Floricel Gonzalez was 4 when her family emigrated to the U.S. Now, she’s pursuing a doctoral degree in virology.

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Hugs, cheers and a memory to cherish

“Flor-i-cel Gon-zal-ez, Wash-ing-ton State Un-i-ver-si-ty,” the emcee spoke into the microphone at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center in San Antonio.

Then, hugs, smiles and shouted words of congratulations from the Washington State University family there, people who had buoyed, cajoled, cheered, challenged, consoled, and inspired along the journey to this moment. Mary Sanchez Lanier. Bill Davis. Kay Brothers. Then, lots of pictures. Pictures to preserve the moment, and pictures to provide motivation for the future.

Floricel Gonzalez, from Selah, Washington, was holding a certificate with her name on it, a certificate identifying her as the national winner for the best oral presentation at the 2014 Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students. The journey to this moment had pushed her resolve and her abilities and her capacity to work hard to previously unexplored limits. So for now, she would relish this achievement.

One clear path out of the fields

Floricel was just 4 in 1999 when her parents decided to emigrate from their home in Zacatecas, Mexico, to the Yakima Valley. It wasn’t an easy decision to uproot a family with six children between the ages of 4 and 14. But, could it really be any more challenging, they reasoned, than the life they had lived up to that point? A life disrupted each spring when Floricel’s father would kiss his family goodbye and then spend the next eight months in the United States, harvesting vegetables from fields and fruit from orchards.

Elva and Jose Gonzalez were adamant that their children would not follow them into the fields. No, their children would never know firsthand about the sore muscles and stiff joints that screamed for attention as a new 12-hour workday dawned.

The antidote? Education. And that became the priority, reinforced daily.

Floricel’s parents’ message was brief, and to the point: If you don’t want to work like this, if you want to avoid the fields, you need to get an education and find a job that you’re passionate about, which will allow you to live a more comfortable life.

It was a message that took root, sprouted and blossomed. Floricel and four of her siblings have attended college. One is a nurse. Another works in business administration. A third is in the criminal justice field. And a fourth works in information technology.

And now, for Gonzalez, her aspiration to earn a doctoral degree in virology and pursue a career as a disease researcher.

A goal set at age 10

Gonzalez quickly learned English as a kindergartner in White Swan, near Yakima. Credit her parents. They made sure Gonzalez did her homework. Other activities were shelved until homework was finished. And when her parents no longer could assist with her studies, they identified other resources to provide the guiding hands she needed.

And credit reading. Gonzalez devoured books, beginning at an early age. When her sisters would head outside to play, they teased their little sister, who preferred to stay inside, her face buried in her newest favorite book.

Gonzalez says she knew by the age of 10 she would pursue a university education. Her reasoning, in part, was fueled by a quiet determination: If her sisters could succeed, so would she.

When struggle turns into success

Gonzalez was unsure about the academic path she’d follow when she enrolled at WSU as a freshman. She loved literature and the way it honed her ability to express herself. But then she took a couple of science courses, thinking to herself, “This is kind of amazing.” That led to her first opportunity to try research in a laboratory setting, a moment that opened her eyes to new possibilities.

Finally, she settled on a double major that combined her interests: English and microbiology.

But the journey to embrace science —especially scientific research — wasn’t without pitfalls. She says of her first research experience, in Anthony Nicola’s lab in the College of Veterinary Medicine:

“I was just overwhelmed. I didn’t think I could do it. Thankfully, Dr. Nicola is an awesome mentor and everyone in the lab is amazing as well and they took their time and they taught me. They explained the logic behind things, which helped me connect a lot of the topics we had talked about in class.”

Yet, after weeks of attempting to complete a specific experiment that wasn’t working, Gonzalez was second-guessing herself. “I kept telling myself ‘I’m just not cut out for this.’ It was the worst that I felt about myself in a long time.”

Then, a defining moment. Working late in the lab one night, the experiment worked. “It was just a control,” Gonzalez notes, “but that little victory reinforced how much I did like research. And so, at that moment, I knew: ‘If I can get this to work, I can get everything else to work, too.’ And slowly, but surely, it did work out.”

And how. Gonzalez eventually accepted a summer research internship at Virginia Tech University. There, she worked closely with Virginia Tech assistant professor Birgit Scharf to craft the project that would yield her national honors in November 2014: research examining the entry of viruses into bacteria.

Embracing dreams for the future

Gonzales’ voice conveys quiet resolve and optimism when she describes her hoped-for station in life six or seven years down the road. She’s focused on pursuing research that is disease-based, examining, in particular, the interactions that occur between a disease and a host, issues that come into play in the increased antibiotic resistance among humans and in the spread of infectious diseases like Ebola.

“After I earn a doctorate, I hope to transition into a research group, either a private- or government-based group, something like the National Institutes of Health, where I would have my own laboratory and be conducting research related to a specific topic,” Gonzalez says.

Gonzalez pauses, gathering her thoughts, carefully choosing the words to sum up her college journey.

“Attending WSU has taught me to reach for the stars. The professors, the staff, the community here has taught me that I can do anything. I hope to promote that message in the future and tell students to really push themselves to find what they’re passionate about, to be flexible, to open themselves up to opportunities.”

For in the opinion of Floricel Gonzalez, there are no limits, no insurmountable boundaries — only opportunities waiting to be embraced.

Learn more about how Washington State University researchers untangle complex problems to enrich quality of life for us all.