Hurdling poverty to find a life in science | Science News for Students

Hurdling poverty to find a life in science

Scientists and engineers share how they overcame one big career obstacle — growing up poor
May 15, 2018 — 6:45 am EST
girl inventor

Most students start out fascinated by science. Over time, some might be derailed from the science track by money issues. But they needn’t be. There are plenty of ways to hurdle such obstacles to find a rewarding career in science and tech.


This is part of a Cool Jobs series on the value of diversity in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. It has been made possible with generous support from Arconic Foundation.

View the video and listen to the podcast

Emmitt Jolly’s father was a janitor in rural Alabama. As a boy, Emmitt helped his dad on some of these jobs. While a student, he also spent time working in tobacco and cotton fields. And he tilled the garden to help grow food for the family dinner table. With no money for college, Emmitt thought he might aim to become an electrician.

In fact, he’s now a molecular biologist at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. His team studies parasitic worms that infect more than 200 million people worldwide. Children infected with these worms often end up weak, poorly nourished and with learning problems. Jolly’s work could someday help prevent or treat the disease these worms cause: schistosomiasis [SHIS-toh-soh-MY-ih-sis].

Jolly pipetting
Emmitt Jolly uses genetics tools and other methods to study parasitic fluke worms. He’s one scientist who found help to finance the education that led to his career in molecular biology.
K.M. Kowalski

Jolly beat the odds. He moved from poverty to a successful career in STEM. That acronym stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. On average, people with a college degree earn more than those without one. And STEM careers tend to be among the better paying ones.

Such careers also tend to require at least a college degree, if not graduate studies, which can be quite costly. Many U.S. adults from low-income households do get a college degree. But data show they are only a third as likely to get that degree by their early 20s as are people from families earning the highest incomes. Clearly, poverty creates a hurdle to college for many people, according to data from a 2017 report. (It was published by the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Education.)

In the United States alone, more than 13 million children and teens are growing up poor. That comes to about one in every six. And poverty is not an equal opportunity affliction. Black and Hispanic Americans are roughly two times as likely as Whites or Asian Americans to be poor. These data come from a September 2017 report by the U.S. Census Bureau.  

The high cost of college can be one obstacle to a career in science, tech and math-related fields. But it’s far from the only one, notes Shirley Malcom. She heads education and diversity efforts at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). It’s based in Washington D.C. Poor schools, bad neighborhoods and limited opportunities offer extra hurdles for low-income students.

Yet each year plenty of people overcome poverty to land rewarding careers in science and engineering. It may have taken creativity. Or persistence. Or extra work and patience. But most of them now report it was absolutely worth the effort.

Mentors can be anywhere

If you’re poor, you may not know anyone who works in STEM, notes Malcom. The reason? “Other people in your community are also living hardscrabble lives.” That was true for Abel Chávez as he grew up in Denver, Colo.

Today Chávez works as a civil and environmental engineer at Western Colorado University in Gunnison. His group at Western Colorado aims to make transportation, food production, construction and other activities more environmentally friendly. Over the years, he has worked on engineering projects in Mexico, India, the Philippines and other countries. “I feel that I never work,” he says, because it’s just fun.

Chávez Rockies
Abel Chávez loves biking and getting out for trail rides in nature. But as a civil and environmental engineer, his job is fun too — and it has taken him to sites around the world.
Courtesy of A. Chávez

As a child, Chávez couldn’t imagine such a career. His dad was a locksmith and mechanic. That didn’t pay well. So his dad also fixed up old cars, then resold them. Chávez’s mom spruced up discarded furniture, which she sold at flea markets. The boy tinkered along with them. “I continually had my hands in something,” he recalls. (Once he even put together a whole car.)

Chávez had few role models outside his neighborhood. Until, that is, a high-school guidance counselor got him into a program with the city’s Rotary Club. That global service group’s members work in a wide range of businesses and professions. The Denver club gave students some money each month, as a reward for keeping their grades up. Abel was among them.

