Steve A. Alas

Steve A. Alas

Director of SEES, LSAMP, SPIRES & Discovery Camp Programs, Professor of Biological Sciences, College of Science


When children grow up in their surroundings, it is normal for them to perceive their future as a snapshot similar to their environment. For much of the world, this link-in-the-chain repetition has been the typical progression to adulthood. My Mother was born Dina Alas, in El Salvador during 1942. The prospects of change for an adolescent girl in Central America were very meager, both then and now. In 1967, she had the opportunity to emigrate to the United States of America. In so doing, she tore herself away from her closed knit family and landed thousands of miles away from anything familiar. The emotional wounds from that separation never healed over her lifetime, but they did serve to motivate her. What she strived for in her new country needed to be worth the personal cost. My father followed my Mother to the U.S. three years later. While pregnant with me, she came to find out that he had fathered three children during their separation. When my father left us, I would become the fourth in what would ultimately be five children that he abandoned. I was seven months old. Although the demands of my Mom’s life would become heavy and exhausting, she assured herself that I would not be a repeating link on the same chain.


Steve Marroquin. That used to be my name, once upon a time. I was born in 1971 and spent the first ten years of my life in El Monte, CA. The city was a low-income area where the majority of the populace was of Hispanic origin. My Mom was able to maintain a small apartment on service jobs that she could find, including cleaning apartments and working with adults with mental disabilities. When I was age two, it was two girls my same age who moved in next door. Playing with them, they unintentionally became my surrogate tutors in English. By the time I was three, I could speak the language that I would require to develop well in school. I can say that I owe my educational foundation to my Mom’s pre-school home activities, the girls next door and knowing how to find Sesame Street on the black & white TV. As time passed, the area we lived in began to deteriorate, with a gang culture starting to evolve and the quality of education in the school district beginning to decline. Fearful that I would perceive my future as a snapshot similar to this new environment, my Mom moved us in with my uncle in West Covina, CA.


Nine planets. Nine. That’s how many revolved around the sun. Just before leaving my El Monte school, our class topic had been the solar system. It was at this very moment in my life that science grabbed me and left my eyes wide open. It has still not let go. My book reports from then on were about NASA, the space race, and gas giant planets. As I became older, my interests grew to include the life sciences and the physical sciences. By the time I was in high school, I was torn between pursuing science or engineering.


“The iron curtain between East Germany and West Berlin has come tumbling down.” That was the introduction by the CNN coverage that walked us through the beginning of the end of the Cold War. California’s economy was once thought to be untouchable. With the end of the Soviet Union, contracts to Boeing, Lockheed-Martin and Northrop receded and the engineering lay-offs began. Many engineers changed the course of their careers, finding unrelated jobs or returning to school. In light of the reality of the late 80s and early 90s, my path was easily chosen. I would pursue genetic engineering and a career in biomedical research.


Steve Alas. That’s my name. I attended college at Cal Poly Pomona. It was within my self-imposed umbilical cord distance and, as a polytechnic university, it was strong in the STEM disciplines. I majored in Biological Sciences with a minor in Chemistry. As a first generation college student, I had only a notion of what college was. It was once I was immersed in it, that I found it to be more than academics. I had never known such diversity as what you could see at Cal Poly. Ethnicities, religions and political views not visible in high school were widely present on the college landscape. From a cultural and scientific stance, it was a period of immense growth for me. The opportunities that would soon come had me very excited. But, I had been carrying something with me that I had to change. All my life I had been carrying a name that I felt was not mine. Whatever it was that I was to accomplish, it would have to be with my name, my family’s name. Guided by a legal book from the public library, I proceeded to change my name with every entity connected to me.  After much work, and at the age of 19, I had it. In Spanish, the term for “wings” is alas. I had my family name, and I had my wings. Some years later, when my Mom became a U.S. Citizen, she left her married name and reverted to the family name. She had her wings back.

