January 28, 2022 FALL 2021

Reaching His Research Dreams

Alumnus Eugene Gonzalez-Lopez ’12, ’14 makes the journey from homelessness to doctorate degree with the help of PRISM and SEEK.

By Andrea Dawn Clark

Alumnus Eugene Gonzalez-Lopez, Ph.D., received his bachelor’s degree from John Jay in 2012 and his master’s degree in 2014, and with the help of a dedicated team of faculty and staff in the College’s Program for Research Initiatives in Science and Math (PRISM) and Search for Education, Elevation and Knowledge (SEEK), he persevered and earned his Doctor of Philosophy in Neuroscience and Pharmacology from Penn State College of Medicine in 2019. His success is an inspiration to everyone in our community, but his story is uniquely his own. “I went from being a small Latino guy in Bushwick, Brooklyn, to making some good money in Boston. Education and research are the only way to get out of there,” says Gonzalez-Lopez, thinking about current John Jay students with backgrounds similar to his own. “During my upbringing, I actually got shot in the leg once and stabbed when there was a gang initiation involving other people, but I don’t like to focus on the negative. I didn’t let that environment push me in the wrong direction or stop me from achieving my goals. At the end of the day, the worst thing you can do is focus on the ‘wouldas, couldas, shouldas’ and comparing yourself to other people. It doesn’t matter what anybody else did, just focus on bettering yourself.”

Leaving Home
Gonzalez-Lopez grew up in a single-family house with his mother and four siblings. “We didn’t have a lot of money and a lot of times the TV became my parent,” he says. Science-based shows like Bill Nye the Science GuyBeakman’s WorldMythBusters, and CSI filled his days as he increasingly became more interested in math and science. He received hands-on lab experience participating in community-based science fairs in the summertime, and during the school year a bilingual math teacher stepped up and introduced him to a broader world of science education. “Growing up I wanted to be a scientist slash the first Latino male Supreme Court Judge,” he says with a laugh. “But there were various conflicts going on in my house, and so when I was about 15 years old, for my own education, health, and well-being, I left home. In doing so, I had to face legal and financial aid issues for college. Essentially, I couldn’t get into college until I was officially ‘independent’ at 23 years old.”

“John Jay is the Harvard of Forensic Science.” —Eugene Gonzalez-Lopez

 

Finding John Jay
After graduating from high school, to make ends meet, Gonzalez-Lopez worked a number of different jobs—an EMT (Emergency Medical Technician), security guard, certified chef, and even an insurance salesman—but what he truly craved was a deeper science education. “John Jay is the Harvard of Forensic Science. You see John Jay faculty on TV all the time. They’re the undisputed experts in the field,” says Gonzalez-Lopez about his choice to attend John Jay College once he turned 23 years old. “John Jay embodied the working professional in their field. It’s not ‘those who can’t do teach,’ it’s ‘those who are actually doing are also teaching at the same time.’ That really resonated with me. Once I got into John Jay, the thing that really excited me was the relationships I developed with these teachers.”

Getting Help from SEEK
When Gonzalez-Lopez first came to John Jay College, his living situation was far from ideal. “I was actually living in a shelter for a few years,” he remembers. When he talked to his SEEK advisor, Carmen Solis, Ph.D., he said, “I don’t have any money for books. I don’t have anything.” Luckily, he felt comfortable with Solis and shared when he was both mentally and physically. “After around two days of class, I went up to her and said that I was feeling scared and I didn’t know what to do. I felt like I didn’t have the funds to do anything. With her SEEK card in hand, she walked me to the bookstore and bought me the chemistry books that I needed. I told her that I was going to give them back to her, but every time I tried to give her the books or money back, she said, ‘No, you keep them.’ I still have those books in my little library.” Solis, a mentor Gonzalez-Lopez still speaks to, showed him that it doesn’t matter what socioeconomic class you come from, you can still earn your degree and reach your career and life goals. “She taught me to embrace being uncomfortable and that it was okay to ask for help.”

Exploring Science
Apart from meeting his SEEK advisor Carmen Solis, Gonzalez-Lopez believes that working with Associate Professor Shu-Yuan Cheng, Ph.D., in the Department of Sciences was pivotal to his academic career. “My relationship with her actually started in lab class. She knew that whenever we did an experiment that looked really cool I would take out my camera phone and start snapping photos. Recognizing this she said, ‘Hey I have a small project where we’re taking pictures of brain cells, would you like to work with me?’ I decided to join her lab and the next thing you know, we’re on this three-and-a-half-year adventure from my bachelor’s degree to my master’s degree looking at how pesticides affect brain cells and how it might contribute to Parkinson’s Disease.” Gonzalez-Lopez’s eyes light up and his love of science shines through as he explains the different toxins and compounds involved in his research with Cheng.

