DOWNEY -- It’s not every day that you meet someone who can say that they helped deliver a baby by the age of 18.
However, former Warren High student Ernesto Rojas can say he has, which is just one of the many experiences that has become part of his journey in science.
Growing up in Downey, Rojas held a running record of academic success at Downey Unified. From being involved in programs at Rio Hondo Elementary School to graduating from Warren High School with highest honors in 2014, Rojas has always been devoted to learning.
Reminiscing back to his school days as a young Roadrunner at Rio Hondo, Rojas shared that those years from kindergarten to fifth grade played a huge role in preparing him for college.
“From Ms. Petit’s class in second grade where I first learned how to public speak by playing the Big Bad Wolf in ‘The Three Little Pigs,’ to getting my first taste of what science was in Mrs. Griswold’s class in fifth grade,” said Rojas, “I truly benefited from these teachers because they gave it their all to allow my mind to flourish at a young age.”
During his middle school years at Griffiths, Rojas continued to thrive in academics and shared that it was during that time that he credits his success in truly relying on his school counselor, Mrs. Main, for guidance through a difficult stage in his life.
As the time came to transition to the Home of the Bears, Rojas was ready to embark on the next four years of his life where he would discover who he was as a student and develop his academic dreams for the future.
From the get go, Rojas was recognized for his outstanding achievements in science at Warren, which ultimately lead him to pursue a degree in molecular biology at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA).
“I remember my freshman year of high school, I received the Golden Bear pin for biology in Mr. Maurer’s Honors Biology class,” shared Rojas. “It was in his class that I discovered that I was good at Biology and my love for science flourished.”
During sophomore and junior year in Mr. Lord’s Honors and AP Chemistry classes, Rojas learned that he wanted to study the fundamentals of both Biology and Chemistry combined.
When he wasn’t studying chemicals and cell cycles, Rojas devoted much of his time to leading the Warren High School band as the drum major, as well as rehearsing lines for the upcoming drama class production.
“Being a part of the Warren Band for all four years, really taught me a lot about myself and how to lead and communicate efficiently with others,” said Rojas. “I am so thankful to Mr. Niemeyer because he was the first person who allowed me to take on a large leadership role by being the drum major my junior and senior years at Warren.”
As high school graduation day arrived, Rojas was eager to start college and felt fully prepared for this next chapter of his life.
Rojas entered school at UCLA with previously established units of college course credit, which he earned from taking Advanced Placement classes at Warren High School. The hard work and dedication expected from a student in these rigorous courses provided Rojas with a smooth transition into college.
“The study habits and skills I learned in my AP and honors classes at Warren really nurtured my mind and have helped me now in college,” said Rojas.
Once he began school at UCLA, he discovered that instead of studying biochemistry, he wanted to study Molecular Cell and Developmental Biology because it would allow him to “view the world through the lens of a small molecule.”
Due to this realization, he decided to contact Warren High School English teacher Shirley Stewart, who has assisted countless former and current students. With her guidance, Rojas applied to the UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center and he was accepted in January of this year.
At the research center, Rojas has had the opportunity to conduct basic research in fertility as well as begin to investigate the ethics behind genetic engineering.
According to the UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center, 30 percent of cancer patients are under pre-pubescent age, therefore these individuals may face fertility issues later in life as a direct result of chemotherapy and radiation. Because of this, Rojas and his team have dedicated their research to finding ways to reprogram stem cells into germ cells so those patients can overcome the potential side effect of infertility later in life.
In addition to this major project, Rojas is discovering how to bring awareness to biological ethics, specifically in regard to the issues of genetically engineering children before they are born.
Through this experience at the research center, Rojas has taken it upon himself to return to his alma mater and share what he has learned with students of one of his former classrooms.
“It was in Mr. Orlinsky’s class where I truly learned how to think like a scientist and really felt prepared for college level classes,” said Rojas. “What I try to tell the students in his classes is that if you want to pursue science when you graduate high school, you don’t have to stick with just the traditional path of getting your medical doctorate.”
In April of this year, Rojas was given the opportunity to present his research experience and express the importance of biological ethics at the National Undergraduate Bioethics Conference (NUBC) at Case Western University in Cleveland, Ohio. In the fall, he will also speak at several other conferences such as the American Society of Bioethics and Humanities National Conference in Washington, DC; as well as, the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students in Tampa, Florida.
“I think back to playing my first role in Ms. Petit’s class at Rio Hondo to acting in Mr. Deichman’s drama class at Warren,” shared Rojas. “I am very grateful that I was able to develop a lot of the necessary skills for public speaking, which has aided in my confidence to present in front of my colleagues.”
When looking to the future, Rojas shared that his ultimate goal is to one day become an obstetrician-gynecologist (OBGYN) and continue to conduct research in fertility, genetic diagnosis and embryo development.
“The education I received at Downey Unified was incredible and it definitely helped influence and guide me to become the person I am today,” expressed Rojas.
Rojas’ journey of educational success, since his primary days in Downey Unified, validates how devoting time to a wide array of academic activities tremendously prepared him with the right leadership, communication and academic skills needed for higher education and a successful future.