There is a theory that curiosity originates in leisure, that only after one has taken care of the big important things like food and shelter can one spare the mental room for questions like what a sixth dimensional sphere looks like or how lemurs got that way.  Successful scientists, so the story goes, need space in their youth, long parent-subsidized hours to grapple with thorny mathematical and chemical topics so that their minds are primed for thinking on the highest level when a university education is tossed gently in their outstretched arms.  If we are to spend money on science education, so the theory canters to its conclusion, we must spend it on developing programs for the respectable and dependable offspring of the middle class, whose lives and minds stand ready to make use of it.

At this point, counterexamples are doubtlessly flying to your fingertips for enumeration – a list of What Abouts from the scientific pantheon featuring figures who worked their way up from nothing to achieve something of lasting value for humanity, but as for me I’ve only ever needed one – Elma González.  She came from the center of a grinding maw of economic, racial, gender, and social disadvantages, and not only survived their concentrated effects throughout her theoretically most formative intellectual years, but rose on the strength of her own determination and innate skill to shine a light on global-scale chemical processes that will shape our collective future.

Born in Mexico in 1942 to migrant workers, González came to the United States at the age of six, did not attend school until the age of nine, and was at thirteen initiated into the life of the migrant farmer.  That year, her father accepted the offer of a Mr. Manuel Flores to join his regular summer route through the Midwest, offering their services to an array of farmers along the way.  It was back-throttling work, using a variety of wicked tools (including the dreaded, and now banned, cortito), while crouching in a variety of unregulated pesticides, paid by the acre rather than by the hour, and thus done at a pace that made no accommodation for a child’s strength or stamina.  Living conditions varied from farm to farm – if the workers were lucky, they were put up in an old unused lodging on the property, if not they might find themselves crammed together in the loft of the pig sty, or huddled together with dozens of other migrant workers in hot temporary shelters with paper-thin walls.

Elma González rose on the strength of her own determination and innate skill to shine a light on global-scale chemical processes that will shape our collective future.

As bad as the experience on the farms was, however, it was the trek from farm to farm, and the long return trip to Texas, that perhaps took the greatest toll.  Traveling in the back of a truck for hours at a time with no bathroom breaks under a tarp that trapped heat in the sun and let in water in the rain, sleeping on thin bed rolls and under thinner mattresses by the side of the road, young González was regularly exposed to the elements as well as the prejudices of local police who wanted nothing more than to see their caravan pack up and continue moving down the road, into the next county.

For years, this was her life, kneeling in fields and shuddering under a roadside blanket during the summer before returning to Texas, often weeks into the new school year, to catch up as best she could in her studies.  If one good thing came of the hardships of her early life, it was the determination that she would, somehow by the force of her mind, find a way out of the migrant labor system.  In 1961, her family stopped making the annual northern migrant labor loop to concentrate on Texas cotton harvesting work, and with all members of the family relatively grown and making money, González’s family could afford to accede to her earnest request to be allowed to go to college.

González attended Texas Woman’s University as a double biology and chemistry major and even had the opportunity to intern one summer at the Baylor University College of Medicine.  To make money straight out of college in order to help support the rest of her family, she took for three years a position as a research technician at the Southwestern Medical School of the University of Texas. While the position taught her some important fundamentals of laboratory technique, it was not advancing her real knowledge base in a way that would allow her to ever be anything but a technician.

She decided to apply to graduate schools in 1967 and was eventually accepted by Rutgers University, where she was pushed to excel by the tough-but-fair cellular biologist Charlotte Avers, the author of a standard text on molecular cell biology (called, in the true spirit of science, Molecular Cell Biology) and another on basic cell biology (called, yes, Basic Cell Biology).  Here, González began vectoring herself towards the study of cellular chemical processes that would define her career, and after post-doc work at UC Santa Cruz in 1972, she was offered an assistant professorship at UCLA in 1974.

Though she remained at UCLA for decades doing her foundational studies of algae calcification, her start there was a rocky one.  She was hired primarily to fulfill a minority quota, and on arrival nobody knew precisely what to do with her, or where to put her.  She didn’t have an office or equipment, and ended up having to scrounge a free space among the mouse cages of the university’s vivarium in between rounds of trying to cut deals on discounted demonstration models of lab equipment so she could begin her research.  After that rough start, her situation improved considerably when rubisco researcher Sam Wildman heard of her predicament and offered to share his lab space with her.

She had a place to work, and by 1993 was confirmed as a full professor on the strength of her ongoing work with coccolithophorid algae.  These are major players in the global carbon cycle, and one of the great questions is how our rapidly changing climate will affect them and, in turn, their ability to scrub carbon dioxide from our atmosphere.  Her work centered around the mechanisms that allow different strains of this algae to obtain carbon from water and lock it into calcium carbonate deposits which settle harmlessly to the bottom of the ocean.

Non-organic carbon in seawater, it turns out, is found more in dissolved HCO3 than carbon dioxide.  The algae that González studied take that HCO3and combine it with calcium to make calcium carbonate, which traps one carbon, and carbon dioxide, which the algae uses for photoshynthesis.  This process, however, also produces protons which need to be pumped out of the cell to avoid reaching toxic levels.  If, however, seawater becomes too acidic, it will interfere with the ability of these algae to get rid of their steadily accumulating protons, which will in turn affect their ability to sink atmospheric carbon to the ocean’s floor.

González theorized that the acidification of the oceans will have an impact on the evolutionary advantage that calcifying algae receive from their ability to use the relatively more abundant levels of oceanic HCO3to feed their photosynthesis, and as a result might remove one of the global carbon cycle’s most steadfast components.  It’s a wonderful example of how something as simple as a chemical reaction can, when understood in its various biological guises, become a key clue in grasping the large-scale forces that govern our tenuous grasp upon existence on this planet, and it was gifted to us by a person whose value was, for a long lean decade, measured primarily in the amount of manual labor that could be wrung from her while still a child.

Perhaps there is something to be learned in that.

FURTHER READING: González was a co-founder of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics & Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) in 1973 and is the first person featured in the 2008 Paths to Discovery: Autobiographies from Chicanas with Careers in Science, Mathematics and Engineering published by the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center Press.  SACNAS also has a small memoir that she wrote on her life which you can find here.

Lead image credit: Dr. Elma González; By SACNAS – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Want to know more awesome Women in Science? Check out my WYSK column archive and my books, Illustrated Women in Science – Volume 1Volume 2 and Volume 3.