“It was incredible. I was able to see how far I had evolved as a researcher. I went from not knowing what a pipette was, to winning a national award at a biomedical research conference.”
Her face lights up with a broad grin as she recalls the moment. Her breathing was shallow, her heart racing. She blinked, and swallowed hard, anticipating the announcement.
Then, like a slow-motion dream sequence in which you accomplish the near-impossible—stepping onto the podium to have an Olympic gold medal draped around your neck, or maybe exchanging wedding vows with the woman or man of your dreams—she heard her name spoken.
“Flor-i-cel Gon-zal-ez, Wash-ing-ton State Un-i-ver-si-ty,” the emcee spoke into the microphone, enunciating each syllable carefully, removing any doubt in her mind, or in the mind of anyone else filling the meeting room of the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center in San Antonio last November, that this was indeed her moment.
Then, the flood of emotions. She remembers the hugs, the smiles, the shouted words of congratulations from her WSU family there, people who had buoyed, cajoled, cheered, challenged, consoled, and inspired her along the journey to this moment. Mary Sanchez Lanier. Bill Davis. Kay Brothers. Then, picture-taking. Lots of pictures. Pictures to preserve the moment, and pictures to provide motivation for the future.
For the journey to this moment had pushed her resolve and her abilities and her capacity to work hard to previously unexplored limits. So for now, she would relish this achievement. She, Floricel Gonzalez, from Selah, Washington, was holding a certificate with her name on it, a certificate identifying her as the national winner for the best oral presentation at the 2014 Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students.
“They are migrant farm workers, so you can imagine it’s not easy work. They worked long hours, really early. It didn’t matter if it was cold, if it was scorching hot. They were out there, busting their backs so that we could have a better future.”
She was just 4 in 1999 when her parents decided to emigrate from their home in Zacatecas, Mexico, to the Yakima Valley. It wasn’t an easy decision to uproot a family with six children between the ages of 4 and 14. But, could it really be any more challenging, they reasoned, than the life they had lived up to that point? A life disrupted each spring when Floricel’s father would kiss his family goodbye in Mexico and then spend the next eight months in the United States, harvesting vegetables from fields and fruit from orchards, following the seasonal trail worn deep over decades by his countrymen.
“It was really tough for us as a family to be away from our father figure and our main provider,” Gonzalez relates. “And so, after years of doing this, he was tired of it and he decided to bring everyone. He knew that if we didn’t come our chances of doing something with our lives were very scarce.”
“It was something that was engraved into our minds every single day.”
Elva and Jose Gonzalez were adamant that their children would not follow them into the fields of central Washington. They wanted to protect them from the bone-chilling cold of air not yet warmed by the rising sun and the sweat-inducing, searing heat of late August. No, their children would never know firsthand about the sore muscles and stiff joints that screamed for attention as a new 12-hour workday dawned.
The antidote? Education. And that became the priority—the mantra—reinforced daily in the Gonzalez household. “It was something that was engraved into our minds every single day,” Floricel recalls. Her parents’ message was brief, and to the point: if you don’t want to work like this, if you want to avoid the fields, you need to get an education and find a job that you’re passionate about, which will allow you to live a more comfortable life.
It was a message that took root, sprouted, and blossomed. Floricel and four of her siblings have attended college. One is a nurse. Another works in business administration. Yet a third is in the criminal justice field. And a fourth works in information technology.
And now, for Gonzalez, her aspiration to earn a doctoral degree in virology and pursue a career as a disease researcher appears tantalizingly close.
“I was a big bookworm. It was a joke, because my sisters would taunt me, saying I wasn’t a normal kid. I didn’t want to go outside. I wanted to just stay and read.”
Acclimating to a new country, a new language, and a new culture perhaps was easier for Gonzalez than the rest of her family members. She quickly learned English as a kindergartner in White Swan, near Yakima, recalling that “once she got the hang of it,” she soaked up the language like a sponge. “From there, it was just smooth gliding. I pretty much was good at everything. I don’t know why.”
Credit her parents. Again. They made sure Gonzalez did her homework. If she fell short of that expectation, other activities were shelved until homework was finished. And when her parents no longer could assist with her studies, they identified other resources to provide the guiding hands she needed.
And credit reading. Like a kid in a candy store, Gonzalez devoured books beginning at an early age. When her sisters would head outside to play, they teased their little sister, who preferred to stay inside their modest home, her face buried in her newest favorite book. If it was a title that particularly captivated her, Gonzalez says she’d finish the book in a couple of days, regardless of length. “That definitely was a gateway for me,” she notes.
Given that orientation and the role models her sisters provided when they headed to college (her oldest sister is 10 years older), Gonzalez says she knew by the age of 10 she would pursue a university education as well. Her reasoning, in part, was fueled by a quiet determination: if her sisters could succeed, so would she. She wouldn’t let a lack of motivation or determination sidetrack her dreams.
