Maria Contreras: BUILD Scholar Uses Research Success as a Weapon Against Stereotype Threat


by Garric Smith, J.D.

Along with supporting research and career development activities, SF BUILD offers education and training to assist students and their faculty mentors, in creating a productive research environment, and maintaining a healthy mentor/mentee relationship. For many under-represented minority (URM) students interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), it is often challenging to find examples of successful URM researchers to serve as mentors. SF BUILD’s matching program serves to bridge student research interests and faculty dedication to mentorship by facilitating research experiences for students with mentors working within their field of interest.  In the case of SF BUILD scholar, Maria Guadalupe Contreras Oseguera, SF BUILD was able to match her with research mentors dedicated to scholastic excellence, and who share her passion for community-based health initiatives in traditionally under-served populations.  

 At a very young age Maria cultivated a myriad of experiences that have shaped her understanding of health equity problems. One of her most poignant experiences was immigrating to the United States from Mexico with her family.  No one in her family spoke English, and it was Maria who was the first to become fluent. Oseguera recalls, “by the time I was thirteen, I had learned enough English to become my parents’ voice”; Maria admits that though she was proud of her grasp of the English language it also placed a lot of responsibility on her shoulders at a very young age.   Her personal experience with language and cultural barriers to resources such as healthcare and education helped to cement her interest in health care and health equity in minority communities.

Maria also became concerned by what she felt was lacking in her science education. “(In) my high school the teachers would “lecture” by playing movies while they slept.  Fights were common, and detention and expulsion were the norm,” says Oseguera. Even while an undergrad Maria expressed a desire to go beneath the surface of her science education to find a balance between her concern for her community and health sciences. “One of my first impressions of my science classes was that they lacked any sense of social justice,” says Oseguera, who decided to counteract this deficit by  volunteering with non-profit clinics in San Francisco’s Mission District and  teaching patients about science and health related issues  in  a culturally sensitive manner.  

Her participation in the BUILD fellowship led Maria to Dr. Esteban Burchard’s Asthma Co-laboratory at University of California San Francisco where she spent a year-long research rotation. “My first project centered on identifying genetic factors associated with asthma susceptibility in African-American children”; important work considering the majority of genetic studies in the U.S. are focused on white populations. “Dr. Burchard introduced me to the idea that ancestry matters when understanding genetic responses to health disparities, and that these disparities may also be connected to socio-economic factors,” says Oseguera.  

Maria credits her success at UCSF to the diverse and inclusive research environment fostered by her Mentor’s. “I was taken under the wing of Dr. Marquitta White, a postdoctoral fellow in Dr. Burchard’s lab. Dr. White proved to be an ideal mentor, given our shared interest in inclusive research.” Since joining Dr. Burchard’s Collaboratory Maria has learned basic statistical analysis techniques, as well as computer programing and bioinformatics skills needed to analyze the massive cohort. Presenting her work at national conferences winning travel awards, and publishing in peer-reviewed journals.

“By being involved in BUILD I was more able to see myself in the role of scientist,” says Oseguera.

“I definitely keep in mind that I am Latina, and that I am an immigrant, but BUILD and my mentors have shown me that these labels make me a great scientist, because they give me perspective that others do not have.

 [SGF1]This spring, the first cohort of SF BUILD Scholars received letters of acceptance to top graduate programs across the country. Being accepted into graduate school is a milestone in the lives of these SFSU students and great news for SF BUILD faculty and staff at SFSU and UCSF who have been working to prepare these students for the next step in their biomedical science careers.