The Rotary Club program also assigned the teen a mentor — someone to encourage the boy and help him see what prospects he might work toward. This doctor treated Chávez to ballgames, restaurant trips and other outings. More importantly, he introduced the boy to people who could help guide him to college. They also steered him toward scholarships to help pay for that higher education.

Starting this summer, Chávez will become dean — a leader — of his university’s graduate school.

Mentors have helped many disadvantaged people. They can play an outsized role for people who live in neighborhoods that offer little insight into people, jobs and issues outside their own community. And great mentors can show up in the most unexpected places.

Esteban Burchard found his through sport.

Burchard wrestling
“Wrestling saved my life,” says Esteban Burchard. He’s now a lung doctor and asthma researcher at the University of California, San Francisco. A high school coach and others that he met through sports guided him toward a career in research.
Courtesy of E. Burchard

Racism and bullying got Esteban into fights at his first high school. Eventually, he got kicked out. At the next school, Esteban joined the wrestling team. He thought it might help him fight better. Today he looks back and concludes: “Wrestling saved my life.”

That’s because the coach taught more than wrestling. He helped his athletes gain self-confidence and discipline. Those skills helped Esteban do well in school. The teen kept wrestling in college. Through this sport he met even more role models. He also learned to seek guidance from his teachers and others. That continued when he went to medical school at Stanford University in California and then to Harvard Medical School in Boston, Mass. (That last one is where he went for residency training and another degree in public health.)

Now a lung specialist, Burchard works at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). There, he studies racial and ethnic differences in asthma. That lung disease hits minorities and poor people the hardest. Burchard has a special interest in those groups. He grew up poor in San Francisco’s Mission District. He never knew his dad. His single mom worked long hours as a teacher. Her salary didn’t stretch far for their family of five.

Even today at USCF, Burchard seeks guidance from mentors. Interestingly, some of them also wrestled back in school. Burchard also pays it forward by mentoring others. His lab group includes teens from low-income families. Some of these students are the first in their families to go to college.

Help may have to come from inside you

Jolly’s family struggled to make ends meet. Yet he grew up in a loving home. No one tried to stop his studying. Laura Martinez faced a different home life. “I grew up in an environment where there was a lot of domestic abuse and violence,” she recalls. Life at home was bleak.

People at any income level may encounter domestic violence and other types of abuse. But the stress of poverty can make outbreaks of violence more likely. What’s more, people in poor communities may not know where to turn for help.

Martinez lab
Laura Martinez (right) became a microbiologist despite childhood struggles and an abusive home life. She ultimately found strength to help her family by seeking a career in science. Here’s a photo from her graduate school days working at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
Katherine B. Turner/University of Washington School of Public Health

Even if someone’s family doesn’t face such problems, poor families may live in challenging neighborhoods. Fears about safety can stress students. So can the chaos of big or noisy home lives. It’s something Martinez encountered growing up in a family of six who all shared a one-bedroom apartment. “There was no place to go,” she recalls, so “I would try to study in the bathroom.” Martinez also tried to protect her mother from domestic violence.

This only added to the girl’s stress.

Looking back, the scientist now realizes that “A child in middle school should not feel responsible for trying to solve the problems that the parents have.” Society, she says, must teach kids that when any situation becomes dangerous, trusted adults will help: “We don’t have to do it alone!”

A ninth-grade English teacher urged Laura to think about college. The girl liked science and math. Her volunteer work at a local hospital made her think about a career in some medical field. With her mom’s support, the teen came to see that her education was one way to eventually help her mom and siblings.

Martinez went on to get her PhD. Now a microbiologist at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), she’s part of a team studying Zika. This mosquito-borne infection can cause birth defects. Martinez’s group wants to know, among other things, why Zika sometimes causes eye disease in babies.

Whoa! Not prepared for college?

Delgado face
Microbiologist Tracie Delgado is among scientists who have gotten support and encouragement from the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Sciences (SACNAS).
Courtesy of T. Delgado

Half of Tracie Delgado’s high school class dropped out before graduation. The school was in a poor neighborhood southeast of Los Angeles. The girl had taken honors chemistry there and got into UCLA for college. But in her first college chemistry class, she realized: “I don’t even know what they’re talking about.”

