Ram Legacy: Patty and Peggy Contreras

Patty and Peggy Contreras look happy posing for a photo while outside on nice summer day.

Peggy and Patty Contreras always wanted to go to college, and those around them knew they were bright enough to go, but no one ever said how.

Growing up in Golden, Colorado, and later Denver during the 1960s and early 1970s, the identical twin sisters of mixed Latino/Asian descent, raised by a single mother working as a secretary, were acquainted with both poverty and discrimination making college seem unattainable.

“In high school, Peggy and I were planning to become secretaries,” said Patty. “I used to look at the other students and think, ‘How nice for them, they are all getting ready for college. It must be nice to know that you have a career, a life, ahead. All I see is this dark little tunnel.’”

A critical conversation with their high school guidance counselor changed things.

“We explained that we did not have enough money to afford the filing fees,” said Peggy. “So, he told us to apply to only one school and see what financial aid we could get.”

That school was Colorado State University. And Patty and Peggy went on to become the first in their family to graduate from college. Each received a Bachelor of Science in biological sciences from CSU in 1978 and went on to graduate school and employment in the field of pharmacology. Now, as they look back on their careers, they are giving back to CSU in the form of scholarships to create opportunities for students who are just like them.

Finding their paths at CSU

Patty remembers the exact moment that Peggy called her to tell her that they were going to college. She was working as a secretary when she got the call.

“Peggy called me when she found out and said, ‘We got the packet from CSU’ and through grants, scholarships, and loans we were going to be able to go to school and have more living money than we would have had working,” said Patty. “I still remember that feeling of the first time I realized that I get to go to college – it is an amazing feeling.”

The sisters began their studies in mathematics but soon realized that their passions lie elsewhere. They found their home in biology, where they were able to design their own program which included additional courses in chemistry – an interest area for them.

The CSU difference

“We had really good professors,” said Patty. “Professor (George) Splittgerber was our favorite. Before CSU, I hated chemistry…”

“… So we thought we would get it out of the way right away and never have to do it again.” said Peggy, picking up the story from her twin. “And, because of Professor Splittgerber, we ended up loving chemistry.”

Throughout their academic pursuits, Peggy and Patty went on to attend several universities. However, the education they received at CSU was unique.

“When I would talk to students at the University of Pennsylvania, they were surprised to hear that I was able to take a class in analytical chemistry as an undergraduate. At the University of Pennsylvania, you had to be a graduate student to take that,” said Peggy. “I told them that I had a better education at CSU than at an Ivy League.”

One of the sisters’ favorite stories to tell is how Peggy solved an unsolvable math problem – with knowledge that she gained at CSU.

“When I was taking my grad student class in pharmacology, there was this complicated math problem and I was the only one who got it right,” said Peggy. “In later years, the professor continued to use that problem, and no one got it. At one point someone told me, ‘You are the only person who has ever gotten that question correct.’ All it was is that Professor Splittgerber told us to not panic, keep track of the units, follow it through, and you will get it done.”

Patty’s pride for her sister showed on her face as she adds: “So yeah, at an Ivy League school, Peggy, coming from CSU, is the only person who ever figured it out.”

The experiential learning opportunities they had at CSU not only taught them important scientific concepts but gave them the skillsets to discover new knowledge on their own.

Careers in pharmacology

After leaving CSU, Peggy went to the University of Colorado, and Patty went to the University of Minnesota for graduate school. They both received their Ph.D.s and had postdoctoral positions at the National Institutes for Health.

Peggy became a tenured associate professor at Michigan State University in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology before moving out of the academic world and into corporate pharmacology. She worked her way up at several companies and retired from Novartis, where she served as the Associate Director of Competitive Intelligence.

Patty went directly to industry after her postdoctoral position. She worked in preclinical pharmacology for a few different companies and became the Director of Pharmacology at Cephalon and then later at Idun. She retired from Conatus where she worked for 15 years as the Vice President for Preclinical Development.

The sisters now run their own pharmaceutical consulting company aptly named “P-squared.”

Leveling the playing field

Patty and Peggy are now focused on giving back. They know that their path to college was harder than their fellow high school students, and they want to do what they can to make that path more equitable.

“People always say, ‘It is an even playing field, and you are in charge of your own future,’” said Patty. “It is not an even playing field.”

Peggy added, “Either you don’t have the money, or you don’t have the role models to help you navigate the system or encourage you to go to college.”

Patty finished by saying, “We are trying to do our part to make it more equitable.”