Importance of Being Elma
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at age 34 (left), standing with her sister Elda, mother Efigenia,
father Nestor, sister Emma, brother Ovidio and Elda's son,
Well before she earned a bachelor’s in science, with majors
in biology and chemistry, González had a heart-to-heart talk
with her father. She was 20 — much too grown up and educated
to pick crops, she told him. Ever the supportive father, he agreed.
But if she didn’t want to go to the fields anymore, he said,
she must get a job. That posed a problem; the only way for González
to make a living with an undergraduate science degree was to teach.
And she was interested in research.
Instead, she looked into graduate schools. But that proved to be
a sometimes-discouraging experience. She recalls that one professor
at the University of Texas told her that she shouldn’t bother
considering a Ph.D. “because I was female. Wasn’t I
going to get married and have kids? What use was a Ph.D. going to
be? This was the prevalent attitude — women and Mexicans weren’t
expected to go anyplace.”
González entered a graduate program at Rutgers University
in New Jersey, paying her way with teaching assistantships. In 1972,
she received her Ph.D. in cell biology. Two years later, she joined
the faculty at UCLA. She pursued biology, she says, because “I
was intrigued by why things happen the way they do.” The issue
is, of course, central to the circumstances and decisions that have
shaped her own life. Which raises the question: Why has Elma, as
her colleagues and students fondly call her, turned out to be a
high-achiever, and why do so many others from backgrounds similar
to hers never make it?