Scientist in the Classroom: Alejandro (Alex) Cortez

By Elizabeth Hann and Alejandro Cortez |

Name: Alejandro (Alex) Cortez
Undergraduate Education: University of California, Riverside, Bachelor of Science in Biology and Psychology minor (2002)
Graduate Education: University of California, Riverside, Master of Science in Evolution, Ecology. and Organismal Biology (2009)
Hometown: Guadalajara, Mexico and Riverside, CA

Alejandro shared about his career journey, passion for outreach, and experiences with undergraduate students at UCR. 

In addition to his work with Dynamic Genome, Alejandro serves as UCR Chicano Latino Alumni Chair, the SACNAS UCR Chapter Adviser, and a BPSC DEI committee member. His impact extends outside of the UCR community through his efforts as a judge for science fairs, conferences, and scholarships. Alejandro educates middle school, high school, and community college students through workshops about genetics and molecular biology- giving them hands on experience with techniques like PCR. He credits the numerous student volunteers in the Dynamic Genome Outreach Group and the state-of-the art facilities such as the Rochelle and Allison Campbell Hall for making this possible. 

What is your favorite part of your work?

As an Academic Coordinator for the Dynamic Genome Program, my main responsibility during the academic year is to teach a research-based lab course for first year students in the life sciences (Biology 20).  My role in the summer shifts, where I supervise cohorts of about 20 research interns as they dive deeper into genomics, molecular biology benchwork, and agribusiness/biotech projects. I coordinate and run our outreach programs for the broader community, particularly K-14 students. I also help implement scientific teaching workshops for faculty and graduate students. In addition to pedagogy, this job keeps me involved in research through our collaboration with multiple faculty on campus. At times, the role is part learning facilitator and part research project manager but always student-centered.

How did you get to this role?

I feel privileged to teach at the collegiate level but admittedly had a serendipitous career pathway. Outreach has the common thread in my educational and professional experience. I went into a PhD program motivated to be a college professor but not fully grasping what it entailed. One of my first jobs as a college student was as a tutor for high school students in Upward Bound (TRiO), becoming a mentor influenced my desire to teach. Prior to that, volunteer science literacy and college-prep outreach for K-8 school students through Latinos In Science opened the door for mentoring. Outreach is what first put the Dynamic Genome (DG) Program at the Neil A. Campbell Science Learning Laboratory on my radar while I was exploring different career options (including government relations at UCLA) after a “perma-break” in my PhD program during the last economic downturn. Becoming the program’s lab manager as a Laboratory Assistant was how I got my foot in the door but volunteering to help lead outreach workshops for high school students and teachers through DG was my audition to teach. I have now been teaching for DG eight years. To be able to reach so many students on an annual basis is not something I take lightly. Many of these students remind me of my younger self, being first generation and coming from underrepresented backgrounds.

What got you interested in DEI work?

I have a unique vantage point seeing new generations of scientists progress through their own academic journeys. To do so at a place where I launched my own journey makes it that more gratifying. Witnessing a student’s growth is the most satisfying aspect of my job. This is evident in the undergraduate students that come through our doors, many of whom return as volunteers at our outreach workshops to share their enthusiasm for science, experience, and desire to help more junior students. It is equally rewarding to see high school students that participate in our workshops see themselves as scientists when they get their first PCR to work. To me, the teaching and outreach are in the same vein of science communication. As a scientist, I believe science is as much about discovery as it is a responsibility to disseminate information.  Equitable access to this knowledge is essential. Making science accessible in the broadest sense is what has driven me to be more intentional about my DEI efforts. I jumped at the opportunity to join the committee in the hopes of becoming a better instructor and a better advocate for my students.



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