Her high school had not prepared the teen for this class. Her school had fallen short in other ways, too. “You have to learn study skills. You have to work with study groups. You have to learn how to read the material and manage your time,” she explains.

Having not learned that, the girl dropped her chemistry class.

But she didn’t give up.

She got mostly C’s that first year of college. She’d need better grades if she hoped to go further. So she knuckled down and learned how to study. By the last year of college, Delgado was mostly an A student.

She went on to graduate school and today is a microbiologist at Northwest University in Kirkland, Wash. She studies how viruses cause cancer. That work could lead to new treatments for cancer and other infections. 

Don’t be afraid if you don’t succeed right away, she tells Science News for Students. “Winners are not people who never fail — because I definitely failed.” What allowed her to succeed, Delgado says, is that “I just never gave up.”

Chavez award
Kelly Chavez (left) manages a materials science and engineering research center at Duke University in Durham, N.C. The center won a 2016 dean’s award for its work to increase diversity in STEM.
Courtesy of M. Chavez

This is something that education researchers refer to as “grit.”

Fortunately, Miquella “Kelly” Chavez also had this grit.

In high school, the small-town girl from New Mexico never got the message about preparing for college. She intended to go. She even got accepted. But no one had taught her how to apply for scholarships. So when the teen saw how much a four-year college was going to cost, she gave that up. Instead, she enrolled at a two-year community college. After trouble in her personal life, she took time off from school and worked at a gas station.

When she started classes again, money was still tight. Now, she also had to help care for her dad. Along the way, a campus job gave her hands-on experience in research. Kelly Chavez ran tests to see what proteins were in “slimy little animals” that researchers had collected near the Mexican coast.

“Everyone there was friendly,” she says. What’s more, they were having fun doing science. Still, she recalls, “it didn’t click” that she could go on to graduate school. So after college, Chavez worked in a lab at the university’s health sciences center. It was there that a supervisor persuaded her to get her PhD.  

Frausto-Vicencio demo
Many scientists choose to give back to the communities that nurtured them. Here, Isis Frausto-Vicencio does a chemistry and physics demonstration at an outreach event for kids. This environmental scientist is now working on her PhD at the University of California, Riverside.
Courtesy of I. Frausto-Vicencio

“I’m happy with my life now,” she says. Chavez manages a materials research and engineering center at Duke University in Durham, N.C. The center’s research teams study soft matter — “basically anything squishy.” One example is the polymers in contact lenses.

Isis Frausto-Vicencio also had a bumpy ride to her research career in atmospheric chemistry. Recently, her team mapped emissions of methane in California. As a greenhouse gas, methane promotes global warming. So knowing where releases of it come from is a big step toward controlling them. However, coming from a family of farm laborers, Frausto-Vicencio had never imagined such a career for herself. Indeed, the day after high school graduation, she was back in the farm fields with her dad. “I was picking grapes.”

Her family had moved a lot. Because of several years at rural Mexican schools, the girl had lots of catching up to do. But the idea of college always appealed. Finishing it took her six years, not the usual four. Now she’s a graduate student at the University of California, Riverside.

As Kelly Chavez notes, the path to a career in science may not be straight. Things may be hard. You may fall off the path you first embarked upon. But there’s no shame in having to take a detour: “It’s okay to fall down and pick yourself up and keep going.”

Coping when the money just isn’t there

Jolly had been offered full scholarships at four colleges. Most students — even very good ones — aren’t so fortunate. Diogenes “Dio” Placencia was one of those not-so-lucky teens.

His dad died when he was a baby. His mom worked long hours in New York City’s garment district. When he got into Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn., he qualified for only a partial scholarship. To make ends meet, the teen and his mom took out loans. Placencia also worked on campus in the chemistry department. With that, he could make ends meet — until another student went back on a deal to share an apartment. It was in his last year of college. Dio did not have enough money to pay for the place all on his own.

