CSU Northridge -- September 17, 2003

CSUN Professor Featured During KCET's Hispanic Heritage Month Celebration

When Maria Elena Zavala was in high school, her teachers told her to take typing instead of math or science because Latinos didn’t become mathematicians or scientists.

Today, Zavala has a doctorate in botany, is a biology professor at Cal State Northridge and two years ago she was awarded a Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering by former President Bill Clinton.

Zavala is one of eight individuals being honored this month by public television station KCET for their contributions to the community.

Video profiles of Zavala and her fellow honorees are currently airing on KCET as part of the station’s Hispanic Heritage Month celebration. The eight are being recognized by KCET and Union Bank of California as “Local Heroes” for their dedicated efforts in the social services, business, arts, community activism and education.

Zavala said she was honored and humbled by her selection as a local hero. “The credit really belongs to the young people who took what tools I gave them and went on to successful careers,” she said. “I am just among the first of many who opened doors to careers in science and research for people who didn’t think it was possible.”

In addition to Zavala, the honorees include Pablo Alvarado, coordinator for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network; Ana Soto Del Rio and Fernando R. Del Rio, community activists and founders of the Teresa Del Rio Memorial Blood Drive and Scholarship Fund; Tini Rodriguez, Luis J. Rodriguez and Enrique Sanchez, co-founders of Tia Chucha’s Café Cultural in Sylmar; and Jose Luis Valenzuela, artistic director of the Latino Theater Company and a drama professor at UCLA.

“This year’s honorees reflect those elements that strengthen our culture, community and nation,” said George Ramirez, senior vice president and division executive for Union Bank. “They set a good example individually and collectively for everyone to follow. Their work and dedication is truly inspirational and admirable.”

“This annual event is a very special one for KCET because it gives us the opportunity to honor local heroes who are making significant contributions to our community,” said Al Jerome, president and CEO of KCET. “KCET is committed to reflecting the diversity of our region through both our programming and our community outreach endeavors.”

When Zavala received her Ph.D. nearly 25 years ago, she was the second Latino in the country to earn such a degree. She said that statistics today are not much better.

In response, Zavala, who joined Northridge’s faculty in 1988, has built up the Minority Access to Research Careers and Minority Biomedical Research Sciences programs in the university’s biology department.

Over the years, she has brought in more than $5 million in grants to support both programs and has personally mentored more than 125 students. Many of those students have gone on to earn doctoral degrees themselves.

In addition to her work on campus, Zavala also assists elementary school teachers working with underprivileged children in making their science classes more interesting.

Zavala received her undergraduate degree from Pomona College and her doctorate from the University of California at Berkeley.

Contact: Carmen Ramos Chandler,(818) 677-2130; carmen.chandler@csun.edu

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