Dispatches: The Science of Life

Pacifica resident Leticia Marquez-Magaña, professor and science equity consultant, successfully balances her research, social justice work with family life.

Leticia Marquez-Magaña, professor and science equity consultant, believes in an American Dream.

She was the first and Latina hired for a Molecular Biology position, specifically as a Microbial Geneticist, at San Francisco State University in the mid-’90s. Now there are three.

Originally from Sacramento, CA, Marquez-Magaña stayed local for her education including her Doctorate, and finally settled down in Pacifica to raise her children.

Through perseverance in her education, persistence, hard work and willingness to take the opportunities before her despite stumbling blocks because of her gender and race, Marquez-Magaña has not only helped pave the way for other Latinas to find places at universities but helped shine the light on racial disparity in cancer research.

“The way I think of the American Dream is that when you're lucky enough to be presented with opportunities and work hard, you will achieve those goals and aspirations,” she said. “When I say ‘lucky enough’, it is because, yes, the American Dream is something that is said to be available to every single American but that is not necessarily the case due to structural barriers such as racism and discrimination.”

But trials persist, too.

The Value of Education

Originally from Sacramento, she got her Bachelor’s of Science at Stanford University in 1986, and attended University of California, Berkeley for a PhD in Biochemistry.

Despite the fact that her taking a position at San Francisco State University marked a step forward in the diversity of its Biology staff, Marquez-Magaña had pragmatic reasons for going there.

“I had a condo in Daly City between Stanford and the University of California, San Francisco, which is where my husband was at,” she said. “He ended up getting a residency in Oakland, so when I was getting a job, it had to be local because we’d already had a baby. San Francisco State University was the only place that fit the bill and I got the only job I applied for there: A Microbial Frontal Molecular Biology position and I was the only affirmative action hire.”

The university’s decision to hire Marquez-Magaña was part of a larger plan to diversify the student body in the sciences and, in turn, the workforce.

“The reason I was hired was not so much for the cultural competency I could bring but more as a role model that students could connect with better,” she said. “There was recognition that diversifying the faculty would in turn diversify the students and diversifying the scientific workforce is really important.”

In her role as professor and science equity consultant, Marquez-Magaña directs workshops that enable people to be better mentors in science and projects that recruit more diversity to the sciences. She also discusses racial disparities in research and science.

In 2002, she became involved with University of California, San Francisco’s efforts to look at cancer disparities. 

Cancer disparities are defined as incidents in mortality where particular populations groups have a greater cancer burden. For example, records in the National Cancer Registry show that African Americans die the most from cancer except for melanoma, which is skin cancer. White people die the most from that because they have less protection. 

“That makes sense to me as a biologist, but the fact that African Americans die the most from breast cancer, prostate cancer, colon cancer, lung cancer, and liver cancer, doesn’t make any sense,” Marquez-Magaña said. “Clearly it’s not a biological thing, and while there are some biological and genetic determinants, it’s really more telling about society. 

Upon closer examination of the data leading to this conclusion, she found something startling.

“I looked at the data and it was collected for whites and African Americans since 1979, but there was no data for Latinos until 1989,” she said. That’s a huge blank space. It really bothered her because as she put it, “Wow, we don’t even matter enough to collect data on.”

As a social justice advocate, Marquez-Magaña understands the weight of data.

“Without data, you can’t change policy, you can’t have requests for funding or highlight that it’s a national problem or that we should be studying it,” she said. “So the absence of data is really a structural determinant of part of the inequality and cancer burden. We’re totally invisible.” 

The data that has been collected about cancer and Latinos since 1989 seems to have holes in it, too, Marquez-Magaña said.

“Since 1989, data has been collected and supposedly, we have better cancer incidence when it comes to most things, which I think is really cool but I don’t actually think that the way they are sorting people in buckets makes any sense,” she said. “It’s typically based on self-identification, which doesn’t makes sense from a biological perspective. As Latinos, we have European, African and Native American genes. It’s a mess.”