So Placencia got creative — and relied on his grit. “I basically went through an entire academic year sleeping in a lab,” he says. He camped out there on weekday nights. He showered at the college gym. On weekends he worked three 12-hour shifts at an environmental lab in New York City. Meanwhile, he took extra courses so that he could finish his undergraduate and master’s degrees at the same time.

When he went on for a PhD, the tables turned. The school paid his tuition and a bit more. That’s common in many STEM fields, notes Malcom at the AAAS. When you reach that level, she notes, “You don’t pay the school. They pay you.”

Now Placencia is a research chemist for the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C. He works to develop better materials for cameras, sensors and other equipment for people in the armed forces. Specifically, he studies interfaces. “You slap two materials together, and you look at what happens electronically between them,” he explains.

Starting this summer, he’ll also head up a science program at the U.S. Consulate in Sao Paulo, Brazil. The program promotes cooperative research between the United States and scientists across Latin America.

Story continues below video and podcast.

Research chemist Dio Placencia once had so little money that he spent most of his last year in college camping out in a lab. But he landed on his feet and is now with the U.S. Naval Research Lab. Hear his tips for others who may encounter a rocky path to a career in STEM.
Adam Dylewski/Explainr

Listen to a longer version of this interview here:

Placencia worked a wild schedule to finance the educational path to this career. Some people instead get help from the military. In return for serving, the U.S. Army, Navy and other branches may pay for college. Ashley McCormack had already worked at multiple jobs to get through college. Then she joined the Army. She now feels “it was the best and worst decision I ever made.”

Basic training was grueling. On the other hand, the Army let her do research in a medical lab. It also paid for her to complete a master’s program.

She now works as a molecular biologist for a government contractor at the National Institutes of Health in Rockville, Md. She loves being part of a large research team. Her group is looking for ways to keep mosquitoes from being infected by the parasites that cause malaria.

Seeing the world differently

Martinez thinks those who grew up poor can bring a lot to STEM fields. “You have been challenged financially. You have learned from those experiences. And you have managed to get through those experiences in practical, resourceful ways,” she says. That talent can provide an edge for success in science and engineering.

Along the way, young people can grow and learn a lot about themselves. For example, many people who grow up poor are taught that asking for help “is asking for a handout,” Kelly Chavez notes. She disagrees. Many programs exist to help people in need. Taking advantage of them is just using those programs for their intended purpose. And often people are willing to help if you’re willing to do the work to follow through. Indeed, scientists and engineers very often ask each other for help on the job. Science is in many ways a team sport.

Students also may feel that spending money on their education instead of other family needs is somehow selfish. Frausto-Vicencio admits “there was always that guilt.” By going to college, she wondered if she “was being selfish” — not helping her family enough. Even today, she says, “I have to tell myself I deserve to be in this place.”

Now that he’s succeeded, Jolly is encouraging other young people living in poverty to consider STEM careers. Yes, he admits, financial pressures can pose big problems. But most people face problems of one sort or another. As Jolly sees it, “You can mope or you can do something about it.” He advocates taking action.

And one payoff just may be a truly rewarding career.

Power Words

(more about Power Words)

academic     Relating to school, classes or things taught by teachers in formal institutes of learning (such as a college).

acronym     A word made by combining some of the starting letter or groups of letters from a number of words. For instance, STEM is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. Radar is an acronym for RAdio Detection And Ranging. Even laser is an acronym for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation.

