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Profiles

Jesús Estrada, Merck chemist, on forging a career in science as an undocumented immigrant

The scientist opens up about his career path and the ongoing fight for diversity, equity, and inclusion in the sciences

by Linda Wang
July 28, 2020 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 98, ISSUE 30

 

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Credit: Merck & Co.
Jesús G. Estrada

Jesús G. Estrada is a dreamer. When he was a child, he dreamed of becoming a scientist. He also was an undocumented immigrant to the US who applied for deferred action from deportation, sometimes referred to as a Dreamer. Although his immigration status has imposed limitations on his education and ability to work, he has still found a way to make his scientific dreams a reality.

Vitals

Hometown: New York City

Education: BS, chemistry, Macaulay Honors College at the City University of New York; MS, chemistry, Brooklyn College; PhD, chemistry, Princeton University

Current position: Senior scientist, Merck

Hobbies: Playing video games, board games, and volleyball; enjoying New York City nightlife; and spending time with friends and family

Advice for Dreamers: “Keep learning. Don’t give up. Look for and take advantage of all the opportunities that arise.”

Born in Colombia, Estrada came to the US when he was 7 years old. In 1995, his mother got a travel visa and flew with Estrada and his brother to New York City to join her husband who had come to the US earlier to find work. The family soon settled in their new city.

Growing up, Estrada remembers his parents telling him to keep their undocumented status a secret. It wasn’t until high school that Estrada began to understand what it meant to be undocumented. “It was very discouraging,” he says. “I realized the number of opportunities I had were very few, and I had to make it work.”

At Brooklyn Technical High School, Estrada fell in love with chemistry. “I remember there was an experiment where we mixed zinc metal and aqueous hydrochloric acid to isolate hydrogen gas in a jar. We then lit the hydrogen gas inside the jar and it created a loud popping sound during combustion,” he says. “That experiment blew my mind.”

After graduating from high school, Estrada decided that he wanted to go to college and major in chemistry. “As Dreamers, we don’t have another nation that we have allegiance to. We see the US as our home country, so whatever we do to better ourselves is also bettering the nation,” he says.

Because of his undocumented status, Estrada had few options for financing his college education. Most scholarships require US citizenship or permanent residency status. Macaulay Honors College at the City University of New York was one of the few schools in his part of the country that awarded scholarships regardless of immigration status.

After earning a BS in chemistry from Macaulay in 2010, Estrada wanted to continue his education in chemistry. He was accepted into a master’s program in chemistry at Brooklyn College, and he paid for his education by working as a bartender when he wasn’t in the lab.

Being a Dreamer, I’ve been able to really master problem solving. There might not be an obvious solution to problems. But I still try to make the best of it and to utilize all the possible resources.

Without legal status, Estrada’s future was in limbo. The only hope he had of changing his undocumented status was an immigrant visa petition he had filed as a child through the Legal Immigration Family Equity Act. That act allows for people who would not normally qualify for a status adjustment in the US to obtain a green card regardless of how they entered the country. But the application had to have been filed before April 30, 2001. Even though Estrada’s application was in the system before that date, he wasn’t sure how many more years he’d have to wait before his application would be up for review.

But in 2012, President Barack Obama created an immigration policy called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which allows some undocumented people who entered the US as minors to apply for deferred action from deportation as well as temporary work permits.

With his DACA work permit, Estrada applied to PhD programs and was eligible for grant funding. In 2014, he joined Abigail Doyle’s lab at Princeton University. “The fact that he was so passionate and determined to continue in research despite the obstacles and no clear path forward is remarkable,” Doyle says. “It really speaks to one of the most important skills and attributes for research.”

Estrada fine-tuned his focus in graduate school. “Being a Dreamer, I’ve been able to really master problem solving,” he says. “There might not be an obvious solution to problems. But I still try to make the best of it and to utilize all the possible resources.” He credits Doyle and other mentors he has had over the years with helping him navigate his education.

Halfway through his PhD program, Estrada’s future became less cloudy. In 2016, he learned that his green card application was being reviewed. And then, on September 20, 2016, after he had just finished his green card interview, he was in a cab on his way back to Princeton when he received a notification on his phone. “I get a text message saying, ‘Your application has been approved.’ It was unreal,” he says.

Estrada went on to earn his PhD in chemistry from Princeton in 2019. He recently published a paper in the Journal of the American Chemical Society based on his graduate work on the role of electron-deficient ligands in a nickel cross-coupling reaction.

After graduating from Princeton, Estrada decided to pursue a career in industry because of the collaborative nature of the work and the impact the research has on people’s health. He’s now a senior scientist at Merck & Co., where he is working on ways to synthesize therapeutic candidates for large-scale production.

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Credit: Merck & Co.
Jesús G. Estrada doing research at Merck

“One of the things that I’ve noticed since he’s been with us is the degree of motivation and tenaciousness that he displays,” says L.-C. Campeau, executive director and head of process chemistry and discovery process chemistry at Merck, the group Estrada has joined. “It’s extremely energizing for us to see someone come in like that and being very hungry to make an impact.”

Rebecca Ruck, executive director and head of small molecule process R&D enabling technologies at Merck, says that someone’s personal story can be a strength during a job interview. “Employers are looking for experiences and traits that can be translated into what your job is going to be and your likelihood to be successful there,” Ruck says. “When people interview, we like to hear about their whole selves, not just the science that they’ve done.”