Progressing with PRISM
In order to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in Forensic Toxicology, and later a master’s degree in Molecular Biology, Gonzalez-Lopez knew he had to clock in over 400 hours of research. “Everybody knows about the PRISM program. If you’re doing research, you need PRISM. They’re going to give you both support and professional development,” he says. Around his second year, Gonzalez-Lopez got involved with PRISM and they helped him go to scientific conferences, while also making research fun, relatable, and interactive. Conference trips to upstate New York, Florida, and Puerto Rico opened his eyes to different fields of study and even got him in touch with his culture. “In Puerto Rico there were a lot of people who looked like me at the conference. We were able to present our research,” he says, “but my Spanish is nowhere near a native speaker, and I felt like a bad Puerto Rican when I was presenting my talk in Spanish. Even still, the people were curious about the science. You could feel the energy in the room. They wanted to know what we were researching and that was really exciting.”

“Everybody knows about the PRISM program. If you’re doing research, you need PRISM. They’re going to give you both support and professional development.” —Eugene Gonzalez-Lopez

 

Even with the world of science opening up to him, Gonzalez-Lopez still struggled with the financial challenges in his life. “I had to work full time while I was going to school because I was living by myself. Depending on the time, I was working 36 hours a week.” While earning his master’s degree, instead of continuing his jobs as a sandwich maker, museum guide, and phone clerk at a pizza joint, PRISM helped him find a fellowship program, the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) Bridge to the Doctorate Fellowship that paid for his entire tuition and gave him a stipend while he studied.

Through LSAMP, Gonzalez-Lopez was able to acquire different scholarships to do research abroad—be it water treatment research in Colombia, gut research in the Netherlands, or neuroscience research in Sweden. “I could really focus on my studies and even teach at John Jay—essentially, getting paid to do the scientific research that I loved.” As the time neared to apply to doctoral programs, PRISM and LSAMP kicked up their prep work for him. “They had GRE testing strategies, GRE testing reimbursement, and so many presentations to prepare you for what was ahead. Toward the end of my time at John Jay, every two weeks a new person would come in and talk about their research. They also had me present my research in front of different groups. Those programs, PRISM and LSAMP, opened my eyes and helped me get into Penn State for my Ph.D.”

Earning His Doctorate
After attending John Jay and living all of his life in New York City, Gonzalez-Lopez knew three things for sure: He wanted to study neuroscience, he wanted to move to a new area to challenge himself, and he needed a school that was affiliated with a hospital. “I wanted to work with patients, and if you’re not in a graduate program that’s connected to a hospital, it’s going to be really hard to get the samples you need for your research,” he explains.

Once he was at Penn State, Gonzalez-Lopez instantly felt the lack of diversity. Demographically, it was worlds away from the Hispanic-Serving Institution and Minority-Serving Institution that he was accustomed to at John Jay. “When they talked about the school’s demographics, they noted how many Asians and white students they had, and then next to Hispanic students, there was a number one and an asterisk—it actually meant that there was less than one percent Hispanics in the student body,” he says. “I didn’t meet another Hispanic student until I had been there for three years. It was a little bit of culture shock for me, but I knew because of my work with the grants, awards, and research at John Jay, during both my bachelor’s degree and my master’s degree, that I would be okay.”

A reoccurring issue in the research that Gonzalez-Lopez studied is the fact that any well-known disease is actually made up of many different diseases. “Parkinson’s, schizophrenia, inflammatory bowel disease, all of them are huge umbrella terms. What I want to do is actually try to help combat these diseases by stratifying them into different ‘bins’ looking at the genetics and mutations. That way, a new drug might actually work on ‘bin A’ whereas it wouldn’t work on all the other bins. You could lose millions, or even billions, saying a drug doesn’t work, but really you just haven’t stratified it,” he says. Fighting deadly diseases—especially for underrepresented people of color in research studies—means a lot to Gonzalez-Lopez for many poignant reasons. “My mother died of pancreatic cancer eight years ago. There are all these fatal diseases and right now we can find ways to help combat them by using genetics, but we can’t just say, ‘Okay, let’s look at the research on the Caucasian guy.’ Too many people do that and you miss a lot of things.”

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