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One first-generation college student’s commitment to fluency in chemistry

By Hayley Naron

Success for many college students comes down to late nights and caffeine consumption. Sleep is a luxury many cannot afford, especially students who work while taking a heavy courseload. It’s no secret that higher education is overwhelming at times, but what makes Metropolitan State University of Denver students exceptional is their unique level of perseverance and dedication outside of the classroom that allows them to be successful within it.

One such MSU Denver student has chosen to stand up to adversity with an iron fist and a petri dish. Mirella Castaneda, one of the 49 percent of MSU Denver students who are first-gen college students, has plans to graduate with a major in chemistry and a minor in math.

“I know that I’m kind of set apart by being a Latina studying biochemistry, but that honestly just makes me want to work that much harder to be the best I can be,” Castaneda says.

She strives for success, even if this means working three jobs. When she’s not studying for her classes, she can be found serving at a restaurant on the weekends, tutoring in the Science Building, working on undergraduate research in the lab. Her commitment to these jobs has allowed Castaneda to both pay for her education and strengthen her understanding of chemistry through hands-on experience. She plans to graduate in May – debt-free.

Castaneda will also be the first to graduate college in her family. Her parents immigrated to Denver from Zacatecas, Mexico, when they were newlyweds and now reside in Wichita, Kansas. They have fully supported and encouraged Castaneda’s academic career, and she thinks this is partly because they were never given an opportunity to go to college themselves.

“I owe a lot to them because of the sacrifices they’ve made. Hard work and being responsible for my own future are values my parents have shown me,” Castaneda says.

Castaneda is familiar with the additional effort, beyond a traditional classroom setting, that is required to fully grasp scientific concepts and information. She remembers a science teacher during her junior year of high school recognizing her interest in the subject and encouraging her to join the Chemistry Club to deepen her understanding.

“I knew I liked science, so joining Chemistry Club in high school gave me more time to do what I liked, and I learned a lot from it. Plus, there was pizza at some of the meetings, and that’s always a good enough incentive for me,” Castaneda says.

Although undergraduate research may not necessarily have pizza parties, it’s shaped Castaneda’s interest in chemistry into a passion. Undergraduate research is strongly encouraged if students, especially in science fields, hope to pursue graduate school. There are many undergraduate research opportunities available at MSU Denver that give students unique insight into their field and the opportunity to work alongside their professors.

“Some people say that a good reason to pursue undergraduate research is so you can have some practice failing,” jokes Emily Ragan, Ph.D., a biochemistry professor at MSU Denver.

Ragan and Maureen Gorman, Ph.D., a professor of biochemistry and molecular biophysics at Kansas State University, were approved for a grant that allows them to work alongside students researching how iron functions within insects. There are many studies on how iron functions in humans and mammals, but their research is especially exciting because little is known about how iron acts in insects.

Castaneda’s role in the research is to grow insect cells in petri dishes and look closer at the iron content within the cells. Their research could have many benefits, such as controlling pests, like mosquitos, as well as, Ragan predicts, “supporting beneficial insect systems such as honeybees, which have been struggling. Honeybees need iron for their geomagnetic orientation process.”

Castaneda and three of her teammates are headed to Florida in April to present their progress at an annual meeting for the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, which gives a chance for scientists and future scientists from all over the nation to gather and share new and developing research.

Undergraduate research isn’t always as glamorous as trips to Florida though. Castaneda mentions a day she mistakenly used the wrong-size pipette tip during an experiment, forcing her to restart the process.

“I’m still trying to be all right with failure,” she admits.

But the values she has been taught enable her to persevere. She recalls moments during childhood when her father would stay awake throughout the night to teach himself her school material so that the next morning, he could help her better understand it. Her father’s ability to work through language barriers and his selfless dedication to her studies have influenced how she approaches learning and understanding scientific terminology.

“I realized once I started taking these courses and studying the terms that no matter where we’re from, we are learning a new academic language together,” Castaneda says. “It can be difficult, but it shouldn’t be scary if you just really want to know more.”

She hopes to one day earn a doctoral degree, and although the details between now and then are unclear, she looks forward to what may come.

“There are all sorts of obstacles that promote persistence,” Ragan says. “Things don’t always work out perfectly, but we won’t be able to discover new things unless we are able to venture out into the unknown.”