The College of Humanities is proud to congratulate CSUN’s 2023 Wolfson Scholar Natalie Castillo. This prestigious award is presented each year to a high achieving senior in honor of CSUN’s first vice president, Leo Wolfson. Castillo, who is graduating with a double major in Central American and Transborder Studies and Biology, exemplifies the spirit of this award both in her academic excellence and through her contributions to the campus and the community.
When she was a senior in high school, Castillo did not necessarily have her sights set on higher education. That was until a counselor took notice of her impressive GPA and encouraged her to apply. As a first-generation college student, she chose a major in Biology to satisfy the prerequisites for dental school, an educational path that her parents thought would lead their daughter to a lucrative and stable career. “I knew that admission into dental school was going to be competitive,” Castillo recalls. “So, I taught myself how to study effectively by watching YouTube videos, doing practice problems more than once, regularly attending office hours, and going to tutoring.” It was during office hours with a professor that Castillo learned about various summer programs and research opportunities. With a faculty recommendation, she was accepted into a Summer Health Professions Education Program at UCLA. While there, she met students from across the country who were also interested in pursuing health-related careers. The program gave Castillo a sense of what dental school might be like, provided research experience, and reassured her that people from diverse and disadvantaged backgrounds like hers were successfully pursuing careers in health care. Soon after, she was introduced to ecology and evolutionary biology for the first time and Castillo became intrigued. “By the end of that semester, a professor recommended I talk with one of her colleagues, Dr. Robert Espinoza, who offered me the opportunity to study life-history strategies of invasive Brown Widow spiders,” Castillo says. She admits having no idea what that research might entail, but says that her curiosity for science pushed her to accept the offer.
In addition to her academic endeavors, Castillo joined Dreams to Be Heard (DTBH), a campus advocacy group that was active in CSUN’s founding of the Dream Center. “My parents are from El Salvador, so I experienced firsthand the financial and mental struggles of migrant populations in this country,” she says. DTBH also partnered with professors from CSUN’s ethnic studies departments to fundraise and create dozens of microgrants for undocumented students who needed assistance during the pandemic. In addition, working with a non-profit organization called Immigola, DTBH set up free citizenship tutoring for community members in the process of applying to citizenship. “We have also organized a Dia de Los Muertos event since 2021 that is open to the community,” Castillo adds. “The goal is to celebrate, but also to bring awareness about undocumented issues and casualties at the U.S.-Mexico border.” In Biology, she was part of a student-led initiative to create a Biology Student Committee. The group has added a student voice to departmental meetings, held townhalls and career panels, set up a resource website, and created a mentorship program.
Castillo received the CSUN NSP Presidential Scholarship two years in a row which helped support her research and presentations of her work at CSUNposium, the Southern California Conference for Undergraduate Research at CSUSB, the Southern California Academy of Sciences at CSUF, and at the Entomology Society of America Joint Annual Meeting in Vancouver. She also spent the summer of 2022 in Colombia studying the effects of climate change on pollinators with Dr. Margarita M. López-Uribe from Penn State University. Castillo’s talent and determination also earned her high praise from instructors. “Her work is of an interdisciplinary nature, as it oscillates between fields such as humanities, immigration studies, and the sciences,” says Professor and Chair of Central American and Transborder Studies, Beatriz Cortez. “I am convinced that she will continue to excel, and will contribute in human and academic ways to the projects in which she is involved.”
Castillo’s passion for both Science and the Humanities has clearly influenced her highly successful journey here at CSUN and will no doubt continue to guide her path into a promising future. “I am a double major in Central American and Transborder Studies because this aspect of my identity is important to me,” she says. “And I want to pursue a career in scientific research so that I can make an impact on people’s lives and humanity as a whole.”