Science and Serendipity

Caltech graduate student Manuel Razo Mejia wants to predict how evolution occurs in organisms ranging from microbes to humans. Until recently, evolution has been considered a random process, but Razo Mejia believes we might detect certain patterns by applying the principles of physics and mathematics. To unravel the mystery of how biological systems change over time, he observes gene regulation in single-celled bacteria, whose brief life cycles enable him to witness change at an accelerated rate.

“As a scientist, I’m awed by the complexity of nature,” Razo Mejia says. “Now that we have so much data in biology, the time is ripe to create a more robust theoretical framework about life.”

A native of Mexico, Razo Mejia could not have imagined doing this type of research just seven years ago. Although he had wanted to pursue science since elementary school, he had never met a scientist. He was not even sure there were scientists who look like him. And after enrolling at a local university, he was so uninspired by his science coursework that he considered dropping out.

Then two acts of serendipity made it possible for Razo Mejia to follow his dreams.

Creating Opportunities

First, Razo Mejia encountered Adrian Jinich, a Mexican citizen who had earned his bachelor’s degree in physics at Northwestern University. Jinich—now at Cornell—believed the only thing preventing more Latin Americans from becoming scientists and engineers was opportunity, and he was determined to create them.

Jinich started by walking the halls of the university where Razo Mejia was enrolled and asking people if they wanted to form a science club. Razo Mejia and five of his friends quickly expressed interest. Every Saturday, they studied topics that interested them—from computer programming to biophysics.

“I now had this person in my life who worked with me and encouraged me to become a scientist,” Razo Mejia says. “That meant everything.”

Since then, the informal study group has transformed into Clubes de Ciencias (Science Clubs), a nonprofit organization that provides students throughout Mexico with in-person and online science courses. Every summer, U.S. college students visit Mexico to teach a hands-on workshop for one week. There are now 162 clubs serving 2,200 students.

A Fanboy Meets His Hero

Despite’s Jinich’s encouragement, Razo Mejia was feeling especially frustrated one day in 2011 about his prospects as a scientist. He began leafing through Physical Biology of the Cell, a book used in his science club, and it fired his imagination. On a whim, he decided to contact the author—who happened to be Rob Phillips, Caltech’s Fred and Nancy Morris Professor of Biophysics, Biology, and Physics.

“It was a fanboy email,” Razo Mejia says. “I wrote about how much I loved his book and how I wanted to be a scientist, and asked if he had any advice for me.”

He clicked the send button not expecting anything to come of it. But a month later, Phillips responded. An email exchange soon led to a video call. Eventually, Phillips asked Razo Mejia to submit a research proposal for Caltech’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships (SURF) program, a donor-supported initiative that connects undergraduates with research opportunities in campus labs.

Razo Mejia’s proposal came back with numerous grammar corrections—after all English is his second language. But along with the proposal was a life-changing cover note: He had come up with an excellent research idea. He was accepted into the SURF program and began working in Phillips’s lab.

Phillips was different from any other professor Razo Mejia had met at the time. He encouraged his students to ask questions and to be keen observers, both in the lab and in life. The pair got along so well that Phillips invited Razo Mejia to spend the rest of the year at Caltech. After completing his undergraduate studies in Mexico, Razo Mejia returned to Caltech in 2014—this time as a graduate student.

Thanks to fellowship support, including the Benjamin M. Rosen Graduate Endowment Fund, Razo Mejia says he has never had to worry about financing his education. Additional fellowship funds raised through Break Through: The Caltech Campaign will ensure that other talented graduate students can achieve their scientific dreams at Caltech.

Estar Como Pez en el Agua

After so many years of yearning to learn about science, Razo Mejia says studying at Caltech has been one of his best life experiences. He refers to a Mexican idiom to explain how he feels here: estar como pez en el agua—being in one’s natural environment.

But he knows how different his path could have turned out had he not met Phillips and Jinich. “It worked out for me, but it easily couldn’t have, right?”

That is why Razo Mejia is paying it forward. He has returned to Mexico to teach Clubes de Ciencias courses and encourages other Caltech graduate students to join him. Caltech’s Center for Teaching, Learning and Outreach provides lodging and travel stipends for those who do. So far, five Caltech graduate students have participated. Now, Razo Mejia hopes to launch a Clubes de Ciencias program for Spanish-speaking children in Southern California.

“I never dreamed about being in a place like this,” Razo Mejia says. “I walk around campus and I say to myself ‘Richard Feynman used teach here, and Linus Pauling did his research there.’ To have a fundraising campaign that aims to support graduate students is a game changer. You can’t predict when a breakthrough is going to change the world, but the great ideas are going come from people doing basic research like we do at Caltech.”

Giving Priorities

Empower