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UCLA Magazine Spring 2005
From Murphy Hall
Living La Vida 'Lorca'
Stress Fractures
What's at Stake
The Importance of Being Elma
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Spring 2005
The Importance of Being Elma

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Elma Gonzalez, Professor of Biology The life of Elma González knew as a child was one of poverty, migrant labor and limited horizons. Today she is a professor of biology at UCLA, and her story is an inspiration to minority students with whom she works

by Ajay Singh
Photograph by Edward Carreón

Elma González grew up in a small ranching town in South Texas where youngsters typically tried to escape the local poverty by joining the military, finding some menial job or leaving altogether in the hope of a better life. González, instead, sought refuge in college, largely because of an almost sacred childhood memory: Her father, a cowboy who supplemented his meager income by picking crops in the summer, read to her regularly from two cherished books.

These weren’t the works of Cervantes or Shakespeare but tattered geography textbooks he had kept as the only mementos of his brief six months in school. In a charmless town without even a stoplight, let alone a bookstore or library, and where cows outnumbered people 20-to-1, the texts were González’s sole window to the outside world. “I wanted to see how the other half lived outside my small town,” she says. Her father’s “dreamy kind of marveling at people in distant lands” has been a theme throughout her life, she adds, inspiring her to travel to a dozen foreign countries she could only have fantasized or read about in her youth.

González, a professor of biology, has taught at UCLA for 30 years, and for nearly 10 of them she has been director of UCLA’s Minority Access to Research Careers (MARC) program. A federal plan funded by the National Institutes of Health, it provides financial support to 12 UCLA undergraduates annually. The idea is to help them prepare for graduate and doctoral studies — a journey that González herself undertook against enormous odds 40 years ago.

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