 Graduation for my doctorate

Mentorship is a dish best served often. That is what I found to be true when in college. I was introduced into a student support program based in the College of Science. It was called SEES (Science Educational Enhancement Services) and it was established by a Professor of Chemistry, Dr. Paul Hiemenz. As the program Director, he served as my mentor, a road map, and a father figure. His purpose was to elevate the students in the SEES program so that they could excel in any career they sought. I thought college was supposed to be sink or swim, and survival of the fittest. Dr. Hiemenz changed that world and offered another. I found myself being part of a student community, one in which we all helped each other climb. The students around me were not merely willing to help, they were eager to help. There was a programmatic pride, one which was shared by every student in SEES. If one of us made it to graduate or professional school, we all celebrated that success. Dr. Hiemenz opened more doors than we knew existed. He funneled us to summer research programs at universities across the country. As scientists, we became better. Our academic background and abilities exhibited no social gap to speak of. As graduation grew near, one by one, each of us received acceptance letters from PhD, medical, dental, veterinary, optometry and masters programs. One professor lifted the boat for all of us and watched us sail to our next destinations.  Stanford, UC San Francisco, UCLA, USC, Michigan, UC Davis and so on. It was a parade of achievements. I recall vividly when I found out my acceptance to my dream school. I had learned about it on the phone in Dr. Hiemenz’s office. I immediately called my Mom and told her the news. I expected her to shout from happiness. Instead, I heard her break down. What she strived for in her new country needed to be worth the personal cost. The day had arrived when the cost had become less than the gain. It was the moment any single mother dreams of, and it had been accomplished with our own wings.


If Cal Poly Pomona had been the nurturing environment that lifted us beyond what we first thought we could achieve, UCLA would be the training ground that took no prisoners. The 1994 entering class in the biomedical sciences was 72. Less than half of us would survive to ever see graduation. I was in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Molecular Genetics. I had earned the four-year Cota Robles Fellowship to fund my graduate schooling. My thesis work was to better understand how the body’s immune system detects and destroys cancer cells, a field known as tumor immunology. Other groups had recently done pioneering work in this area and we saw a huge jump in the cure rates for patients with blood-borne cancers. My studies investigated the molecular mechanisms to explain how the new therapies were producing these results. My relationship with my thesis professor was an unpleasant one. The infighting among the lab personnel made it a dreadful environment. The journey through graduate school took six years, saw various projects fail, created some of the worst memories I have, but led to many publications and culminated into a doctorate degree in 2000, specifically on my birthday. The name change had seen its last revision. It was Dr. Alas, son of Dina Alas.


Coming full circle and coming home. This isn’t usually a life trajectory. During my four-year postdoctoral fellowship at the City of Hope National Cancer Center, I switched my emphasis to genetics. I received a career award from the National Institutes of Health. Then, beginning in 2005, I joined the faculty at Cal Poly Pomona. The school that had launched me into the real world eleven years earlier had opened its doors to once again become my home. It was my dream job. It was my crown jewel. Dr. Hiemenz had since retired in 1999. The SEES program was in the capable hands of Dr. Barbara Burke. My college professors had become my colleagues and friends. The campus flourished with a new generation of students that resembled the generation eleven years prior. As a young faculty member, I prospered within the system. With research grants, graduating masters students, strong teaching evaluations and considerable service to the university, I had found my calling. During 2007, I was in my second year on the faculty and my Mother was in her second year of retirement. My Mom had assimilated into the U.S. workforce and into its culture. But, she never felt comfortable in this country. Forty years after disembarking a plane that brought her to the U.S., she boarded a plane that would take her back to El Salvador. It was painful for us both, but for several reasons, she felt it necessary. Coming full circle and coming home. This isn’t usually a life trajectory.

 Dr. Paul Hiemenz

Today, life is an unexpected, yet beautiful portrait. In 2013, Dr. Barbara Burke retired and I was appointed by the Dean to be the Director of the SEES program. Since that time, the program has more than doubled in size, it has new branches within it that provide additional services to students not seen before, and it has more support from the University President and Provost than at any time in its 30+ year history. The community atmosphere remains and everyone helps each other climb. Dr. Hiemenz attends all of our major events each year. I sit in his office chair as the steward of a program that will always be his. My job continues to be opening doors that our students never knew existed.


My Mother and I video chat once a week for an hour. She has become very cybernetic, which makes the world seem much smaller. I visit her once a year and we travel together to a different part of the world. She is surrounded by a huge extended family and childhood friends. She remains my most influential, valued and gifted mentor. When I look in the mirror, it is her reflection I see. My Mother was born Dina Alas. She raised me and gave me wings.  

My Mom, Dina Alas