National Hispanic Heritage Month with Cassandra Saucedo

The UCI School of Pharmacy & Pharmaceutical Sciences is celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month with highlights of students and faculty of Hispanic and Latin heritage.  

Hispanic Heritage Month is celebrated from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15. Originally started as a heritage celebration week in 1968, the observation was expanded to a full month in 1988. The celebration starts mid-month because Sept. 15 marks the independence anniversary of five countries: Costa Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. It is followed by Mexico’s Independence Day on Sept. 16 and Chile’s on Sept. 18.  

Cassandra Saucedo, a graduate student in the Master of Science in Pharmacology program, continues our student highlights by sharing her family’s Mexican and Spanish background and offering advice to other Latinos and parents in academia.

Saucedo is the publishing manager for Western Journal of Emergency Medicine, an AmeriCorps Vista with SafeRx OC, a research associate at UCI and a volunteer researcher in Dr. Civelli’s lab. She received her bachelor’s degree in Neurobiology at UCI and minored in Medical Anthropology.

Q: Tell us where you grew up and a little about your family. Were your parents or any other family members in health care or the sciences?

I grew up in Orange, California, and was raised by my mom. I have 10 siblings, and I am married with five children (ages 8-17). My grandparents are Tejanos (Mexican-Americans that reside in Texas). My mom is a probation officer and previously worked as a surgical technician at St. Joseph’s. My aunt is an LVN, and my grandma worked at UCI managing the cafeteria many years ago. My brother’s ADHD, my father’s addiction, and other mental health disorders I’ve seen inspired my studies. I wanted to expand my understanding and develop better treatments for these diseases.

When I decided to further my studies with a master’s degree, pharmacology wasn’t on my mind, but when I went on UCI’s website and saw pharmacology as a possibility, I couldn’t help but remember my favorite neuropharmacology course from undergrad. I reflected on my work with opioid addiction and my interest in neurodegenerative diseases and mental health disorders; it clicked that this was the program for me.

Cassandra Saucedo with her family when she graduated with her bachelor's degree in 2018.
Saucedo with her family when she graduated with her bachelor’s degree from UCI in 2018.

Q: How did your heritage or ethnicity influence your studies and research interests?

My heritage and ethnicity influenced my studies in research because I know there is a lack of diversity in research, especially in drug development. This is unfortunate since many diseases tend to affect minorities at higher rates. I also noticed a lack of Hispanics in the health sciences in general. Considering we have such a diverse country, we need to start mirroring that in science. There is also a lack of trust in science in minority communities, which was highlighted during the COVID-19 pandemic. To build trust, we need to represent the communities we serve.

Q: How did you become interested in pharmacology or pharmacy?

My interest in pharmacology piqued during my undergrad studies, and particularly in my neuropharmacology course. It showed me that pharmacology was at the center of my interests. It was further developed during my research on opioid use disorder and the benefits and drawbacks of using medicated-assisted treatments such as buprenorphine.

Q: What advice would you have for other young people today who are interested in either pharmacology or pharmacy?

To other young people interested in pharmacology, I would say go for it. Many people are hesitant when looking at drug development and research in pharmacology, but you shouldn’t let those hesitancies hold you back from the changes you can make. Pharmacology is so much more than just industry. It also understands the underlying mechanisms that cause many diseases such as diabetes, mental health disorders, neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s, cardiovascular disease, addiction, and so forth. By understanding the underlying mechanisms, we can start to make a difference in the treatment and outcomes of the disease.

Q: Do you have any particular advice for Hispanic or Latino/Latinas?

Hispanics in health sciences must take the initiative. Our communities are often more affected by diseases, and your involvement will start breaking down those walls for our community. In my family alone, there was a lot of vaccine hesitancy. Still, I combined my patience with my research and experience to explain its importance to family members who were an absolute no in the beginning.

When you take a step into science, you can make a difference for others. In Hispanic families, a big part of our culture is to be hardworking and very family-oriented. I am lucky to have a supportive family, but sometimes they require my attention, so I have to be stern and create boundaries with my study time. Don’t feel guilty when you take time to study and advance your education. Instead of feeling intimidated by others who did not have to work as hard for the same opportunities, be confident in knowing that you belong and you’re making progress towards your goals.

Q: How can UCI and SPPS continue to develop our diversity, equity, and inclusion practices for Hispanic or Latino/Latina students?

One of the challenges Hispanics face when pursuing higher education is balancing their families, work, and studies. When we feel like we aren’t caring for our families properly, the guilt can deter us from success. I would enjoy it if the Anteaters in Pharmacy could host a forum or panel of alumni who overcame these difficulties.

Q: What is your favorite Hispanic tradition, dish, or destination, and why?

My favorite family tradition is tamales for Christmas. I know most Hispanic families have tamales for Christmas, and my grandma makes the best tamales (I’m sure many will also claim this)! We used to have tamale parties on Christmas Eve, and they brought out the best memories.

Q: What evokes pride in your culture?

Family, work ethic, and perseverance evoke the most pride in my culture. Family is such a big part of our culture. I can’t imagine my life without my family. I have always been closest to my aunt, mom, grandma. We do pretty much do everything together and probably confide in one another more often than most families.

I also love our work ethic. I remember as a kid, my grandpa would leave for work an hour early, worked six days a week, and then on his one day off, he would do yard work. My mom worked six days a week, and now, as a probation officer, she continues to pick up all the overtime she can get. Many Hispanics face obstacles, but their perseverance doesn’t stop them from caring for their families.

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