in rehabilitation and movement sciences or neuroscience. He said he would like to help open up something like the Center at another university campus to help the community and train students like himself to do research.

Sitagata said he thanks BUILD PODER for the opportunities he never thought he would get to explore. This past summer, Sitagata did research at Northwestern University, where he helped develop a forearm orthosis device that helps people post-stroke to voluntarily open and close their hands. Though he is applying to a variety of graduate programs at universities across the country, he already has been accepted into the post-baccalaureate Northwestern University Interdepartmental Neuroscience Prep Program and is promised a research opportunity after he graduates next spring.

“BUILD has changed my life for sure,” Sitagata said. “So many of the opportunities and things I’ve done, I would never had done if I weren’t involved in BUILD. I used to think I wasn’t that valuable as a person, but my experiences getting into BUILD, becoming a student leader, getting accepted into the summer program, being offered a post-bacc—all of that has changed my concept about myself. I know if I put everything into what I am doing, nothing can stop me from getting to the next destination on my journey.”