Mentors Who Inspire: Carlos Crespo, DrPH, Says Failing can be the Key to Success

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By Melissa Simon

Carlos Crespo, DrPH, is Vice Provost of Undergraduate Training in Biomedical Research and a professor of health science at Portland State University. A native of Puerto Rico, Crespo is also a Principal Investigator for the university’s BUILD Exito program. 


Not every path is a straight shot, so fail with gusto – just like a baseball player that swings hard and either knocks it out of the park or strikes out.

That is the key lesson Carlos Crespo, DrPH, likes to share with the students he mentors at Portland State University, where he is Vice Provost of Undergraduate Training in Biomedical Research and a professor in the School of Public Health. He is also the Principal Investigator for PSU’s BUILD EXITO program.

Oftentimes, students in underserved populations are taught that failing is not an option, but Crespo said everyone should be given the space to fail or even take a timeout.

“[Students from] minoritized communities have an extra burden of not trying something because they're afraid to fail, because if they fail, they won't be given a second opportunity [and] you also have the burden of representing your entire community,” Crespo said. “These things are in the back of your mind—they're not exactly written.”

In talking with students about this unwritten concept, Crespo said students are able to realize that they do not represent an entire group of people. Rather they are just students and do not need to feel the weight of being an ambassador.

As someone who was born and raised in Puerto Rico, Crespo understands this notion all too well.

Growing up in the small town of Utuado in the center of the island, Crespo’s first spark of interest in science happened around the age of 14 years and he saw a radio telescope in the nearby city of Arecibo.

After that, he obtained his bachelor’s degree in chemistry, but he hated the idea of working in a lab everyday for the next 20-plus years. He said he also did not like the idea of working in a hospital.

Crespo ultimately decided not to complete his master’s degree in chemistry and instead redirected his focus to exercise science after being exposed to the field as a student athlete.

When he injured himself playing soccer, a conversation with a physical therapist named Victor at the American College of Sports Medicine changed the direction of his career. Crespo left Puerto Rico to attend Texas Tech University, where he obtained a master’s degree in sports health. He went on to get his Doctor of Public Health.

“Prepare yourself so that when you get there and you swing, you give it the best effort that you have… Your best is just as good as anybody else’s best.”

-Carlos Crespo

He was also encouraged by David Nieman, DrPH, FACSM, a professor at Appalachian State University and Fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine, who helped define to him what makes a good mentor—cracking open the door of opportunities for students and having the patience to help guide them once that door is opened.

“As a mentor, you have some students that . . . are not really motivated to do what they're doing and you, as a mentor, have to take your hat off as a mentor and be a friend,” Crespo said.

“Have patience, be genuine, honest and [humble because] you learn a lot as a mentor. You also get feedback about the humanity of the students and … that comes [back to] being a scientist.”

Seeing students successfully reach their educational and career goals is the most rewarding thing, Crespo said.

There is a positive ripple effect that comes from the mentor-mentee relationship because training someone to be a biomedical researcher allows them to use their skills to help others who may not have access to healthcare. This in turn helps fill gaps where there may be disparities.

In terms of these gaps, the structure of higher education has room for improvement because “structural racism continues to exist,” Crespo said. One way to bridge the gap is to have more mentors and for underrepresented students to be supported so they do not give up in their biomedical endeavors.

Crespo has some words of wisdom and encouragement to share with students who are pursuing their dreams.

“Prepare yourself so that when you get there and you swing, you give it the best effort that you have… Your best is just as good as anybody else’s best,” he said. “You can’t be jealous or mean about it, just admire that and don’t let that define who you are. You continue to do your best.”

The Diversity Program Consortium Coordination and Evaluation Center at UCLA is supported by Office of the Director of the National Institutes of Health / National Institutes of General Medical Sciences under award number U54GM119024.
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