Becoming the woman I want to become through love and science

I will be the first member in my family to earn a PhD degree. However, graduate school was not in my parents’ plans when they enrolled me in an excellent, yet expensive, private school in Mexico City. Their only goal back then was for me to do better than them and earn a college degree, which neither of them had. I now realize that decision was the first step towards me getting to the Botany and Plant Sciences Department at the University of California, Riverside.

A young child sits in a toy car, gripping the wheel, indoors in front of a Christmas tree.
Lorena in her childhood home in Mexico City.

Attending this private school gave me the chance to learn English. I remember how this new language felt like a door to a whole new world. However, I also remember feeling like I didn’t belong. I quickly noticed the obvious differences between me and my classmates. I lived in a small apartment; they all lived in houses. I got to school by public transportation; they all had cars. Nonetheless, my father always made sure I remembered there were no intrinsic differences between me and them; at our cores, we were the same.

I studied in this school for fourteen years, and during this time, I met some of my best friends. Spending time with them gave me a glimpse of different lifestyles from the one I knew. Some of my friends’ parents were academic researchers who discussed literature, politics, and science during dinner conversations. I was intimidated, yet captivated by this new environment. Being in this school also gave the chance to join the track and field team where I found my passion for sports and physical work, something I do now as part of field work.

But most of the Mexican population could not afford private education and, realistically, neither could my parents. The head start they gave me came at a great expense. Some years before it was time for me to go to college, my parents were overwhelmed with the enormous debt from private education, and my father left for Baja California. My mother was now responsible for two teenage kids, paying off debts, and managing a household — but she is an unbeatable woman, a true example of strength and courage.

Some years went by before I saw my dad again. In the meantime, I kept running. It was the only way of coping with my parents’ divorce. But looking back, I realize that running gave me the grit I would need later on in life.

A couple of years later, I reluctantly went to Baja California for the first time to visit my dad. At the time, I was planning on studying Hispanic literature, but as soon as I laid eyes on the Sea of Cortéz, I had a sudden change of heart: I was to become a biologist to help preserve the natural beauty I had just discovered.

The Sea of Cortéz - brown sand dunes and glistening blue water against a bright blue sky.
The Sea of Cortéz (Image by Christian Silva Bejarano)

It took some years to realize that my dad leaving for Baja California was probably for the best. I had found my calling as a biologist, but also my personal motivation to do science. I knew that it was only by producing good quality scientific data that we could prevent the destruction of such wonderful ecosystems. I enrolled in the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) in Mexico City to study Biology. During this time, I met two wonderful women who affirmed my interest for academic life. They both encouraged me to continue with graduate school and even suggested that I venture abroad.

A woman wearing athletic clothes, a headband, and a tool belt pulls on a strap attached to a palm tree in the desert.
Lorena doing fieldwork in Berrendo. (This photo, as well as the photo at the top of the article, by Javier Sabines)

I applied for a CONACYT-UC MEXUS scholarship to study at the University of California Riverside and I am now a student in the lab of one of the leading conservationists of the Baja California Peninsula, Dr. Exequiel Ezcurra. With him, I have designed a project that answers intriguing scientific questions on the ecology and taxonomy of the palms in Baja California and southern California, upon which the livelihoods of many people depend. I have discovered many new places in Baja California, enjoyed collecting data in the field while meeting wonderful people, analyzed the data (not without some frustration), and written down our results — all with the same passion I felt when I visited my dad for the first time.

In the process, I have constantly fought to overcome the feeling of not belonging or not being good enough, reminding myself of my mother’s courage, my own love and appreciation for the Peninsula, and running, always running. I like to believe that the process of obtaining my PhD has not only allowed me to become a scientist, but it has gotten me closer to the woman I want to be. I have also realized that my background has become my greatest strength.

My hope is that young students, particularly Mexican girls, would have the same opportunities I have had. I would like to help them get the tools they need to get to the places they want to be. My parents and my mentors did this for me. Now I want to do that for others.

Lorena Villanueva-Almanza
Lorena Villanueva-Almanza

Lorena is a Mexican plant storyteller passionate about palms in the Baja California Peninsula.

3 thoughts on “Becoming the woman I want to become through love and science

  1. Mi Lore, que gran historia – y lo que esta por venir-
    Conocía parcialmente tu biografía y siempre me has parecido una luchadora incansable, una gran corredora, una gran mujer con una gran, maravillosa y honesta sonrisa ( de la biología, ni hablamos, también es grandioso tu recorrido)
    Es un honor para mi tener el gusto de conocerte.

    Mis mejores deseos para que tus planes y proyectos se lleven a cabo, te mando un gran abrazo

    Roberto Alvarez

  2. It fills my heart to read your story. Congratulations!! It does take a life to realize and become who we want and need to be. Love and hugs for you my dear.

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