It was the early days of the pandemic. The campus was closed, shelter-in-place orders were in effect, and Jaime Lopez’s graduate counselor was on maternity leave, leaving the hundreds of sea anemones in her lab at risk.
He immediately set up a care schedule with another graduate student, and for the next few months the two met every few days to clean tanks, monitor temperatures, hatch and feed brine shrimp, and making sure the anemones were “beautiful and happy”. .”
For Lopez — whose entire motivation for earning his master’s degree at Chico State was to work in the lab of biological science professor Cawa Tran — protecting small sea anemones was a way for him to help further their research into understanding symbiosis and coral bleaching, and thereby preserve the future of our corals, reefs and oceans.
“I consider coral as part of the lungs of the planet. Rainforests are the other. And if we go there, our planet will suffer to breathe,” he said.
Lopez, who will be graduating with her master’s degree in biological sciences this week, shares a love for the ocean that dates back to her childhood, growing up with family trips to the beach in Los Angeles. Rather than playing in the sand and surfing, he often found himself exploring tidal pools, looking for signs of life, interesting species and their evolution at different depths.
Shortly after starting college, he met several professors at CSU Dominguez Hills who were passionate about behavioral and community ecology and understanding the impacts of climate change on marine organisms. That same passion his advisers demonstrated quickly became Lopez’s. And those connections led to many research opportunities, including a trip to Australia, a semester on Catalina Island, and his first real marine biology class where students spent countless hours underwater.
“I fell in love with it. Being able to get in the water for the first time, learning to swim, gave me a sense of calm and a whole new world,” he said. being there was where I wanted to be. It was never boring because it was always a new experience.
However, despite his obvious passion and growing expertise, one of his advisers cautioned him against marine biology as a career, pointing out how difficult the field can be and how difficult it is for the family life. Disheartened, Lopez tried to change direction but a conversation with another mentor changed his mind.
“She said to me, ‘You don’t let other people dictate your career path. You take control of it and do what you want with it,” he said. “I realized that my path to marine biology will be totally different from that of my adviser. It got me back on track. »
Over the next few years, he tried tirelessly to get into higher education, but was rejected after rejection. He continued to study on his own, and it was suggested that he approach Tran at Chico State due to his interest in symbiosis.
The letter of interest he first drafted still resonates with Tran today. Lopez carefully explained his interest in coral-algae symbiosis research, explained how he overlaps with Tran’s research agenda and long-term career goals, and shared some of the most intriguing research questions that piqued his curiosity. .
“To me, that was saying a lot, because he had shown me how he thought about science and why he found these issues important. Instead of just having me given a thesis project, he insisted that he build the his from scratch,” Tran said. “Smart and hardworking, he dared to take great risks and challenges to venture into areas of research and methods previously unknown to him.”
As of fall 2019, he was working at the Tran Lab, often devoting over 50 hours a week to research, collaborating with other students, and showing great patience and perseverance in troubleshooting experiments.
“Furthermore, he treats everyone, myself included, with the utmost kindness and selflessly gives of his time to help others,” Tran said. “Jaime is one of the most humble people I have ever known, with a huge heart for caring for others.”
Without a doubt, she said, Lopez is the hardest working student she has ever mentored or taught. His personal experience and academic journey inspire Tran and his peers.
“What stood out to me when I first met him was that we both shared similar paths – first generation, child of immigrants, raised in underserved neighborhoods in Southern California. and facing major challenges to get to where we are today,” she said. mentioned.
Lopez often tells her fellow students to recognize their fear of failing and use it as a time to learn.
“Coming into graduate school, I was so nervous. I didn’t want to mess up. It was such a one-shot thing,” he said. “But now I don’t care if I ‘fail. I’m going to take this opportunity to learn something. You never know what’s going to happen, and as long as you have a reason why you’re doing it, you learn in the end.
After Lopez successfully defended his dissertation, which investigated the potential for nitrogen fixation in bacteria associated with sea anemones, Biological Sciences Department Chair Chris Ivey praised his talents and described him. as an “outstanding scholar”.
“He had an inordinate influence on our program and our department, through his leadership of fellow students, his strong research skills, and his exemplary perseverance through the odds,” Ivey said. “Jaime’s quiet strength has been an inspiration to many of us, and we believe he embodies the strengths of Chico State and the unique type of education we offer on this campus.”
Preparing to graduate this week, as the first person in her family to earn a master’s degree, Lopez is deeply proud.
“Graduating gives me the satisfaction of telling my family that it’s not just about me, it’s about me rewarding them for the sacrifices they’ve made to help me get to where I am. am now,” he said.
Lopez is already working as a California Sea Grant Fellow, the next step toward her dream of working for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as a research biologist. The one-year program offers the opportunity to work in a government agency that studies marine resources and in policy decisions affecting those resources.
He hopes this experience will lay the foundation for a career where he will spend his days studying corals and coastal habitats, working to protect them from the impacts of climate change, and making a difference in the field of marine biology.
Tran doesn’t doubt it.
“What he has done so far in his academic journey will challenge us to challenge the limits of our own dreams, and what he will continue to do in science will dare to leave his mark in creating a sustainable environment. for future generations,” she added. mentioned.