“I was volunteer researching in Dr. Blatti’s lab where they were synthesizing non-toxic, organic paints—they were making them out of carrots, tomatoes and all kinds of algae,” said Michele Ramos, a 22-year-old biochemistry student attending PCC.
This was Ramos’ first taste of hands-on, scientific research. She came to PCC with her eye on the robust music program, even playing synthesizer in the band, and her only business in the Science Village was taking the courses necessary to study to become an optometrist.
“It started when I took my first general chemistry class here,” said Ramos. “My teacher was telling me, ‘Oh, I think you’d be really good in research,’ so then I started looking for opportunities.”
BUILD PODER, Building Infrastructure Leading to Diversity, Promoting Opportunities for Diversity in Education and Research, afforded her with one of those opportunities.
The BUILD PODER program is an undergraduate research training program created by a group of CSUN professors with grant money from the National Institute of Health. The program looks to “increase representation of those whose health has been traditionally poorer to become researchers themselves” by giving minority students the support they need to achieve their educational goals through research opportunities in public health.
Ramos saw a flyer on campus, attended a workshop and applied for the opportunity to be paired with a mentor to help her with her research. After first pitching the idea of researching something in microbiology, Ramos took an interest in STEM Center co-coordinator Veronica Jaramillo’s research proposal in water quality as it piqued her interest in green chemistry.
“To be a BUILD PODER mentor, you have to write a proposal and so I wrote my proposal based on water testing, looking at the different socioeconomic areas and seeing the effect,” said Jaramillo.
Ramos lives in Huntington Park, located in south eastern Los Angeles County. She wants to know how the water quality in her town, which neighbors the industrial city of Vernon and sources mostly ground water, compares to that in Pasadena, which has more natural sources of water like mineral springs to supplement its ground water.
Though research has just begun, she plans on testing not only for water hardness, but for chemicals commonly added to disinfect and change the color of drinking water, like chlorine and other chlorides.
“What ends up happening is that the organic material inside of the water reacts to the chlorine and it creates byproducts and I’m not sure if these byproducts are bad for you,” said Ramos. “So, they might be adding too much to make the water look pretty but in reality they are creating other things.”
The BUILD PODER program also focuses on teaching mentors and their students about critical race theory and how it plays an integral part in how minority students make their way through the education system.
“I didn’t really think about the hardships that come with it,” said Ramos. “I’m first generation, my mom doesn’t speak English to this day and she could never help me, I’m pretty much on my own.”
But she said that the BUILD PODER program and other programs she is a part of at PCC give her the educational support that she lacks from home.
“I like how at PCC you do have a community—I’m part of STEM, I’m part of MESA and they really help you out,” said Ramos. “I can talk to them, my teachers, and they push me to get into internships, they push me to do research and I think that’s really great.”
The National Science Foundation reported that in 2013, of all scientists and engineers working in their field, only 30 percent were women and a mere 10 percent were women who were also minorities.
“The further up you go, the less women you’ll see and minorities drop out,” said Ramos. “They really want to build you up to be a really strong person, to stand on your own.”
Jaramillo thinks that the program is a much needed opportunity for community college students.
“I really believe that it is essential for undergraduates to get more research experience,’ said Jaramillo. “Especially because at four-year schools I think they are doing a lot more of early research experiences, so I think that our students need to be on par with that.”
Ramos plans on transferring to CSUN next fall, but is already looking beyond earning her bachelor’s degree to possible graduate programs to help her achieve her new career goal of working in a research hospital lab as a principal investigator.
“To run the lab, you have to have that education,” said Ramos.