The Power of Diversity in Action
Jesús Estrada ’10, M.S. ’13, Credit: Photo courtesy of Merck
Jesús Estrada ’10, ’13 M.S., says that Brooklyn College instilled a solid foundation of laboratory research and a passion for working with potential therapeutic compounds.
Now, he is using his skills to be a trailblazer in the world of science.
The Colombian immigrant and beneficiary of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program arrived in the United States with a tourist visa in 1995 at the age of seven. After landing at Brooklyn College in 2006 he earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the Macaulay Honors Program in 2010 and later completed Brooklyn College’s master’s program in chemistry.
Estrada thrived in the classroom and the lab, leaning on mentors like the late legendary researcher and Brooklyn College professor of chemistry Roberto A. Sánchez-Delgado, a fellow Latino immigrant who inspired students just like Estrada during his 11-year career at the college.
Estrada, who eventually became an instructor and a mentor himself at Brooklyn College, had his pick of Ph.D. programs, including Columbia University, Yale University, and the University of Pennsylvania. He chose Princeton University. After graduating in 2019, he started work as a senior scientist at the pharmaceutical company Merck in Rahway, New Jersey.
Now a shining example of the power of diversity, equity, and inclusion in his field, Estrada talks about how Brooklyn College helped shape his career path.
How did being a DACA beneficiary help you reach your goals?
Jesús Estrada: After I finished my undergraduate studies at Brooklyn College, I was in limbo. I could not legally work in a research laboratory, which meant that I could not attend a Ph.D. program. The moment that DACA passed in 2012, those barriers were lifted. DACA allowed me to further my education by pursuing a doctoral degree while I waited for a family-based immigration petition. By the time I finally became a legal permanent resident in 2016, I was halfway through my Ph.D. studies. I did not feel like I had lost a significant amount of time.
Describe your work at Merck.
JE: I am a process chemist working in small molecule process research and development. I work on the large-scale production of medicines to support various functions within the company, from clinical trials to the design of commercial synthetic routes, which are used in the manufacturing process. My job is highly collaborative. I am part of a team composed of people with different areas of expertise working together to quickly solve synthetic challenges, which translates to getting medicines to people faster. I work on reaction scales ranging from milligrams all the way to kilograms depending on what stage of development the drug is in.
How did Brooklyn College help you to get where you are now?
JE: I didn’t have many options coming out of high school due to my undocumented status. The CUNY Honors Program at Brooklyn College provided me with a path forward to continue my studies. From the moment I started in 2006 until I left in 2014, I earned two degrees, gained over five years of laboratory research experience, and got undergraduate teaching experience under my belt. On top of that, I had the honor of working for a great mentor, Professor Roberto Sánchez-Delgado, who encouraged and motivated me to continue my studies despite all the uncertainty from being undocumented. Brooklyn College provided me with all the opportunities that I needed to be accepted into highly prestigious Ph.D. programs.
As an alumnus, what are you doing to give back, and why do you feel that is important?
JE: Toward the end of my Ph.D., I participated twice on a panel discussion at Brooklyn College hosted by Professor Mariana Torrente. The panelists, current Ph.D. students, gave their advice on graduate school to undergraduates considering a Ph.D. in chemistry. Such events are important because often, members of underrepresented groups are not fully aware of what a doctoral program entails and the fact that most Ph.D. programs in the sciences are paid positions. Unfortunately, because of the ongoing pandemic, it became difficult to continue such events. Nevertheless, I look forward to future events at Brooklyn College, from career panel discussions to talks on drug development. Giving back is important because I did not get to where I am in my career all by myself. Knowing how I benefited from mentoring earlier in my educational career, now that I am in a position to help, I need to be part of the process of helping others.
What is your advice for other Dreamer students?
JE: My advice would be to find your passion and make it happen, keep that fire burning. While it is difficult to succeed when few opportunities exist, it is imperative that you take advantage of those that are available. Be resourceful. That may involve researching what options are available or asking for help from someone who is more knowledgeable. Eventually, navigating life as a Dreamer will make you a more resilient person, giving you a set of coping skills that not everyone has. Learning to be productive in the face of uncertainty is something that I have come to appreciate later in life, especially now during the COVID-19 pandemic.