In his lab at the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering, professor, protein engineer and computational biologist Juan Mendoza researches the immune system to engineer cancer treatments. It’s work he came to a little later in life — and it’s in a field he said his immigrant parents couldn’t have imagined for their son as they raised him in California.
“I never knew science could be a career because my parents were from a small farming town, don’t speak English,” Mendoza said. “It was just not a pathway that we even thought was possible.”
Mendoza started out studying biochemistry at San Francisco State University, but pivoted to a career in IT before finishing his degree. After the post-9/11 recession, Mendoza returned to pursuing a career in science, where he said support via mentorship and salaried fellowships allowed him to reach his potential.
“I remember working as a kid up through college,” Mendoza said. “And so the focus on my academics wasn’t always there. So I wasn’t the strongest student. … After coming back to finish my bachelor’s degree, I got introduced to these fellowship programs that allowed me to do research, and it paid me a salary so I could focus on my research and studies, and that made a world of difference.”
Mendoza joined the faculty at the University of Chicago in 2018. This year, Mendoza was named a Freeman Hrabowski Scholar by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which funds efforts to bring more scientists from diverse backgrounds into scientific institutions. Mendoza said he got right to work on recruiting.
“I actually put out an advertisement on Facebook at these local neighborhood groups and said, ‘Hey, I’m open to hiring people from the community that would be interested in STEM,’” Mendoza said.
Little Village native and University of Illinois Urbana Champaign graduate Isabela Castillo has been working in his lab for the last year.
“My plan is to pursue a career in medicine,” Castillo said. “And initially my first job out of college was in a clinical health care setting. And after being offered the position here as the research technician, I thought I was going to have to choose between the two. But my boss, Dr. Juan Mendoza, was really understanding and supportive of my plan to gain both clinical and research experience during my gap years.”
“I had never before experienced having someone who comes from the same background as I do guide me professionally,” Castillo continued, “and I think he really has taught me, like, the sky is the limit.”
Mendoza said every institution should look for ways to connect with aspiring scientists like Castillo.
“We have to always be out there and just let them know that it’s a possibility or, you know, if they don’t know about it, how do they know that they’d love it? I didn’t know,” Mendoza said. “Ever since getting my first chances in working in the lab, I’ve just been in love with the work I do ever since.”
Mendoza will be on hand at the South Side Science Festival on Sept. 30. For more information, click here.