American Association for the Advancement of Science (or AAAS)     Formed in 1848, it was the first permanent organization formed to promote the development of science and engineering at the national level and to represent the interests of all its disciplines. It is now the world’s largest such society. Despite its name, membership in it is open to anyone who believes “that science, technology, engineering, and mathematics can help solve many of the challenges the world faces today.” Its members live in 91 nations. Based in Washington, D.C., it publishes a host of peer-reviewed journals — most notably Science.

asthma     A disease affecting the body’s airways, which are the tubes through which animals breathe. Asthma obstructs these airways through swelling, the production of too much mucus or a tightening of the tubes. As a result, the body can expand to breathe in air, but loses the ability to exhale appropriately. The most common cause of asthma is an allergy. Asthma is a leading cause of hospitalization and the top chronic disease responsible for kids missing school.

biology     The study of living things. The scientists who study them are known as biologists.

bullying     (v. to bully) A group of repeated behaviors that are mean-spirited. They can include teasing, spreading rumors about someone, saying hurtful things to someone and intentionally leaving someone out of groups or activities. Sometimes bullying can include attacks using violence (such as hitting), threats of violence, yelling at someone or abusing someone with violent language. Much bullying takes place in person. But it also may occur online, through emails or via text messages. Newer examples including making fake profiles of people on websites or posting embarrassing photos or videos on social media.

cancer     Any of more than 100 different diseases, each characterized by the rapid, uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells. The development and growth of cancers, also known as malignancies, can lead to tumors, pain and death.

census     An official count or survey of a population.

chemistry     The field of science that deals with the composition, structure and properties of substances and how they interact. Scientists use this knowledge to study unfamiliar substances, to reproduce large quantities of useful substances or to design and create new and useful substances. (about compounds) Chemistry also is used as a term to refer to the recipe of a compound, the way it’s produced or some of its properties. People who work in this field are known as chemists.

dean     (in colleges and universities) A person to whom a school has given responsibility for overseeing a particular part of the institution or area of concern. For instance, there may be a dean of students, a dean of admissions, a dean of foreign outreach, a dean of the college of engineering or perhaps a dean of social responsibility.

diversity     A broad spectrum of similar items, ideas or people. In a social context, it may refer to a diversity of experiences and cultural backgrounds. (in biology) A range of different life forms.

electrical engineer     An engineer who designs, builds or analyzes electrical equipment.

engineer     A person who uses science to solve problems. As a verb, to engineer means to design a device, material or process that will solve some problem or unmet need.

environment     The sum of all of the things that exist around some organism or the process and the condition those things create. Environment may refer to the weather and ecosystem in which some animal lives, or, perhaps, the temperature and humidity (or even the placement of components in some electronics system or product).

environmental engineer     A person who uses science to study and improve the natural environment.

field     An area of study, as in: Her field of research was biology. Also a term to describe a real-world environment in which some research is conducted, such as at sea, in a forest, on a mountaintop or on a city street. It is the opposite of an artificial setting, such as a research laboratory.

global warming     The gradual increase in the overall temperature of Earth’s atmosphere due to the greenhouse effect. This effect is caused by increased levels of carbon dioxide, chlorofluorocarbons and other gases in the air, many of them released by human activity.

graduate school     A university program that offers advanced degrees, such as a Master’s or PhD degree. It’s called graduate school because it is started only after someone has already graduated from college (usually with a four-year degree).

graduate student     Someone working toward an advanced degree by taking classes and performing research. This work is done after the student has already graduated from college (usually with a four-year degree).

greenhouse gas     A gas that contributes to the greenhouse effect by absorbing heat. Carbon dioxide is one example of a greenhouse gas.

high school     A designation for grades nine through 12 in the U.S. system of compulsory public education. High-school graduates may apply to colleges for further, advanced education.

infection     A disease that can spread from one organism to another. It’s usually caused by some type of germ.

insight     The ability to gain an accurate and deep understanding of a situation just by thinking about it, instead of working out a solution through experimentation.

laborer     Another name for a worker.

Latin America     Nations in the Americas south of the United States, most of which now speak Spanish as their native tongue. The major exception within this region: Brazil, which speaks Portuguese.

malaria     A disease caused by a parasite that invades the red blood cells. The parasite is transmitted by mosquitoes, largely in tropical and subtropical regions.

