'Become A Researcher'

New video series explores different stages of a scientist’s career

By Melissa Simon & Hansook Oh

Watch Lorenzo Ramirez's interview on YouTube (click above).

Ramirez's is the fourth in our "BUILDing Future Researchers" series highlighting BUILD scholars who graduated in the Class of 2022.

What does it take to become a scientific researcher? The Diversity Program Consortium’s (DPC) Enhance Science project explores this question in a new video series called “Become A Researcher.” 

The series features five biomedical researchers who are at different stages of their careers, from starting graduate school to managing multiple grant-funded projects as accomplished senior faculty. Each of the five researchers are affiliated with the DPC, a network of institutions funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to implement training and mentoring interventions, and to enhance individuals' success in biomedical research careers.

This is the second video series from Enhance Science, a visual media project produced by the DPC Coordination and Evaluation Center (CEC) at the University of California, Los Angeles. The first series, “Face of Science,” was released in 2021 and featured 10 undergraduate researchers pursuing scientific careers. Through telling the stories of real scientists from different walks of life, Enhance Science aims to visualize inclusive excellence in science, technology, engineering, math and medicine (STEMM). 

“Become A Researcher” premiered on YouTube and the Enhance Science website on Feb. 8 and more episodes will be released through the summer. To stay updated, follow Enhance Science on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and subscribe to the newsletter

Read below to learn about the five researchers featured in the series: Juan Castillo, Cecilia Hinojosa, J. Zak Peet, Halaevalu Vakalahi and Keith Norris.

Photo of Juan Castillo standing outside in a park wearing an convocation robe. Graphic headline reads "Become a Researcher"

Juan Castillo, PhD

Juan Castillo is an alumnus of the San Francisco State University’s NIH-funded research program, SF BUILD. He has a bachelor’s in chemistry from SFSU and a PhD in analytical chemistry from the University of California, Davis. Castillo currently works as a research scientist for Gilead Sciences. 

In his episode, Castillo talks about how growing up in the “Canal” neighborhood in San Rafael, California, helped shape his journey toward becoming a researcher and inspired him to give back to the community. His work focuses on small molecule therapeutics to help people with life-threatening diseases.

He also likes to participate in outreach programs as an authentic role model and share educational experiences with historically underrepresented students in science. 

Photo of Cecilia Hinojosa standing outside of a university building wearing an convocation robe. Graphic headline reads "Become a Researcher"

Cecilia Hinojosa, PhD

Cecilia Hinojosa’s path to being a researcher was also partly inspired by her family and the people she grew up around in her hometown of El Paso, Texas. 

Hinojosa graduated with a bachelor’s in psychology from the University of El Paso, Texas (UTEP), where she participated in the NIH-funded research program BUILDing SCHOLARS. She also has a PhD in experimental psychology from Tufts University.

Hinojosa is currently a postdoctoral research fellow at the Emory University School of Medicine, working under the mentorship of Jennifer Stevens, PhD, and Sanne van Rooij, PhD.

Photo of Cecilia Hinojosa standing outside of a university building wearing an convocation robe. Graphic headline reads "Become a Researcher"

Her research focus is on better understanding the neurocircuitry of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) using neuroimaging techniques and the role substance use may have in the development and maintenance of the disorder.

Read more about Cecilia Hinojosa, PhD, and her reaction to her story being shared in the Become A Researcher series.

J. Zak Peet

J. Zak Peet is a graduate student pursuing a PhD in the Community Research and Action program at Binghamton University, part of the State University of New York (SUNY) system. He received a Bachelor of Arts in honors psychology and a Master of Arts in psychological science, both from the California State University, Northridge (CSUN).

Peet participated in the NIH-funded BUILD PODER program, where he discovered his passion for scientific research and gained the skills it takes to become a researcher. 

In his episode, Peet talks about his journey from homelessness and addiction to finding academic success as a later-in-life student. His personal experience informs his research interests, which lie within the realm of homelessness and substance abuse through the lens of critical race theory (CRT) and intersectionality.

Specifically, Peet is interested in how race and gender intersect to perpetuate the stigma that surrounds addiction and homelessness. Although academia is of great importance for Peet, he also prioritizes self-care — daily meditation and a connection with nature are high on his priority list.

Read more about Zak Peet and his reaction to his story being shared in the Become A Researcher series.

Headshot photo of Haleavalu Vakalahi with a yellow flower in her hair. Graphic headline reads "Become a Researcher"

Halaevalu F. Ofahengaue Vakalahi, PhD 

Halaevalu F. Ofahengaue Vakalahi is the Principal Investigator (PI) of the NIH-funded Undergraduate Infrastructure Student Research Center at Hawai’i Pacific University (HPU). She’s also the incoming president and CEO of the Council of Social Work Education and outgoing professor and dean of the College of Health and Society at HPU. 

Born in Tonga and raised in Hawai’i, Vakalahi is passionate about diversity, inclusion and equity as women’s issues that ultimately impact family and community well-being, with a deep commitment to the advancement of women in academia.

Headshot photo of Haleavalu Vakalahi with a yellow flower in her hair. Graphic headline reads "Become a Researcher"

She has a Bachelor of Science in Business Management (BYU-Hawaii), Master of Social Work (University of Hawai’i-Manoa) and Master of Education and PhD in Social Work (University of Utah). Vakalahi has over 24 years in academia, has served in various faculty and administrative positions, and contributed to numerous peer-reviewed articles, chapters and books on Pacific people and communities.

Black and white headshot photo of Keith Norris wearing glasses. Graphic headline reads "Become a Researcher"

Keith Norris, MD, PhD

Keith Norris is the Senior Principal Investigator (PI) and Co-director of the Administration Core of the Coordination and Evaluation Center at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). He’s also the Executive Vice Chair of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion for the Department of Medicine at UCLA and the Co-director of the community engagement research program for UCLA’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute. 

As a young boy growing up in the Jamaica neighborhood of Queens, New York, Norris was passionate about science and math–interests that eventually led him down the path of becoming a researcher. He attended Cornell University to pursue medicine and he ultimately graduated with a Doctor of Medicine from Howard University.

He has co-authored hundreds of articles in peer-reviewed journals, as well as scientific abstracts. He also serves on the editorial boards for Ethnicity & Disease, the Journal of the American Society of Nephrology and the Clinical Journal of the American Society of Nephrology.

Story updated September 12, 2023.

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The Diversity Program Consortium Coordination and Evaluation Center at UCLA is supported by Office of the Director of the National Institutes of Health / National Institutes of General Medical Sciences under award number U54GM119024.

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