Ruck says Estrada epitomizes “fire in the belly” and that came through during his job interview. “I was sold hook, line, and sinker; what he had to overcome in order to get to grad school and then be successful just shows his level of motivation and commitment.”

“Drug discovery and drug development is a team sport, and it’s important that we have a diversity of perspectives and diversity of styles on our team so that we can generate the highest number of ideas and most creative environment for our scientists to thrive in,” Campeau says. “Diverse organizations and diverse teams have better outcomes. It gives us the best talent; it gives us the best position for innovation.”

Estrada says on his first day at Merck, he attended a town hall meeting, which included a talk on diversity and inclusion. “I left feeling empowered,” he says. “It set the tone on Merck’s view of diversity.” Estrada is now giving back by speaking with graduate students at Brooklyn College about his experiences and participating in diversity, equity, and inclusion activities at Merck.

While Estrada spent his childhood hiding his family’s secret, he now feels a responsibility to share his story with others. “I would hate for someone going through a similar situation as me as a Dreamer and having that fire extinguished,” he says. “We lose a lot of these potentially great scientists that could contribute to society significantly.”

The US Supreme Court recently upheld the DACA policy. Estrada says that ruling was a huge relief, but he knows the fight continues. Estrada will apply for US citizenship next year, but he says he is still a Dreamer. “I’m one of the lucky ones,” he says. “I’m on the other side now, and there’s a lot of work that can be done from the other side.”

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Comments
Ira Holcomb PhD (July 29, 2020 11:41 AM)
The importance of becoming a citizen should be the prime focus for many reasons. Probably each case presents a specific problem. Stay safe and good luck!
Ed Grabowski (July 29, 2020 12:12 PM)
BRAVO ESTRADA! We should not be making people like Estrada fight to get into this country; we should be fighting to get them in. In one of my last Merck programs before retirement, five members of the team working on it made seminal contributions to the success of the program. One was from France, one from England, one from Iran, one from California and one from India. In recognizing them and their contributions at the end of presentations, I noted each, their country of origin and their contributions, and noted that I considered all of them an All-American Team! This is what we, as a country, are all about.

Keep fighting the good fight Jesus, and if you need support from a Ghost of Chemistry Past, I'm available.
Michael Cusano (July 29, 2020 12:31 PM)
Sounds more like leftist political infringement of free speech. Who decides what is appropriate or not, to comment? I bet the rules for the current Administration in Washington will be different. I am a member of ACS since 1961 and we are not the New York Times or The Washington Post. Stick to Chemistry and not what one might consider a sob story on immigration. In my time working in the Chemical Industry there were countless stories about people who acquired degrees overcoming many personal and financial difficulties. One example, of many others I am aware of, veterans from WW 11 and Korea who faced and overcame much more to complete their dreams of earning a degree to become a Chemist, than your story.
John Mark Danna (July 29, 2020 3:07 PM)
Congratulations on your success; glad to hear a success story; however, those of us who are first and second generation Americans do not understand the idea of making the process of naturalization so difficult. I believe that immigrants are wonderful addition to the American dream. But we are ALL immigrants or descendants of such people who took the chance to come to America. The politicization of this process is an egregious affront given the precepts of our national documents and freedom for all, especially for those who are motivated to be the best they can be.
George (July 29, 2020 8:56 PM)
A few months ago, I received my ACS certificate for 60 years of service. That does not count the 2 years that I was a Student Affiliate, also at Brooklyn College (hello my fellow graduate). So, President Trump is correcting something that has been ignored for DECADES by both Democrats and Republicans. WE ELECTED THIS PRESIDENT TO UPHOLD THE LAWS THAT HAVE BEEN ON THE BOOKS, BUT IGNORED, ESPECIALLY BY Pres. Obama, who said very clearly that he wanted to change the fabric of the United States. “Change” is done by the Congress and the Senate, and then under the signature of the President, CHANGING OR REPEALING LAWS THAT ARE ON THE BOOKS, NOT by a Presidential Decree.
Additionally, there is no such term in the Constitution as “undocumented immigrant”. The proper Constitution term is “ILLEGAL ALIEN”. Until the laws are changed, and I would like to see them changed, the laws are the laws.

“But in 2012, President Barack Obama created an immigration policy called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which allows some undocumented people who entered the US as minors to apply for deferred action from deportation as well as temporary work permits.” But, from the Dept. of Homeland Security, “The Obama administration chose to deploy DACA by Executive Branch memorandum—despite the fact that Congress affirmatively rejected such a program in the normal legislative process on multiple occasions. The constitutionality of this action has been widely questioned since its inception.” In other words, Obama intentionally SKIRTED THE LAW to carry out something that HE wanted. Is this perhaps borderline dictatorial??

Here is another unanswered question: Why did his parents never apply for Citizenship? And yes, the system has been broken for many decades and merely ignored by all administrations.

And no, Mr. Estrada, you are not “lucky”, you are one of the wonderful human beings who do not take NO for an answer, who respect the laws of this greatest nation on GOD’S earth, and who chose to overcome all obstacles to fulfill you dream to be a Chemist! I respect you, I admire you, and without knowing you personally, you are dear to me as a fellow Chemist. Welcome to the U.S.A. as a Citizen. GOOD LUCK, AND MAY GOD BLESS YOU IN ALL OF YOUR ENDEAVORS.

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