Watching a documentary about the Center for Disease Control and Prevention team investigating a hemorrhagic virus that ravaged Brazil inspired Marco Salazar (‘95) to go to college and major in microbiology at San Diego State University.
Two SDSU programs helped the kid from Chula Vista get closer to his dream of becoming one of those CDC heroes.
“The Health Careers Opportunity Program (HCOP) set me on a path to success. Without that, I probably would’ve struggled a lot in my chemistry classes,” said Salazar.
He flourished academically, fondly recalling multiple music performance classes, the methodical logic he learned in his favorite linguistics course, and a particularly fun biochemistry exam question about how to bioengineer a man-eating chicken.
The most pivotal aspect of Salazar’s time at SDSU, however, was when he joined a program for students focused on biomedical research – now known as the Initiative for Maximizing Student Development.
“It’s the thing that allowed me to do science every day,” said Salazar. “You really can’t do biomedical research if you’re also working at SeaWorld or Safeway. You have to be there because most of your experiments fail.”
Day-in and day-out he would sequence the genes responsible for muscle function in flies, with guidance from biology professor emeritus Sandy Bernstein and biology professor Richard Cripps, who was a postdoctoral fellow at the time.
One moment was key to Salazar believing – despite not having any doctors in his family – that he could succeed in becoming a researcher at the cutting-edge of biological crises.
After Salazar nervously presented a paper at a journal club meeting in front of his lab and a few labs at UC San Diego, Bernstein told him he had done a good job.
“Sandy’s response was very supportive and encouraging and it gave me the confidence that maybe I can do this; maybe I am smart enough.”
Upon meeting his Ph.D. classmates, Salazar realized he had nothing to worry about: he had far more extensive preparation running gels and cloning proteins thanks to the opportunities he had at SDSU.
A New Dream for Himself and Others
Although his current role as a urologist is far-removed from his early CDC role models, Salazar regularly thinks about how the bladder and kidneys interact with various viruses and bacteria that make up the human microbiome, which was his main interest all along.
In his free time, he happily mentors SDSU students – many of whom face the same doubts and fears of imposter syndrome that he had himself. He advises them to always be on the lookout for opportunities and to be proud of who they are as they continue to work hard.
He says his Mexican heritage and history define a lot of who he is and how he carries himself as the only Mexican doctor at his practice.
“I am proud of what my dad had to do to become a U.S. citizen. If he didn’t take the chances he took, there’s no way I would be a doctor or researcher now.”