Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Biologist on A Mission: Rodriguez Wants to Make Cornell Mecca for Minority Scientists

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Biologist on A Mission: Rodriguez Wants to Make Cornell Mecca for Minority Scientists

Article excerpt

Biologist On A Mission: Rodriguez Wants to Make Cornell Mecca for. Minority Scientists

by Roberto Rodriguez

When Eloy Rodriguez, a James Perkins professor of environmental biology, arrived at Cornell University this fall, he became the first U.S.-born Latino to hold an endowed chair in the sciences.

In this move, Cornell was the winner; the University of California at Irvine, the loser. Actually, the Rodriguez family was the big winner. Rodriguez not only received an endowed chair but as part of the move, his wife, author Helena Maria Viramontes, also received a teaching position in the English department.

One of the benefits of being at Cornell is that Rodriguez now has more money for research, more support and can work with the top scientists in the world.

To characterize Rodriguez as a rising star or even a superstar is to undervalue the native of Hidalgo County, Texas, a region which is one of the poorest in the country. He is one of the few scientists anywhere in the world to have created an entirely new discipline: zoopharm-acognosy -- the study of self-medication by animals. He developed this discipline while doing work on his larger research interest: why medicinal herbs work.

In addition to his innovative research, he is well known for creating and developing model K-12 programs at UC Irvine to increase the number of minority scientists. Despite his departure, the programs he helped develop remain in good hands, he says.

To understand his drive and determination is to understand his origins. Even though his father dropped out of the first grade and his mother in the seventh, he is part of an extended family in which 64 out of 67 cousins received undergraduate degrees. Many of them also have advanced degrees, including 10 Ph.D.s.

If Rodriguez had listened to one of his counselors, who advised him not to go to a four-year college, his life, as well as the lives of many others, might be very different today. Instead, he is at the forefront of his profession, doing pioneering research which has taken him to all points of the globe.

Despite his personal rise and success, Rodriguez has always been concerned with creating a new crop of scientists. He is also a dreamer -- interested in developing medical and research facilities throughout the nation which are bilingual and culturally sensitive to the needs of barrio residents.

When he was hired at UC Irvine, it was at a time when colleges and universities throughout the country hired minority scientists en masse. "It was a time of anger and uprising. For those of us who chose not to fight in Vietnam, becoming a research scientist was a haven. It was a golden moment. But since then, we haven't seen [similar hiring] since," he says. Part of the reason a lot of minority scientists aren't being hired, he says, is "because we're training fewer now than 15 to 20 years ago."

Once at Irvine, he saw the dearth of college students in the sciences. "And the retention rate for them was horrendous. It was 20 percent. All of them wanted to become medical doctors, yet most of them had no idea what problems existed in the community."

Before he could initiate any kind of recruitment or retention programs, he decided to "try and become the best scientist in my field [biology]." After having done extensive research in Mexico and South America, he felt he had established sufficient credibility as a scientist. Hence, he and a colleague at UC Irvine, Luis Villareal, began to address the problem of too few minority scientists.

"Even good high school students had to be retrained. They had to develop critical thinking and writing skills," he says.

The first program the pair created was K.I.D.S. (Kids Investigating and Discovering Science) for elementary-school students. All kids are curious, says Rodriguez.

The program involved bringing elementary school students who were not doing well in school to UC Irvine, fitting them with white laboratory coats and having them work in a lab for hands-on experience. …

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