• A woman smiling

      Dr. Melissa Ramirez at Caltech (Photo – Scott Phelps)

      A local star who attended Jefferson Elementary, Marshall High School, U Penn and UCLA, and is now a postdoctoral scholar at Caltech, Dr. Ramirez addressed Pasadena events this Spring.

      By Scott Phelps

      Dr. Ramirez has been the favorite choice of Mayor Gordo to provide inspiring addresses at public events these past few months. She was a speaker at the mayor’s State of the City Address on February 29, where the mayor thanked her for “bringing so much light” to the evening. She was also the keynote speaker at the 51st Annual Pasadena Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast, hosted by Friends in Deed at the Pasadena Convention Center on May 2. In his introduction of her, he stressed that not only is opportunity important, but also hard work, and she was a prime example of that.

      Melissa Ramirez attended Jefferson Elementary School from pre-K to 5th grade. She lived fairly close, around Orange Grove between Hill and Lake, and then they moved close to Fair Oaks and Orange Grove. She attended Marshall High School for grades 6-12, where her strong work ethic and achievement led her to win a Gates Millenium Scholarship which she used to attend the University of Pennsylvania. She then trained at UCLA, obtaining her Ph.D. in Synthetic and Organic Chemistry in 2021. Since then she has been a Caltech Presidential Postdoctoral Scholar in Organic Chemistry. Next year, she will be establishing the Ramirez laboratory in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities and is especially excited about building a diverse and inclusive environment in her future research group.

      Parental influence

      In the public remarks she gave at both recent events, Dr. Ramirez said her parents — who were at the Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast — had taught her the importance of “moving forward every day,” and to “stay curious.” She remembered that her dad would buy the Scholastic books at the book drive every year at her school. Her dad liked watching the Discovery Channel and National Geographic shows and instilled in her the value of working hard. Her dad and mom had come to the U.S. as immigrants from Mexico, and her dad worked in food service at Burger Continental, JPL and Caltech. She was the first in her family to graduate from high school.


      In her remarks at the prayer breakfast and in an interview with her, she noted that in elementary school, she was shy and didn’t feel confident. She said that being in a Girl Scout troop in 4th and 5th grades at Jefferson gave her the courage to speak up.

      Middle school

      Melissa went to Marshall for middle school and high school. She liked not having to switch schools from middle to high school. She liked the stability of that. Many Jefferson students like her went to Marshall. In middle school she struggled with finding a sense of belonging. She felt different because she was in honors classes, but she was still pretty timid. She said that finding “a sense of belonging fits in with mental health.” Luckily, she had a very supportive family and managed to do well in her classes, but she didn’t really fit in, being timid and doing well and being a Latina. She really liked math; it was her favorite subject. She was neutral about science and didn’t think or anticipate that she was going to be a scientist.

      A woman speaking behind a podium

      Dr. Ramirez speaking at the Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast (Photo – Nadira Castel de Oro)

      Puente high school program

      At the end of her 8th grade year, what really changed things for her was when the person who would become her high school counselor, Marshall counselor Maribel Dominguez–whom she recognized in her remarks at Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast, came into her class and spoke about the Puente program, talked to the students about what college was, and encouraged them to apply for the program. Melissa hadn’t thought about college before that. She said the program “was the basis for her getting into college. Having a community along the way is what enables you to make it to college. It’s the grades as well, but the community is such a critical component. You can’t figure it out unless you have people to do it with.” (At the Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast, she spoke of making sure you are aware of who you are surrounding yourself with, because when you have similar goals, you can lean on them.) She entered into a cohort of 25-30 students who had the same English teacher for 9th and 10th grade, and who had an advisory period together for all four years.

      Summer academic and research programs

      She got into the California State Summer School for Math and Science (COSMOS), during the summer between her 10th and 11th grade years. It was held at UC Santa Cruz. It was her first time being away from home–sleepovers were not a thing for her growing up. It was here that she learned that she wanted to do chemistry. At the Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast, she had also brought her Marshall AP Chemistry teacher and NHS advisor Ms. Seungmee Seo, whom she recognized from the podium. She said Ms. Seo had encouraged her to apply for these kind of programs, was very supportive of her, wrote letters of recommendation for her and also encouraged her to check out Caltech’s summer programs, which led to her participating in Caltech’s Summer Research Connection (SRC) during the summer between her junior and senior years.

      Transition to college

      She used her lunchtime at Marshall to use the computers to search for college applications and scholarships. By the end of high school, when she was the first in her family to graduate from high school, she had been accepted by the University of Pennsylvania. Her advisor, Ms. Seo, said she thought Melissa was going to get a Gates Millenium Scholarship. She did receive it, and this was a full ride to college!  She had become an American Chemical Society Scholar during her senior year, and this program matched her with a faculty mentor in organic chemistry at the University. This sped up the process of her pursuing organic chemistry.

      Graduate school, postdoctoral research and becoming a professor

      After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania in 2016, she went to UCLA and got her Ph.D. in Synthetic and Computational Organic Chemistry in 2021. Dr. Ramirez started as a postdoc in Caltech in August of 2021, and is poised to start her professorship and research lab in January of 2025 at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.

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      1. Kamala Almanzar says:

        Thank you for sharing inspiring story. I’m still hearing parents scrambling to get into private school or moving to San Marino, etc. Every child is different of course & parents know what will work for them, but I do hope parents will not discount public schools here. There are many success stories.

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