BUILDing Future Researchers

Spotlight on CSUN BUILD PODER alumnus Raphael Zambrano, Class of 2022

By Melissa Simon

Watch Lorenzo Ramirez's interview on YouTube (click above).

Ramirez's is the fourth in our "BUILDing Future Researchers" series highlighting BUILD scholars who graduated in the Class of 2022.

Raphael Zambrano’s interest in science began when he was a young child, running through the fields of his grandparents’ poultry farm in the Philippines, chasing frogs or looking at insects and other creatures that inhabited the rural province.

At 7 years old, Zambrano immigrated to the United States with his family and quickly realized that it was much more urban than the rural areas he was used to in the Philippines.  

“I realized that I wouldn't be able to go to a farm frequently [but] my family could go on road trips. It was the only thing we could afford . . . so we would do our best with our little van,” he recalled.

Still, Zambrano’s curiosity about the world around him didn’t cease.

It was his passion for discovering new things and his family that spurred his entrance into biomedical research. 

“My father used to be a physician back home [in the Philippines], [but] he couldn't become a physician here, so he started out as a security guard and worked his way to get a work visa,” Zambrano said, adding that it was watching his father’s struggle that further partly inspired his own journey.

Raphael Zambrano standing outdoors in his graduation robe throwing his graduation cap in the air.

He said he was also motivated by the health issues in his family, such as his brother who was born with a cleft lip and his family’s history of diabetes.

“That’s just inspired me to become a physician [so others won’t have] to face those familial afflictions,” he said. 

Zambrano graduated from California State University, Northridge (CSUN) with a double major in biotechnology and cell and molecular biology, as well as a minor in chemistry. 

While working on his undergraduate degrees, he participated in CSUN’s BUILD PODER program and worked in the lab of Melissa Takahashi, PhD. His lab work entailed developing an antisense therapeutic to combat an RNA-mediated antibiotic resistance mechanism. 

Zambrano said BUILD PODER was “an eye-opening experience” for him because it was the first time that he realized he could be a physician and also do research—it didn’t have to be one or the other. His career focus also shifted from wanting to be a pediatrician to working in a pathology lab where he can help diagnose patients.  

“I want to inform people better because I realized that in this country we have research and . . . so many studies trying to help people, but at the same time a lot of people are misinformed [because] they deny that research,” Zambrano said.

The recent graduate referenced the COVID-19 pandemic as an example, where similar to the SARS outbreak 20 years ago, people were scared, frustrated and confused by reports of the virus and how they should respond to it, he said. 

“The research I want to do is something that will hopefully help future generations [and] lessen that confusion, hopefully alleviate that burden not just on public health officials, but also for everyone, . . . [including those] who are misunderstood or confronted with opposing views.”

More than opening his eyes to the realm of research, BUILD PODER also exposed the disparity in accessibility to higher education for underrepresented groups interested in joining the scientific community. Zambrano said it was because of BUILD and his participation in organizations like the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) that he began to truly see the difficulties some students might face in pursuing a career in science.

“Science or higher education shouldn’t be limited because of things like documentation or immigration because science could really improve a lot more if it was accepting towards individuals,” he said. “I really want to promote minority workforces and diversifying the scientific field.”

In reflecting on his own journey, Zambrano said the best piece of advice he could give to people who might be interested in science is to not knock it until they try it.

Science is about more than helping sick people in hospitals or informing the populace about studies, he said. It’s also about doing your own research and making connections with others in the biomedical community. 

“Science just gives you more connections to different kinds of people and opens you up to different perspectives,” Zambrano said. “I definitely hope more people become researchers.”

Zambrano is currently participating in a post-baccalaureate program at Brown University, where he is working as a research assistant in the lab of Amanda Jamieson, PhD. The lab’s focus is understanding host resilience to pathogens targeting the lung. Zambrano is specifically studying coinfection of bronchial epithelial cells by influenza A virus and bacteria.

Raphael Zambrano smiling proudly wearing his graduation robe and stole.

He said he’s excited to work with Jamieson, as her lab’s research aligns with his desire to learn more about virology. Zambrano hopes to someday obtain his MD or MD/PhD.

Note: Raphael Zambrano’s story is the fifth in a series called “BUILDing Future Researchers: 2022 Graduates Share Their Stories,” about recent BUILD graduates. Read all the stories from the series here in the DPC Newsletter Vol. 7, Issue 3.

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The Diversity Program Consortium Coordination and Evaluation Center at UCLA is supported by Office of the Director of the National Institutes of Health / National Institutes of General Medical Sciences under award number U54GM119024.

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