From Homelessness to a Doctoral Fellowship at Berkeley

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Zachery Robinson, SBVC Class of ’14, is pursuing a PhD in Bioengineering at UC Berkeley and UC San Francisco this fall.

Zachery Robinson, SBVC Class of ’14, never dreamed he’d be where he is now: bound for Northern California, where he will earn his doctorate through a joint program from the University of California, Berkeley, and University of California, San Francisco.

Higher education wasn’t on his radar growing up, when he moved from “one poor neighborhood to another, even being homeless for several years,” he said. In high school, Robinson set his mind on learning a trade that would ensure he had a stable job and income.

“I needed to earn money and could not ‘waste’ a single year chasing something as abstract as knowledge in the sciences,” he said. “I began welding, spending hours after school each day to improve my skills, often kicked out by teachers as the school closed for the night.”

Robinson found out he had a knack for welding, and during his sophomore year in high school, won first place in a SkillsUSA Southern California regional welding con-test. Wanting to keep challenging himself, Robinson started taking AP classes, and followed his older sister to San Bernardino Valley College, where he focused on math and chemistry courses in order to pursue a degree in engineering. He took honors organic chemistry with Dr. Sheri Lillard, and she became a driving force in his success. He studied biodiesel as a renewable energy source, presented findings at a confer-ence at the University of California, Irvine, and published abstracts.

“She had high standards for her lab, which pushed students, especially me, to be extremely proactive in being a great scientist,” Robinson said. “Being a TA for her class strengthened my organic chemistry and made me really fall in love with teaching. This is one of the reasons why I want to become a professor today.”

Robinson graduated in May 2014, earning two associate’s degrees: one in chemistry and one in biological and physical sciences. He spent that summer as a research fel-low at the University of California, Riverside, and in fall 2016 transferred to UC Irvine as a distinguished Regent’s Scholar.

“Upon taking the first introductory class to biomedical engineering, I realized the field’s vast potential to improve the health of millions of people, to give sight to the blind, mobility to the disabled, and a second chance to those afflicted with cancer and other se-rious diseases,” he said.

Robinson’s participation in the Minority Science Program and countless hours spent researching in labs put him on the path to his next goal: earning his Ph.D. In late February, he interviewed at UC Berkeley and UC San Francisco.

“I thought that my interviews had gone really well and I felt like those schools had the best professors to help me develop my teaching and researching skills,” he said. “I loved the diversity of the Ph.D cohort and the culture of both campuses. Usually it takes more than one month for schools to accept or deny admission so it was a great surprise when I had just arrived home on March 1 to find an email congratulating me for the chancellor fellowship. I thought that it was a mistake.”

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