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Bryan Sierra-Rivera

Bryan Sierra-Rivera

Receiving the CSU Trustees’ Award for Outstanding Achievement

I am a first-generation college student, a first-generation U.S. citizen and an immigrant from Mexico. My father was only able to complete middle school and started working to support his family while my mother was fortunate enough to complete trade school. I was born in Hospital General de Iztapalapa, within Mexico City, and raised in a small rural town to the Southwest named Colmeneros, within the state of Guerrero. We lived in a small ranch home that my dad had built with cows in the backyard that would be taken to the pasture weekly. The closest hospital was an hour and a half away taking mountainous roads. My parents would struggle when either my sister or I got sick since we didn’t own a car. As we got older and becoming sick was less prevalent, home remedies, such as two pieces of wood and sap from a tree to mend a broken arm, were more common. My parents decided to move to the U.S. in 2000 so that my sister and I would receive a better education and for all of us to have a better life. My motivation to succeed in my educational pursuits comes from the constant reminder of the struggles my parents have gone through to give my sister and I the life we have today.

The culture shock from living in a small rural town in Mexico to the United States has been the biggest challenge I have faced. I was accustomed to the Spanish language, Mexican culture and traditions, and was not ready to learn new ones while continuing our own. When we arrived, I had no idea where we were, where we would go or what we would eat. We lived, as a family of four, in the one car garage of my aunt’s home. With a language and cultural barrier, along with living in a garage, I felt alienated in what was supposed to be a better life. As I grew older, living in a garage made me feel more segregated from my own friends whenever I would visit their homes. I felt that I wouldn’t complete high school or even attend high school due to the need to help my family by working just as my father did. I wanted to work to buy better insulation for the garage during the cold winters and purchase an air conditioner during the triple digit summer heat. As normal as it feels to attend college and live in the area, whenever I go home, while always enjoyable and comforting, I find myself uneasy from the differences I had growing up. I did not own a gaming system or many toys, I never had any sleepovers, and sometimes felt that I didn’t belong.

Throughout my first year in high school, I did not plan to attend college and slacked around doing minimum work. Since my parents didn’t attend college, I didn’t have the college mentorship present within some families and felt lost as to what I had to do. I sought out the resources necessary through my teachers and high school swim team coach. To this day, one of my greatest accomplishments is being a first-generation college student. I went through my first two years of college like anyone else; trying my best in my classes while enjoying the college experience of being relatively far from home. During my fall semester of junior year, I was recommended by my organic chemistry professor Dr. Corin Slown to Dr. John Goeltz to conduct electrochemistry research. This first-hand undergraduate research experience led to the refinement of laboratory techniques as solution preparation, data plotting, and analysis. Soon enough I became engulfed with new techniques such as cycle and differential pulse voltammetry using a Potentiostat; electrochemistry analysis software. After working with Dr. Goeltz for some time, he mentioned the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Center (UROC), a selective 2-year, mentor-guided, research program that provides support through professional development, mentoring, and rigorous coursework for students who plan to pursue a graduate degree. I sought out the resources that would be able to help me as a first-generation college student to become a first-generation graduate school student. After applying, I was accepted as a Ronald E. McNair scholar, a UROC scholar, and LSAMP scholar in the fall of 2016 and began preparing my track for graduate school. In late spring, I was accepted to the Summer Undergraduate Program for Experiential Research (SUPER) program at the University of Texas at Austin. I worked under the guidance of Dr. Gregory C. Palmer conducting microbiology research with the bacterial genus Streptomyces in the antibiotic discovery and function laboratory. I presented this research at the Emerging Research National Conference in STEM (ERN) this past February.

My educational goals are to attend graduate school at Oregon State University working with Dr. Martin Schuster in conducting research on bacterial communication and cooperation. Throughout that time, I want to learn and master new techniques such as BRB-ArrayTools to better understand gene regulation and DNA microarray (PhyloChip) to help identify different bacteria and archaea that are commonly used in microbiology research. I want to better understand the chemical interactions between same and different species of bacteria. A better understanding of chemical processes can help combat the infections of the harmful bacteria Pseudomonas aeruginosa which is common in patients with cystic fibrosis. By disrupting interactions between harmful bacteria, we may also reduce the overuse of antibiotics that have been increasing antibiotic resistance within pathogenic bacteria since the 1980s. Once I complete my Ph.D. I want to return to the university level as a post-doctoral student and apply to faculty positions to continue research, to continue learning, and to teach future generations. I will offer support to other first-generation college students from underrepresented minorities, such as McNair scholars, because I myself have seen the benefits of participating in undergraduate research and know that later on there may be students with a similar story like my own and I want to make sure they are prepared to excel in life.

Since my first year in high school I have worked as a volunteer with the Special Olympics division of Southern California coaching individuals with special needs, of all ages, either how to swim and/or improve their stroke technique. At a young age I, through first-hand experience, learned that swimming was a crucial skill that everyone should know. To this day, if I am ever home and if they are currently training, I will volunteer and see some of the kids I coached and helped place in swimming competitions. During my junior year of college, I volunteered at Natividad Medical Center in Salinas conducting surveys, in English and Spanish, that focused on how individuals considered the state of medical health and their family’s relative safety within the community. Many of the interviews were individuals from the Salinas population that fluctuated season to season due to being immigrant field workers. Many citizens, both immigrant and citizens, felt unsafe and felt that the health of their family could be better. During this time, I also volunteered at a free clinic in the Salinas Chinatown working with Dr. Kenneth Gjeltema, a volunteering family medicine doctor, in diagnosing patients from the homeless community. Most recently, I have been volunteering with the Bureau of Land Management in planting native plants at the Fort Ord national monument to attempt and combat the infestation of invasive Southern African highway ice-plant which dominates available nutrients and resources from threatened and endangered species of flora.

My current aspiration is to be accepted into the University of Oregon REU site program in Molecular Biosciences this upcoming summer to conduct research with Dr. Brendan Bohannan in microbial ecology. I want to learn about the effects and space and energy on the diversity and interactions between bacteria. I want to promote and grow the new SACNAS chapter at CSUMB to promote undergraduate research to new students. We want to present what previous undergraduate researchers have done for summer REUs but also what recourses are required from an individual to be a compelling candidate for research experiences. This would hopefully work as an intermediate step to let students know about UROC and to expand their knowledge about the resources available for them to excel. I also plan is to present my research at the 32nd Annual CSU research competition, the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS), and at the Annual West Coast Biological Sciences Undergraduate Research Conference (WCBSURC). I want to network within my field, be able to confidently explain my research to various research backgrounds outside of STEM, and to be better prepared for my ultimate goal of being the first in my family to acquire my Ph.D.

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