A Scientist Begins

Alma Navarro grew up on a rancho in rural Jalisco, Mexico. When she was four years old, her father gave her a microscope to play with. He bred dairy cattle, and used the microscope occasionally to check the sperm he’d purchased before artificially inseminating the cows. When Alma first stared into the microscope, a whole new world came into focus. She dug up worms in the garden to dissect, putting slices between glass plates to study. From that moment, she was fascinated with science.

Alma Navarro, winner of the Genentech’s Futurelab science scholarship.

When she was seven, the family moved to the United States, to South San Francisco. Her father got a new job, as a trucker. For years, Alma set her sights on becoming a biology teacher, until, in high school, she had the opportunity to shadow doctors at a local hospital. “That was amazing,” she says. She loved seeing how science could be put to use in the real world, helping patients.

But it was also difficult. While she was at the hospital, she saw a child die. “It was really heavy,” she says. “The doctor had to tell the mom that her daughter didn’t make it.” As fascinated as she was with science and medicine, she wasn’t sure she would be able to handle it, emotionally. So, she did some more research. She combed her local library for every book she could find about becoming a doctor. “I really took some time to consider the mental state you have to have once you get to the field,” she says. “Because I know that it’s going to be tough to be a doctor.”

Alma took an anatomy class that she loved. “It was so cool, they taught us all the little bones in the hand.” She also spent time doing community service helping her uncle in Mexico, who is a vascular surgeon, and was able to draw blood and perform some nursing duties. Both experiences convinced her she was on the right path.

Alma knew that beyond her passion for science, she was well-suited for medicine in other ways. “Patients need bilingual doctors,” she says. “It’s a blessing that my parents taught me to speak both Spanish and English well.”

But while her dream was to become a doctor, Alma didn’t know how she would manage the expenses of college. “I knew I would probably have to take loans myself, because my parents couldn’t afford it,” she says. She also considered starting at a community college, working to save money, and then transferring to a four-year college. Medical school, though, seemed out of reach. “I’d already have the debt of undergraduate school, and when it comes down to it, sometimes you just have to miss opportunities because of money.”

When she was a junior, her career counselor told her about the Genentech Futurelab scholarship, which was available to any graduating senior in South San Francisco who had a GPA of at least 3.0 and wanted to pursue a STEM field—science, technology, engineering and math. She had to complete the application, write three essays, and make a video explaining her interest in science. “I was so embarrassed, because I just made the video in my brother’s room, which was all messy and covered in posters,” she says. She told the camera about the story of using her first microscope in Mexico to examine insects, leaves, slices of worms, and how excited she was to use stronger microscopes in her high school science classes.

Right in our backyard, in South San Francisco, is a school system with a lot of need.

The scholarship is one of several STEM-centered educational opportunities that Genentech, collaborating with teachers and administrators, offers to students in the South San Francisco Unified School District. Starting in elementary school, with the Gene Academy mentoring program, and working all the way through a high school biotech curriculum, the company is inspiring students with hands-on projects to develop the same kind of passion for science its employees share.

“Right in our backyard, in South San Francisco, is a system with a lot of need,” says Ragnar von Schiber, who directs Genentech’s K-12 STEM education programs. Like Alma’s family, many of the students in the district are low-income, and come from immigrant backgrounds, where English is the second language. “Most of the students are not getting into STEM fields, or into areas where they have bigger opportunities. So it made sense for us to try to make an impact in science education right here in South San Francisco where we've been headquartered for over 40 years,” says Ragnar.

The program helps ignite an interest in science in local students, but also gives volunteer mentors an opportunity to connect with students, to give back, and hopefully, to maybe one day bring some local talent into Genentech. “Our scientists talk about the molecular pipeline to articulate what medicines we'll be working on, but for us, we’re helping to create a pipeline of young people we hope will become scientists one day,” Ragnar says. Yet despite the widespread need for new scientists now and in the future, the National Science Board says that only six percent of 9th graders eventually choose a STEM degree in college. “Anything we can do to get more folks excited about science is super important for us,” says Ragnar. To that end, almost 1,000 students in South San Francisco high schools are taking some kind of biotech coursework right now.

Each year three Futurelab scholarships are offered at Alma’s school—one for $5,000, one for $7,500, and one for $50,000. When she was offered an interview, she knew she was a finalist.

“The interview with the Genentech Futurelab people happened on my birthday, but I didn’t tell them,” she says. Still, it felt like a special coincidence. That evening, she packed for a flight to Mexico, to do her community service at her uncle’s clinic. The next morning, on her way to the airport, her career counselor called and asked if she could come into school. Since she had to be at the airport two hours before the flight—and didn’t know what the issue was--she said she couldn’t make it. Instead, her counselor and a Genentech employee jumped in a car and dashed to the terminal at San Francisco International airport to catch her before she went through security to give her the news: She’d won the first-place scholarship.

Alma with her parents after finding out she had won the Futurelab scholarship.

“I wanted to scream,” Alma says. “My parents were so proud.” Alma was accepted at California Polytechnic State University, where she’s now a freshman, taking engineering and pre-med classes. She’s crossed a major hurdle on her way to her dream, but she knows she--like a lot of her cohort-- has a lot of challenges ahead.

“Chemistry is the hardest class I’ve ever taken,” she says, groaning about the fast pace and piles of homework. “But I’m holding on.”