Master’s degree     A university graduate degree for advanced study, usually requiring a year or two of work, for people who have already graduated from college.

mentor     An individual who lends his or her experience to advise someone starting out in a field. In science, teachers or researchers often mentor students or younger scientists by helping them to refine their research questions. Mentors also can offer feedback on how young investigators prepare to conduct research or interpret their data.

methane     A hydrocarbon with the chemical formula CH4 (meaning there are four hydrogen atoms bound to one carbon atom). It’s a natural constituent of what’s known as natural gas. It’s also emitted by decomposing plant material in wetlands and is belched out by cows and other ruminant livestock. From a climate perspective, methane is 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide is in trapping heat in Earth’s atmosphere, making it a very important greenhouse gas.

microbiology     The study of microorganisms, principally bacteria, fungi and viruses. Scientists who study microbes and the infections they can cause or ways that they can interact with their environment are known as microbiologists.

middle school     A designation for grades six through eight in the U.S. educational system. It comes immediately prior to high school. Some school systems break their age groups slightly different, including sixth grade as part of elementary school and then referring to grades seven and eight as “junior” high school.

National Institutes of Health (or NIH)     This is the largest biomedical research organization in the world. A part of the U.S. government, it consists of 21 separate institutes — such as the National Cancer Institute and the National Human Genome Research Institute — and six additional centers. Most are located on a 300 acre facility in Bethesda, Md., a campus containing 75 buildings. The institutes employ nearly 6,000 scientists and provide research funding to more than 300,000 additional researchers working at more than 2,500 other institutions around the world.

outbreak     The sudden emergence of disease in a population of people or animals. The term may also be applied to the sudden emergence of violent behaviors or of devastating natural phenomena (such as earthquakes or tornadoes).

parasite     An organism that gets benefits from another species, called a host, but doesn’t provide that host any benefits. Classic examples of parasites include ticks, fleas and tapeworms.

PhD     (also known as a doctorate) A type of advanced degree offered by universities — typically after five or six years of study — for work that creates new knowledge. People qualify to begin this type of graduate study only after having first completed a college degree (a program that typically takes four years of study).

polymer     A substance made from long chains of repeating groups of atoms. Manufactured polymers include nylon, polyvinyl chloride (better known as PVC) and many types of plastics. Natural polymers include rubber, silk and cellulose (found in plants and used to make paper, for example).

protein     A compound made from one or more long chains of amino acids. Proteins are an essential part of all living organisms. They form the basis of living cells, muscle and tissues; they also do the work inside of cells. Among the better-known, stand-alone proteins are the hemoglobin (in blood) and the antibodies (also in blood) that attempt to fight infections. Medicines frequently work by latching onto proteins.

sensor     A device that picks up information on physical or chemical conditions — such as temperature, barometric pressure, salinity, humidity, pH, light intensity or radiation — and stores or broadcasts that information. Scientists and engineers often rely on sensors to inform them of conditions that may change over time or that exist far from where a researcher can measure them directly.

sibling     An offspring that shares the same parents (with its brother or sister).

society     An integrated group of people or animals that generally cooperate and support one another for the greater good of them all.

STEM     An acronym (abbreviation made using the first letters of a term) for science, technology, engineering and math.

strategy     A thoughtful and clever plan for achieving some difficult or challenging goal.

stress     (in psychology) A mental, physical, emotional or behavioral reaction to an event or circumstance (stressor) that disturbs a person or animal’s usual state of being or places increased demands on a person or animal; psychological stress can be either positive or negative.

technology     The application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry — or the devices, processes and systems that result from those efforts.

undergraduate     A term for a college student — one who has not yet graduated.

Zika     A viral disease that can be transmitted to humans via mosquitoes. About 20 percent of infected people get sick. Symptoms include a slight fever, rash and pinkeye and usually fade quickly. A growing body of evidence suggests that the virus could also cause a devastating birth defect — microcephaly. Evidence suggests it may also cause neurological conditions such as Guillain-Barré syndrome.


Report: Indicators of Higher Education Equity in the United States — 2017 Historical Trend Report. The Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, 2017, 120 pp.

Report: S. Fayer et al. STEM Occupations: Past, Present, And Future. United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, January 2017, 35 pp.