Chemistry major, Science and Humanities Scholar, UNCF-Merck Undergraduate Fellow
By: Sally Ann Flecker, Carnegie Mellon Today, January 2011, Vol. 8 No. 1
Xochina El Hilali is ridiculous. I mean that in a good way. In fact, I'm stealing a page from her playbook. I've heard her use the word "ridiculous" to describe a favorite piece of music, a scientist she heard speak, and the amount of money she was awarded when selected as a United Negro College Fund/Merck Undergraduate Science Research Scholar.
Like many ridiculously smart and talented people, El Hilali stands on the shoulders of giants-starting with her maternal grandfather, Cambell Gonzalez, who recently died at the age of 92. El Hilali's family doesn't just remember him fondly. He remains an iconic figure. And for good reason. He was the first in everything, says El Hilali's mother, Anita Gonzalez. He bought a house for his mother when he was 16 with the money that he made by shining shoes, she says, starting to tick off a list. He was one of the first black commissioned officers in the World War II army; he was the first black engineer for RCA; he was a financial planner. He influenced everyone in the family to strive for excellence.
"He's the kind of person," says his granddaughter, "that if you'd get a 97 on a test, and you'd say, 'Grandpa, Grandpa, I'm so excited. I got an A.' He'd ask, 'Well, what about the other three points?' Then, you'd come back with a 99, and you'd say, 'Look. I got more points than last time.' He'd ask, 'Well, what about that one point?' So that's been an influence in all of our lives. We couldn't just excel. We had to be the best."
For El Hilali, her grandfather was the person she could always talk to about science. She remembers when she was only 12 years old having a not-very-typical preteen discussion with him. The topic was acceleration. MORE