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Campus’s First Undocumented Doctoral Recipient Gets to the Heart of the Matter

May 11, 2016

A doctoral degree is something to be proud of. It is the culmination of years of study and hard work — a mark of determination, willpower and excellence in research and scholarship.

For Quantitative and Systems Biology graduate student Yuriana Aguilar and the growing population of undocumented students like her, it is also a beacon of change and promise.

Aguilar, who will participate in the 2016 commencement ceremony on Sunday (May 15), makes UC Merced history as the campus’s first undocumented Ph.D. recipient.

AguilarAguilar enrolled as an undergraduate at UC Merced in 2007. Two degrees and nine years later, she still loves the intimacy of the campus.

“I get tons of one-on-one time with my advisor,” Aguilar said. “Plus, we’re so well supported by our graduate groups and graduate division. We don’t have to worry about the small stuff, we can just focus on the bigger picture.”

The bigger picture for Aguilar is research that could give some 325,000 people each year a chance at longer lives.

Fletcher Jones fellowRose R Ruiz scholar and Miguel Velez scholar, Aguilar works with Professor Ariel Escobar and researches sudden cardiac death — a condition in which the electrical system in the heart malfunctions. Sudden cardiac death is the leading cause of natural deaths in the United States.

Specifically, Aguilar is studying T wave alternans (TWA), which are predictors for sudden cardiac death. TWA tell researchers everything that’s happening in the heart.

The problem with TWA as predictors is they only begin when symptoms occur. That means that doctors don’t know that a patient is at risk for sudden cardiac death until they are in the midst of a cardiac attack, and likely have less than an hour to live.

The Escobar lab has developed a new technique to learn more about the way the heart and TWA function. Aguilar loads an actual beating heart with a sensitive dye that measures cardiac properties. This makes it possible to look at what is happening on the cellular level in the heart, as well as the surface structure of the organ.

The goal of Aguilar’s research is to better understand the molecular mechanisms that generate TWA — knowledge that could eventually help to predict the likelihood of sudden cardiac death much earlier and allow those at high risk to get treatment.

“Yuriana’s work is stunning, and it will have significant impact on our knowledge of the workings of the heart at the cellular level,” said School of Natural Sciences Dean Juan Meza. “The potential benefit of her research to cardiac care is enormous.”

After receiving her degree, Aguilar would like to stay in the Central Valley. Ideally, she’d love to see the Valley get its own state-of-the-art research hospital — and not simply because she’d love to work and teach in such a facility.

“Even though I was not born in the United States, the Central Valley is my home,” Aguilar said. “I love it here, and I want the best for this community.”

During her time at UC Merced, Aguilar has lived through some major changes to policy and institutional culture regarding her undocumented status.

“When I started out, it was tough,” Aguilar said. “I could see people trying to help, but their hands were tied because they had to abide by certain policies. Now, things are slowly getting better.”

The growing number of undocumented students at UC Merced led to the creation of the Services for Undocumented Students and Special Populations office in fall 2014. The office’s mission is to empower undocumented students to achieve their academic and personal pursuits. On a day-to-day basis, that means providing counseling and information about academics, financial aid and legal issues, and serving as a referral network for other student issues that arise.

“Things have gotten significantly better for undocumented students, particularly in California,” said Alejandro Degadillo, who oversees the Undocumented Student office. He cited state and federal legislation in the past 15 years that has dramatically improved undocumented students’ access to higher education.

At the federal level, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) has the biggest effect on undocumented students, because DACA status carries with it a work authorization that makes it possible for students to obtain employment on and off campus. DACA is especially important for graduate students, as it gives them the ability to apply for teaching and research assistantships that are necessary to support their education and allows them to travel abroad for research.

In California, AB 540, passed in 2001, allows undocumented students to pay in-state tuition rates if they meet certain requirements, like having attended a California high school for three years. 

SB 1159, which just went into effect at the beginning of 2016, gives undocumented immigrants the opportunity to pursue more than 40 professional licenses in fields such as law, accounting, medicine and teaching — allowing undocumented students to use their educations professionally.

AB 130 and 131, passed in 2011, provide undocumented students with access to institutional and state financial aid — something that now is supplemented or replaced by the newly-announced California DREAM Loan Program.

And just today, University of California President Janet Napolitano announced further support for undocumented students: an $8.4 million commitment through 2019 that will further fund the DREAM Loans and support targeted fellowships, student service staff coordinators, and UC’s Undocumented Legal Services Center.

“We are committed to continuing a path forward for undocumented students at the University of California,” Napolitano said. “This funding will further strengthen the university’s undocumented student initiative, and help ensure that these students receive the support and resources they need to succeed.”

For Aguilar, such legislation and campus support has been the means by which she has been able to create a better life for herself and her family — and by which she has prepared herself to give back to her community. 

It is also one way UC Merced delivers on its promise to provide more access to education in the San Joaquin Valley.

“Yuriana is an exemplary scholar whose promise has been realized during her time at UC Merced,” Vice Provost and Graduate Dean Marjorie Zatz said. “As the recipient of the first doctoral degree awarded to an undocumented student at UC Merced, she paves the way for a new generation of researchers and educators who need only access in order to make a lasting, positive change in the Valley and beyond.”