In celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month, Diversity Committee Co-Chair Dr. Angela Gonella sat down with University of Missouri Professor Dr. Rocio Rivera. Check out this interview with her:
What is your current position, and what does it entail?
Professor of Animal Science at the University of Missouri. I train/mentor graduate and undergraduate students, teach a graduate-level Epigenetics class, coordinate/teach a sophomore-level Companion Animals class, and participate in various Departmental, College, and University committees among other things.
Can you talk a little bit about yourself, where are you from? What first attracted you to the world of science? And how did you get to be in your current position?
I am originally from San Juan, Puerto Rico. I did my first two years of undergraduate studies in the Department of Animal Science at the University of Puerto Rico – Mayagüez Campus. Since I was interested in going to Veterinary School, and there is no Vet School in Puerto Rico, I transferred to the Department of Animal Science at Iowa State University (ISU). During my second year at ISU, I took a Reproduction course, a requirement of the major. I became fascinated with the topic, so I asked the professor (the late Dr. Steve Ford) to advise on what I could do to learn more about the topic, and he invited me to join his lab. I did two years of undergraduate research in Reproduction while completing B.S. degrees in Animal Science and Dairy Science. I also completed an M.S degree in Reproductive Physiology in Dr. Ford’s lab. I then moved to the University of Florida to work as a laboratory technician in the Reproductive Physiology laboratory of Dr. Peter Hansen in the Department of Animal Science. A couple of years later, I started pursuing a Ph.D. part-time with Dr. Hansen while continuing my full-time job as a technician in his lab. I graduated five years later and then went to the University of Pennsylvania to pursue postdoctoral training in Reproduction and Epigenetics in the laboratories of Dr. Richard Schultz and Marisa Bartolomei. Three and a half years later, I joined the Division of Animal Sciences at the University of Missouri as an Assistant Professor. I was promoted to Associate Professor with tenure in 2014 and was recently promoted to Professor.
What impact has the pandemic had on your daily activities and your research?
We were away from the lab for a couple of months in early-mid 2021. We were able to resume lab work in June of 2021 while following precautions, but it took several months to get back to speed. I enjoy having undergrads in the lab, however, in order to keep the lab a safe space for my graduate students and staff and to allow sufficient physical distance, we did not have undergrads in the lab for over a year. We resumed the practice this summer when we had 4 undergrad students in the lab. This fall I am training three, a freshman, a sophomore, and a senior. