Biology Student Following in Father's Footsteps
By Tim Meehan
Growing up in San Marcos, David Gonzalez II had no plans to attend college. In fact, he dropped out of high school then left continuation school to work for his father’s landscaping business.
But there was something missing in Gonzalez’s life. Maybe it was getting bored mowing lawns. Perhaps it was becoming a father at the age of 21 and again a couple of years later. Or it could have been his desire to explore learning and creating rather than working outside.
And since his parents settled on the land that is now Cal State San Marcos upon emigrating from Mexico, what better place to start his path to a career in science academia than CSUSM?
The journey was long – from earning his high school credit, to bouncing around a couple of community colleges, to graduating from CSUSM – but Gonzalez is now an assistant professor of biomedical sciences at UCSD and one of the most respected scientists in the pharmacology field.
“When my parents came from Mexico the first place they landed was right here,” Gonzalez said. “The story of my beginnings is here. This is where my family started.”
And that child born during the start of his journey? He’s set to follow in his father’s footsteps this month as he graduates from CSUSM with a biological sciences degree.
David Gonzalez III will be heading to UC Riverside in July for its renowned biomedical sciences Ph.D. program.
The other son, Isaiah, graduated with honors from UC San Diego in 2019 and is narrowing his choices for medical school.
Gonzalez II’s journey to a better life for him and his family began literally the day after Gonzalez III’s birth.
One of the homes that Gonzalez II and his father serviced at the time was next to MiraCosta College. Gonzalez II would consistently push a lawnmower while he watched people his age carry backpacks. Watching his peers pursue knowledge gave him an uneasy feeling. The five years he spent working with his dad, although gratifying in many ways, made him want more for his sons.
“Something changed in me,” Gonzalez II said. “I don't know what it was. When David was born, I said, ‘You know what? I'm going to go to school. I want to break this chain.’ ”
So the next day he enrolled in five classes at MiraCosta with pretty much an eighth-grade education on his résumé. His grades that first semester weren’t great, including a C in Spanish for the man fluent in that language.
While the expected community college timeline is two years, maybe three, Gonzalez II spent five years there. He was 25 when he finished at MiraCosta, a much older transfer to CSUSM than most of his classmates.
But those five years taught him perseverance, patience and how to be a student.
“I hadn’t learned that yet,” he said.
On his first day at CSUSM, Gonzalez II showed up at 6 a.m. for a 10 a.m. class. Not knowing where to go, he stumbled his way to a biochemistry class taught by Jose Mendoza.
If having a child motivated Gonzalez II to begin his college journey, being in Mendoza’s class rocketed his motivation to heights he never knew were possible.
Up until this point in his life, Gonzalez II never thought about how much influence someone who looked and spoke like him and his parents could have. He was always taught to put your head down, work hard, don’t worry about things you can’t control and things will just happen.
“That day something happened – I call it an epiphany – when I saw Dr. Mendoza,” Gonzalez II said. “And I don't know if it’s different now, but 20 years ago his accent was pretty heavy. But what I saw when I saw him speak, and he was a professor of biochemistry, it was like someone hit me with something. I'm like, ‘That's what I want. I'm going to do that. That's my future.’ So that everything from that point, boom, it just was like a laser beam. Now that was focused energy. I'm going to do this right. I'm going to be a professor.”
After earning his bachelor’s degree at CSUSM, Gonzalez II entered the highly ranked biochemistry Ph.D. program at UCSD while Gonzalez III and Isaiah were beginning to excel in youth sports. The boys would eventually become varsity baseball and wrestling stars, respectively.
Gonzalez II worked tirelessly in his Ph.D. program, finishing first in his class, while his wife carried the weight financially. The sacrifices for their family were large, particularly financially, while dad was working on getting published and deciding on postdoc work projects.
Gonzalez II earned a faculty position at UCSD right out of the program, and then a funny thing happened. Much like a coach’s kid who is always around the gym or field and picks up the nuances of a sport basically through osmosis, Gonzalez III and Isaiah started hanging out in a few different labs at UCSD.
Without even realizing it, the kids were learning about basic science experiments, about the tools, equipment and safety standards of a lab. The kids were just being kids, but the foundation was being laid for potential careers in science and medicine.
While Isaiah was excelling in wrestling in high school, Gonzalez III was touching 92 mph on the radar gun as a baseball pitcher. Neither boy had aspirations to follow in their father’s footsteps, but they were also becoming exceptional at math and the nuances of science.
It helped to have a biomedical science professor as a father.
“I would literally make both of them sit there, either without talking or anything moving, and do like 1,000 math problems,” Gonzalez II said. “It was almost like second nature. Like the art of science was basically being branded. I wouldn't read ‘Pinocchio’ or ‘Dumbo’ to them. I would read organic chemistry books. So it was almost like, even though they didn't think that they had to, it was always there.”
Desirae Mellor was able to relate to his journey. The former biochemistry major at CSUSM began at community college and started a family at a young age, overcoming complex barriers to eventually earn a graduate degree at UCSD, too.
She worked in Gonzalez II’s lab upon graduating from CSUSM. As her mentor, he showed her how to find a balance between research and family that she has managed to maintain over the past three years as a Ph.D. candidate in chemistry and biochemistry in the lab of Michael Burkart at UCSD.
“He was empathetic and supportive beyond measure,” said Mellor, who studies protein-protein interactions in the fatty acid biosynthesis pathway of Mycobacterium tuberculosis. “David's early mentorship and support has been invaluable to my success as a growing scientist and as a mother. He told me how he worked his butt off to be as efficient as possible so that he could still prioritize time with his family. As a mother to young children, this deeply resonated with me. David told me how he made sure he never missed his son's baseball games.
“He may have had to come in early during the week, but he made sure that he was always still available to be there for his family. Although I didn't stay in David's lab, he has continued to check on me and be a mentor for me.”
Although Gonzalez III spent a lot of his time in high school excelling on the baseball field, he was also taking AP science courses and doing lab rotations at UCSD in the summer.
Although he had options to play baseball at the collegiate level, he chose a path close to home, one quite familiar to the Gonzalez family.
“When I was getting close to graduation I just sat down with my dad and weighed out my options,” Gonzalez III said. “Science is something that I've always been intrigued by, even though I never really fully immersed myself in it. I didn't think I was going to go into it initially, but I guess the work I was doing was indirectly preparing me for that decision.”
Although it’s now full speed ahead on pursuing a Ph.D., the path wasn’t any clearer for Gonzalez III in his first year at CSUSM than it was for his dad when the senior Gonzalez arrived to class four hours early.
But Gonzalez III took some steps beyond his coursework. He eventually earned a spot in the Office for Training, Research and Education in the Sciences (OTRES) program on campus.
He also attended the UCSD Summer Training Academy For Research Success (STARS) program, which renewed his interest in research. The STARS program offers students a challenging research opportunity with UCSD faculty as well as graduate school preparation workshops.
“I came in a little naive my freshman year,” Gonzalez III said. “But now that I'm a senior I just felt like it was apparent to me that everything in my life was preparing me for this: this transition in this moment.”
While an undergrad at CSUSM, Gonzalez III became a father. Much like his dad did two decades previous, Gonzalez III chose to view this occurrence as a sign.
Having a child gave him a renewed focus. Baby Alaina and then-girlfriend Mariah inspired Gonzalez III to dive head-first into his career preparation.
“They are my biggest motivators,” said Gonzalez of his now-wife and now 3-year-old daughter. “(Alaina) is slowly understanding the types of things I do. She even understands things like what bacteria is. She’s picking up those small details of what her dad does.”
Could Alaina be a third-generation Gonzalez scientist?
“I can definitely see that happening,” he said. “But I also I don't want to keep her goals so narrow. I try to tell her that there's many other things you can do.”
Said her proud grandfather: “When she was small, I used to do some kind of techniques where you would just tap and count. And now she's 3 years old. She's doing division and multiplication. And she hasn't even gone to school. So that's awesome.”
Gonzalez II’s lab at UCSD is full of CSUSM grads. Three current members of his lab are CSUSM grads Consuelo Sauceda, Dominic McGrosso and Carlos Gonzalez.
A 2014 biological sciences graduate, Carlos Gonzalez (no relation) is currently doing his postdoctoral training jointly with Gonzalez II and Rob Knight, another UCSD professor.
“Some of the highlights of working in David’s lab are the great deal of freedom we get to explore scientific topics that interest us, with the ability to leverage his vast network of collaborators to assist with techniques and technology we don’t have direct access to in the lab,” Carlos Gonzalez said. “I have spent a good deal of my time mining large data sets and using machine learning to predict disease severity from just a little piece of poop as opposed to invasive biopsies.”
Gonzalez III obviously received a plethora of inspiration from his father. His career path could easily lead to a professorship or a life-changing spot in the biotech industry. His opportunities are many.
Gonzalez II has turned his path from a high school dropout to a college professor. The list of people he has positively influenced is long.
Just like in life, higher education is littered with people who alter paths, change fortunes and inspire the impressionable. Quite literally, change lives.
“I wish I could tell you about all of the people who influenced me, but the reality is it's not that I was just always steered away from bad things,” said Gonzalez II of his encounter with Mendoza on his first day at CSUSM some 20 years ago. “Some feeling came over me that wasn't from this earth. It was like the planets aligned. The stars aligned. It was just from a man that didn't even know me, didn't even know me and I didn't know him. But he completely changed my life. That's crazy.”
Eric Breier, Public Affairs Specialist
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