Professor knows her flora and students well

Yolanda Becerra

How she finds sanity and order in an office that seems to be overtaken by an endless workload is a mystery. Her small office is filled with books and her desk is stacked with papers and more books, an ominous vision of the endless workload of an overworked professor. To an outsider this might be overwhelming, but once you meet the face behind the desk and all those papers and books waiting to be sorted, graded and dealt with, you can be sure that everything will be taken care of. Biology professor Maria Elena Zavala has been teaching at CSUN for the last 18 years and she is a force to be reckoned with.

By just looking at her, one can tell Zavala does not fit into the stereotypical image of a university faculty member. She dresses in jeans and casual shirts and would fit in more among the student population rather than the faculty, a fact that she is aware of and that she has been reminded of.

Zavala recalled a time when she went to get her faculty parking permit and the person at the window would not give her one. She said that she showed her faculty I.D. and the response that she got was, “the system makes these types of mistakes all the time,” she said.

“She wouldn’t give me a faculty parking permit because she said that I didn’t look like faculty,” Zavala said.

Another misconception that Zavala has encountered is that people assume she is part of the Chicano studies program. She says that people make assumptions based on looks and in her case these assumptions could not be further from the truth.

A CSUN news release stated that in 2000 Zavala received the Presidential Excellence Award for Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring from then-President Bill Clinton. She was selected in 2001 to receive the CSU’s prestigious Wang Family Excellence Award in recognition of her extraordinary commitment and dedication to her academic discipline and for the impact she has made on her students.

Zavala is a respected scientist and has overcome many obstacles throughout her lifetime, which is perhaps one of her most valuable attributes that help her to lead by example, a fact that has been recognized by others and that led to her contribution of the recently published book “Flor y ciencia: Chicanas in Science, Mathematics and Engineering.”

When she was first approached to contribute to the book she was not too forthcoming.

“I was on sabbatical and really wanted to focus on my research,” she said. In addition she said she had reservations about revealing so much about herself.

In the end, Zavala decided to contribute her story to the book because she realized that it could help others.

Her story is one of sacrifice, determination, passion and dedication.

Working against biases in the scientific world for being a female and a minority, Zavala was able to gain the respect of her peers and she was the first Latina in the nation to receive a Ph.D. in botany.

Today, Zavala is well-known across the nation and respected by both her colleagues and students.

Zavala’s success and accomplishments have come from hard work and dedication, however, her status as a pioneer or groundbreaking Latina in the field of botany has been more of an occupational hazard.

She said that at the time she did not know she was breaking new ground. She has always enjoyed science and was just doing what she liked.

In the beginning she said she wanted to go into geology.

“I wanted to study volcanoes,” Zavala said.

During her undergraduate studies, however, Zavala was discouraged from taking that route by a professor, who, while encouraging her to pursue her dream, made it clear that it would be extremely difficult for her to go into that field, because “(The professor) was basically saying that geologists were chauvinist pigs,” Zavala said.

Another obstacle she faced was one that many students face today: Money. Zavala said she was extremely poor while she was a student and pointed out that for students today who are in the same situation it is different because the priorities of students have changed and the cost of living is different.

Zavala told a story about a favorite pair of sandals that she owned while in college and that she did not have a lot of money to replace them if they ever got ruined, so if it rained she would take off her sandals, cover them up and run to school barefoot.

She said that if her mother had known that her daughter was running to school barefoot and in the rain she would have been outraged.

Today, Zavala said, students work too much for things that they do not really need. She said that she became resourceful when it came to food and learned how to cook.

“You learn how to use your resources,” Zavala said.

The book “Flor y ciencia: Chicanas in Science, Mathematics and Engineering” is striving to give proof and encouragement to women of color and show them that they can make it in the sciences.

Zavala said it is because of her “mission statement” that she is able to accomplish everything she does. She said you have to remember why you are doing what you are doing.

When it comes to teaching, she said she loves it, a significant fact that is key to her success as a professor. For Zavala, teaching is first and research is second.

“You have to love what you do,” she said.

In accordance with her “mission statement,” she is director of two highly successful programs: Minority Access to Research Careers Undergraduate Science Training and Academic Research and Minority Biomedical Research Support.

These programs help students get into Ph.D. programs and, according to Zavala, 72 percent of students in the program go into Ph.D. programs and out of that more than 90 percent are in good standing.

Marilyn Juarez, a psychology major who wants to pursue neuroscience, is involved in the MBRS program and said it is a great program that allows minority groups and low-income students to succeed.

“The program allows us to conduct research and get paid,” Juarez said.

Juarez is new to the program and said “it’s a little bit scary, because (Zavala) expects the most from her students.”

Juarez said that Zavala is more of a mentor to the students and that she is amazed at how she is always able to make time for her students.

Zavala said she wants students to realize that it is no longer that “‘The Man’ is keeping us down, minorities are doing it to themselves.”

She said she wants students to realize that they can be successful but they need to have dedication and persistence in order to accomplish their goals.

Parthenia Hosch has been working with Zavala since 1990 and said she would tease her about being like Mother Theresa.

“She will deny it,” Hosch said. “She will say that she is not a Mother Theresa type.”

But in Hosch’s opinion, Zavala is not far from it.

Hosch said Zavala has high standards for herself and for all those around her and that she does not make exceptions.

“Dr. Zavala doesn’t change her principles for anyone,” she said.

“She is an honest and forthright person,” Hosch said. “I enjoy working for her, and it is a pleasure and privilege to work for Dr. Zavala.”

Hosch said she is amazed at how Zavala is able to connect with students.

“I watch her in amazement,” Hosch said. “She has a knack for it, she really responds to them.”

Hosch said that for Zavala it is not just a job. It is more of a mission to see that her students not only develop and succeed in school, but she is also concerned with the development of her students as individuals.

Students approach Zavala for more than just academic advisement. They look to her for help with their personal problems. Students know that they can confide in her and that their personal problems will not be spread throughout the campus, Hosch said.

“If they want help, I will help,” Zavala said.

Hosch said she wonders how Zavala is able to
balance everything without going crazy, but says that she does a great job.

More than just Hosch’s boss, Zavala is a dear friend, Hosch said.

“Just the other day my daughter needed help with her science homework and Dr. Zavala talked her through the project over the phone,” Hosch said. “The next thing I knew, my daughter was in the kitchen cutting up celery and bell peppers, searching for cells.”

When she is not helping others, Zavala likes to spend her time reading the newspaper, weeding, spending time with her family or catching a good football game. She roots for UC Berkeley and any other team that can beat USC. She says she has always had a thing against USC.

It is on rare occasions that students meet professors who become more than just their teachers or academic advisers, but become their mentors.

Zavala is a member of that rare breed of professors who are so full of life and passion that they go beyond the call of duty and inspire greatness in their students.

“Dr. Zavala has a genuine desire to help with the development of her students,” Hosch said.