Oscar Juarez doesn’t like labels. Despite an MD PhD in Biochemistry from the National University of Mexico (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México) in Mexico City and a teaching role as an Associate Professor of Biology at the Illinois Institute of Technology, he objects going by anything other than “Oscar.” The idea being Professor Juarez or Dr. Juarez repulses him, as Oscar firmly believes that titles and labels do more harm than good, putting up barriers between students and instructors. Oscar went through a lot to get this PhD, so forgoing the title was neither meaningless nor easy.
Before his PhD, Oscar Juarez dropped out of high school — more or less for the sake of “partying” — while growing up in Tlahuac, a small farming village near Mexico city.
written by Dan Marten
Oscar noted that this didn’t stop him from eventually getting his PhD, though it was certainly something of a detour on his career path. He recalled dropping out and getting involved in all the kinds of trouble a young person can imagine, understandably avoiding specifics, before realizing the lifestyle wasn’t going to get him anywhere. After two years of living like this, he re-enrolled in schooling. Oscar goes beyond just considering those two years to be an unfortunate detour, but insists that this period taught him a number of important life lessons, which helped to shape the person he is today.
The professor had an otherwise innocuous childhood in rural Mexico, and noted that he had always had an interest in science and natural biology, even as a little child. This passion reared itself in the form of an interesting obsession: ants. The young Oscar was obsessed with insects and entomology, to the point where he would spend afternoons hunched over in the dirt outside, staring at ant colonies and the little orderly queues they would form. “You need to take this kid to the doctor, he’s lost his mind, staring at the ground all day!” his grandmother would exclaim, never being quite sure if she was actually joking or not.
Oscar also joked that he wanted to be a professional basketball player for a while, saying that he could’ve gone pro if he could only fix his jumper, and if he was faster, stronger, taller, and better in just about every way that would make a basketball player.
Oscar self-taught himself all of calculus I and calculus II after resuming schooling, having to homeschool as a consequence of dropping out. He was devoted to learning the ins-and-outs of it, warts and all, so that he could actually understand it at the fundamental level, not only to pass exams. He recalls this as the hardest experience of his life — other than his PhD, of course — and many students currently learning from home who feel like they’re teaching themselves can relate to this experience.
It took Oscar two years of this constant studying before he completed his high school equivalent and applied to the colleges. His family didn’t have the funds to send him to a private university, and since the hallmark National University of Mexico and other public universities are free — an amazing public resource that absolutely should not be understated — everybody is already applying there. Oscar knew he had a difficult admissions season ahead of him, so Oscar poured hours and hours into his applications; it turns out teaching himself calculus paid off, and Oscar Juarez was accepted to the National University of Mexico. There, Oscar would complete his undergraduate studies, and go on to earn his MD PhD in Biochemistry from the School of Medicine at this institution, as well.
Even after leaving for college, Oscar’s five best friends are still his old buddies from his hometown; Oscar swears he would still do anything for them, though he’s not afraid to speak his mind when he disagrees with them. Among friends, he’s known for being incredibly stubborn and always speaking his mind, no matter what it may be. Even when this lands him in hot water — which it often does — he regards it with the attitude of “I am what I am.”
Oscar has tried to teach himself quantum mechanics as it relates to protein chemistry, as well as making attempts to get through some of Nietzsche’s books and Dostoevsky’s novel “War and Peace,” but he can’t get through more than a few chapters in “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” or the quantum textbook before losing track. He doesn’t hold this against himself, though; he’s a busy man, and sometimes things just are other more important things to do, such as advise his PhD and MS students, write a scientific manuscript or a grant proposal, catch up with the latest scientific literature or “clean the dishes” in the lab or at home.
In general, Oscar is not an easy man to get an answer out of, giving a lot of “complicated and convoluted answers [as] a complicated and convoluted person.” Interestingly, when asked to walk us through his professional experiences with rejections and bad outcomes, he immediately admitted to being a “bad loser” and opted to walk us through his process of dealing with rejected grants or manuscripts. In his words, Oscar sometimes cries or throws fits, cursing whatever failed cell culture or faulty experiment led to the rejection, then gives himself space and a couple days, before coming back to the problem, fixing its mistakes, and getting it right the second or third or fourth or fifth time around.
Like being a basketball star or getting through those books, Oscar advised that sometimes things just “are not in the cards,” academically or otherwise — and that’s okay. If it’s writing a screenplay or getting through a PhD that just isn’t for you, don’t be afraid to move on. At the same time, find your true passion, work hard at it, and never ever give up on the things that you actually do care about. Keep an eye out for both expected and unexpected opportunities, which he advised are open for those who are ready and hungry. As a final piece of advice for this piece, Oscar left us with this quote: “‘Stay hungry, my friends — Oscar Juarez’ — Anonymous.”
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