“Research is not easy. It takes a lot of patience, a lot of thinking, a lot of troubleshooting. They’re skills you use in the laboratory, but you can apply them to the rest of life too.”
Gonzalez was unsure about the academic path she’d follow when she enrolled at WSU as a freshman. She loved literature, reading and analyzing it, and the way it broadened her vocabulary and honed her ability to express herself. But then she took a couple of science courses, thinking to herself, “This is kind of amazing.” That led to her first opportunity to try research in a laboratory setting, a moment that opened her eyes to new possibilities.
Finally, she settled on a double major that combined her interests: English and microbiology.
But the journey to embrace science—and especially scientific research—wasn’t without pitfalls. She illustrates the point by sharing an anecdote about her first research experience, which took place in the lab of Anthony Nicola in the College of Veterinary Medicine.
“I was just overwhelmed. I didn’t think I could do it. Thankfully, Dr. Nicola is an awesome mentor and everyone in the lab is amazing as well and they took their time and they taught me. They explained the logic behind things, which helped me connect a lot of the topics we had talked about in class.”
Yet, after weeks of attempting to complete a specific experiment that wasn’t working, Gonzalez was second-guessing herself. “I kept telling myself ‘Oh, it must be me. It’s something that I’m doing. I’m just not cut out for this.’ It was the worst that I felt about myself in a long time.”
Then, a defining moment. Working late in the lab one night, the experiment worked. “It was just a control,” Gonzalez notes, “but that little victory reinforced how much I did like research. And so, at that moment, I knew: ‘If I can get this to work, I can get everything else to work too.’ And slowly, but surely, it did work out.”
And how. Two summers ago, Gonzalez accepted a summer research internship at Virginia Tech University. There, she worked closely with Virginia Tech assistant professor Birgit Scharf to craft the project that would yield her national honors in November 2014: research examining the entry of viruses into bacteria.
“This is a community that will help you thrive. The professors here tell you, ‘If you need help, go here, this may be a place that you’re interested in visiting.’ I thought that was amazing—I had never experienced anything like that in my life.”
Gonzalez heaps praise on the support system the university has in place to help students like herself discover themselves. And she expresses a deep sense of gratitude for her mentors—people who have propped her up when she’s wobbled and challenged her to reach new heights.
When pressed for examples, she pauses. “There are so many…Eva Navarijo, director of the First Scholars program, and Raymond Herrera, director of the McNair Achievement program. They have been huge figures in my life. Without them, I definitely would not be where I am today. They’re both people who have believed in me when I haven’t believed in myself. So when I say, ‘I can’t do this, this is out of my league, they say ‘Why? You can do this. Look at what you’ve done already.’”
She also singles out Davis, the associate dean of undergraduate education in the School of Molecular Biosciences and her academic advisor. “He has pushed me to do things that I didn’t even imagine,” she says, “and has taken it upon himself to guide me through what it means to be a scientist and what will be expected of me in grad school.”
That encouragement led her to consider presenting her research at the national biomedical conference. Once her proposal was accepted, she heard from Sanchez Lanier, a clinical associate professor in the WSU Office of Undergraduate Education, who reached out to Gonzalez and offered tips for her presentation. “She said, ‘Hey, if you want to meet with me, talk about things you should be preparing, talk about your presentation, I would be more than happy to sit down and meet with you,’” Gonzalez says. “She was amazing.”
The rest, as they say, is now history.
“Being able to send their children to college has meant the world to my parents. They have been able to experience higher education through us. It’s changed their lives too.”
Gonzales’ voice conveys quiet resolve and optimism when she describes her hoped-for station in life six or seven years down the road. She’s focused on pursuing research that is disease-based, examining, in particular, the interactions that occur between a disease and a host, issues that come into play in the increased antibiotic resistance among humans and in the spread of infectious diseases like Ebola.
“After I earn a doctorate, I hope to transition into a research group, either a private- or government-based group, something like the National Institutes of Health, where I would have my own laboratory and be conducting research related to a specific topic,” Gonzalez says matter-of-factly.
But there’s more work to do first, more learning opportunities to embrace, more pushing past perceived boundaries. Last spring, Gonzalez was selected for a 10-week summer research program offered by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. She traveled to Yale University in June to participate in research focused on the interactions between vector-borne pathogens, such as malaria and West Nile virus, and their host.
She returned to Pullman in the fall to wrap up requirements for her dual degrees. Next comes pursuit of a doctorate, with an eye toward earning a degree in virology or immunology.
Gonzalez pauses, gathering her thoughts, carefully choosing the words to sum up her college journey. Her brown eyes glisten as she speaks.
“Attending WSU has taught me to reach for the stars. The professors, the staff, the community here has taught me that I can do anything. I hope to promote that message in the future and tell students to really push themselves to find what they’re passionate about, to be flexible, to open themselves up to opportunities.”
For in the opinion of Floricel Gonzalez, there are no limits, no insurmountable boundaries—only opportunities waiting to be embraced.