In science, failure can be an important part of learning. The same can be said of Rolando Perez.

Above: Rolando Perez. Photo: Carolyn Lagattuta.Now a 34-year-old Ph.D. candidate at Stanford University in one of science’s most cutting-edge fields, Perez grew up a rebellious and confused kid in a low-income household in Salinas, Calif.

He had so many brushes with the law for fighting and drinking that when he walked in his high school graduation ceremony, he was wearing a court-ordered ankle monitor.

He joined the Air Force and became a jet mechanic but was arrested for drunken driving and underage drinking and discharged from the military. He worked his way up to an office manager job in L.A., but his drinking again caused him to spiral out of control and become homeless. A stint at a college in Gilroy to earn his certificate to be a civilian jet mechanic ended after less than a year.

“The old life ended up sucking me up again,” Perez says.

One day, right after he’d gotten a second DUI and learned of a friend’s murder, an acquaintance pointed a gun at Perez and pulled the trigger.

The gun jammed and, in that instant, Perez says, he knew something had to change.

Perez moved in with his grandparents, enrolled in Hartnell College, sought counseling, stopped drinking, and became fascinated with synthetic biology, a science that combines genetics, engineering, computer science, and cellular biology to reshape the building blocks of life. It has the potential to change medicine, the food industry, even the clothes we wear.

Today, Perez is working with Stanford Associate Professor of Bioengineering Drew Endy, one of synthetic biology’s most important figures, and hopes to not only be part of this scientific revolution but also to make sure its potential for wealth generation is just, equitable, and open to those besides privileged white males.

His family and his innate intelligence were large parts of his success, but so, too, was UC Santa Cruz Professor of Biomolecular Engineering Nader Pourmand.

“He empowered me to be successful. He gave me the opportunity to fail without fear of judgment,” Perez says.

It was something he’d never been given before.

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