This “mess” is what compelled her to go into cancer disparity research.

She and scientists like her are looking at disparities in cancer to try and understand what is biological, social, political or behavioral. 

“It’s satisfying work but it is undervalued and under-appreciated,” she said.  

Because public education is underfunded in California, Marquez-Magaña said, her profession does not necessarily mean lots of money. To supplement her income, she works as a consultant, but even that has its pitfalls.

“What’s really hard when you do anything that is social justice focused is that the sense of the individuals that are hiring you is that it’s for public good,” she said. “Therefore, the expectation is that I’m going to do it for free or that I’ll be willing to handle my own expenses in terms of parking, gas. Sometimes, they’ll give me lunch.”

According to Marquez-Magaña, there is a notion that feeling good about doing a good deed should be compensation enough.  

“I will get emails from people asking for me to come talk to their classes,” she said. “It is an honor but we are real people with real lives and families to raise and support." 

For many in the speaking and social justice circuit, it can be very hard to have that conversation with people about the need to at least pay for the speaker’s gas and parking. 

“An honorarium would be great,” Marquez-Magaña said. “It’s hard that the priorities in our society are such that the things that I think are really important and really merit attention and value are the things that are underfunded and underappreciated. People say, ‘Education is so important!’ but then they don’t vote for it.” 

Arriving in Pacifica

Marquez-Magaña began blue collar, so she feels comfortable in Pacifica, strolls into or .

“Pacifica and my parents are very blue collar and it’s assumed that I’m blue collar,” she said. “So for me it’s not stratification.  Maybe the assumption is that I’m not a professor but it doesn’t upset me because I’m one of them.”

Like so many other residents, the advent of kids made Pacifica an attractive place to live.

“Once our firstborn reached school age, we felt we had to move (to Pacifica),” she said. “In addition to a second baby and needing a bigger place, we researched the school systems and found out that they had three magnet schools here in Pacifica. It was beautiful here and my mother lived in San Bruno, just across the way.”

Both kids went to and ended up at Lick Wilmerding High School, the premier private school in San Francisco. Marquez-Magaña believes that their education at Cabrillo prepared them well for Lick Wilmerding. 

Life in Pacifica

Marquez-Magaña has been part of elite circles with prominent figures in the academic and scientific world such as the SFSU Provost and the Director of the National Institutes of Health.  She had also been part of a strategic planning committee in 2005 that gave input into how the National Institute for General Medical Sciences (NGIMS) budget should be spread out.  Among those on the committee, was Andrew Fire, Nobel Laureate.

At the end of the day, however, Marquez-Magaña sheds the lab coat and takes on the Pacifica household.

“I am a professional person but I do the laundry, I buy the groceries, I make the meals, lunch for my husband and I’m very traditional,” she said. “I make tortillas, enfrijoladas and tamales. I cook more than people who don't work. Once I watched Sex and the City and one of the characters said, “I need to go on vacation.” and I think, “From what?” 

When the kids were in school, she spent more time in Pacifica for events such as the s Pioneer Day and the fairs at Cabrillo. One of her longtime favorites is FogFest, a "celebration of sun, sand, and surf that defines life on the coast."

Most of the time, she enjoys going out with the family to listen to Latin Jazz. Both of her sons, Joaquin and Elias, are musicians in the Latin Jazz Youth Ensemble.

The family enjoys the periodic walks they take from the Sharp Park Pier and up into the hills, which they call Mighty Joe Young’s Hill.

“My brother would take the boys for walks on that path and he would say, ‘That looks like Mighty Joe Young’s house!’” she said. “And so, as we walk by there, we say, ‘It’s Mighty Joe Young’s Hill. He’s going to come out.’ Now, they roll their eyes at us when we say it. When they were younger, they loved it.”

For more about Leticia Marquez-Magaña, check ou thte video to the right.

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