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Even if it smells bad, this researcher loves solving mysteries

Tori Zivkovic
Leo S. Morales loves his job as a researcher of minority health at the University of Washington.

People sometimes take unlikely paths to get where they're going. This is the story of an unlikely scholar.

When asked what he does on a daily basis, Leo S. Morales answered that "it would sound very boring." But even though he says that, Morales LOVES his job. He works for the University of Washington researching minority health.

"I found that I have a talent for, and interest in, research," Morales said. "It's not that hard to create new knowledge if you have some tools." Those tools were not so easily gained – they've taken Morales a lifetime.

He was born here, but his parents were from Bolivia. Morales grew up in Seattle, only speaking Spanish. This left him isolated when he started kindergarten, and he struggled to learn English alongside his mother.

Morales didn't learn to read until fifth grade, when he spent a summer reading comic books in English. "It just took time," he said of learning another language. "It was hard but that's what I had to do, and so that's what I did."

School was more interesting after that. Then one day a friend from middle school told him he was going to go to Seattle Prep, a private school, instead of the local public high school. Morales thought that was kind of cool. But his mother couldn't afford private school. By then she was divorced and going to college herself.

Then Morales got a break: Seattle Prep accepted him on a scholarship. It was there that his curiosity took off. One project from that time that stands out? "I needed to do a report, and so I went and learned how a sewage treatment plant works. It smelled really bad," Morales laughed. "That was not the cool part."

The sewers were disgusting, but they fascinated him. He wanted to know how it all worked. He realized then that the world was full of mysteries waiting for him to solve. But it didn't last. The mystery lost its glamour during his first two years at the University of Washington.

"When you're going through the general courses, it's kind of boring," said Morales. 

He thought about dropping out but a summer working in a warehouse changed his mind. As he walked through the warehouse, climbing racks and pulling people's orders, Morales thought it seemed kind of cool. But it quickly grew tiresome. 

[asset-pullquotes[{"quote": "'I thought about whether I wanted to be in college. A summer in a warehouse taught me I want to be in college.'", "style": "left"}]]He gave college a second chance, and this time he found his path. He focused on chemistry, hoping to be a scientist. He really enjoyed the work, and that led him to healthcare. "For me it was a very natural extension to be interested in immigrant health," said Morales.

From there it was the next logical step when his research led him to the Latino health paradox. The paradox is based on data showing Latino immigrants live surprisingly long and healthy lives in the United States, despite often having low income and limited access to healthcare.

Morales' family fit right into the paradox. He was curious and wanted to learn more, but it wasn't easy. Staying funded as a researcher can be difficult.

Morales and his colleagues applied for a massive grant to study the paradox. It took them three months to write. It was immediately rejected.

"Failures are really opportunities for learning," he said. "That sounds cliché but it's really, really true."

[asset-images[{"caption": "Leo S. Morales enjoying a day of research in his office at the University of Washington.", "fid": "126785", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201606/1.jpg", "attribution": "Credit Tori Zivkovic / KUOW"}]]They rewrote the grant application, and this time it succeeded. They might not have cracked the paradox, but Morales understands that this whole process is just chipping away at a bigger problem. "I have focused on minority health," he said. "Minority communities have tended to be underserved and under-researched."

[asset-pullquotes[{"quote": "\"Failures are really opportunities for learning. That sounds cliche, but it's really really true.\"", "style": "inset"}]]Morales knows how fortunate he is to be where he is today. "This is the best, right?" he laughed. "As a curious person I wanted to do this work and I'm getting paid to do it. It's very privileged."

Now he wants to give others that same chance. He's started pipeline programs to open doors for future students.

"That's a really great thing, young people who may not have had all the opportunities coming along," Morales said. "And I can do this. This is kind of cool."

This story was created in RadioActive Youth Media's Spring 2016 Workshop for high school students at the Southwest Branch of the Seattle Public Library. Listen to RadioActive stories, subscribe to the RadioActive podcast and stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter