From Mexicali to Harvard

The distance between Mexicali, just across the border from the U.S. in Baja California, Mexico, to Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is approximately 3000 miles. For 24-year-old Luis León (pictured left), a third-year doctoral student in immunology at Harvard, the trip is one he never dreamed of making.

For León, who was recently named one of the first recipients of a Gilliam Graduate Fellowship awarded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), getting to this point took years of hard work. His circuitous route took him through numerous low-paying jobs to community college, a bachelor's degree at the University of Washington, and--eventually--to graduate school at Harvard. León believes that his story is not unique; he encourages other young people to believe in themselves. "I really feel that [it] is up to me to make a difference, and tell those out there who are in my shoes, 'Hey you can do it,' " he says.

When León was eight years old, he and his mother, a seamstress, moved to El Centro, California, about 50 miles inside the U.S. border, while his accountant father remained in Mexico. León describes El Centro as an agricultural area where many of the high school students remain after graduation; attending college is not a primary goal. León did well in school, excelling in math and science. He even took the SATs, but he did not apply to college because he didn't have the money.

"We were middle class in Mexico, but once we moved to the United States, with the peso against the dollar, we took a pretty large hit," he explains. As a result, "When I was in high school going to college seemed daunting to me, primarily because I didn't think I would be able to afford it," he says.

Moving On

But León knew he didn't want to stay in El Centro, "because if I stayed there I think I would have spent my whole life there just working," he says. So the day after his high school graduation in 1998, León rented a U-Haul, packed up his few belongings, and with $600 in his pocket and no particular plan, he headed for Seattle, Washington, the only place he had ever been other than Mexicali and El Centro.

He then began a series of seemingly dead-end jobs, first at a refreshment stand and then at a movie theater. He then worked at coffee shop, a sporting goods store, and finally at a restaurant where he was a busboy and waiter. He did this for 3 years, but it wasn't working.

León works in the lab.

"I felt like my brain was wasting away," said León, "So I decided to do something." That something was to sign up for a calculus course at a local community college. León excelled in the class, even among students who were also enrolled at the University of Washington. This gave him the confidence to apply to the university himself.

When he filled out the residency application, he stated that he moved to Washington for educational purposes, which made him ineligible for in-state tuition. So he began his college career having to pay the considerably more expensive out-of-state tuition. To finance his education, León waited tables full-time while also attending school full-time. "Sleep was at a premium," he says. Yet he was thrilled to be a full-time university student. "I never thought I would get to that level. It was a very emotional time for me," he says.

Into The Lab

Though he had established his ability in math and science, and especially liked biology, when he entered college León still did not know what he wanted to major in. All that changed when he decided to give up waiting tables and look for a job in a university laboratory. He eventually landed one in the structural biology laboratory of Barry Stoddard, who became the first of several mentors who changed the direction of León's life. Stoddard's laboratory examined how proteins behave, how they move, what they bind to and how. The work he did in Stoddard's lab was a big factor in deciding León's future direction.

In addition to teaching him how a laboratory works, and imparting a love of the scientific process, Stoddard helped León apply for financial aid. He also encouraged León to expand his horizons by working in other labs. León applied for and received an internship at Stanford University that allowed him to work in Chris Garcia's lab during the summer between his junior and senior years. Garcia's laboratory was also involved in protein studies, but in different biological systems.

"I learned a lot that summer, not only science, but I learned more about myself, where I wanted to go. At that point I decided graduate school was right for me," said León. He also decided that he wanted to focus his studies on biochemistry.

More Independent

It was during this time that the results of all his hard work began to pay off in grants and honors. Upon his return to the University of Washington for his senior year, he worked with biochemist Joachim Deeg and received a Howard Hughes Undergraduate Investigator grant.

León says Deeg "was a huge influence on my life. He let me have a science project and basically run with it. He mentored me but he wanted me to be a more independent, so from day-to-day, I was the person dictating where the project was going."

When it came time to apply to graduate schools, he also applied for a Howard Hughes Exceptional Research Opportunities Grant, which provides disadvantaged students, including underrepresented minorities, with an opportunity to work in the labs of HHMI investigators. León received the grant, and spent the summer following graduation in the Johns Hopkins University laboratory of Robert Siliciano, where he studied HIV-infected cells.

From Johns Hopkins, León moved on to Harvard where he began his Ph.D. in immunology in the fall of 2002. León chose immunology because it is a broad field that relates to many other sciences, such as neuroscience and metabolic research.

Reaping the Rewards

León's hard work is still paying off. In May 2005, León was one of six graduate students to receive HHMI's first Gilliam Graduate Fellowships, which provide support for minority Ph.D. candidates in the life sciences. He also recently learned that a paper he co-authored detailing his research has been accepted for publication in the prestigious journal Nature.

As for the life lessons he learned during his intellectual journey, León says, "I know there are many people out there like myself who at one time were so naïve. They don't know a lot about college and how it works. It's not that they are not bright, it's just that they are not in an environment where they can learn how to go about college." Now that León knows what to expect in academia, he hopes his experiences will encourage others to follow an academic path.

Victor D. Chase is a freelance writer and may be reached at

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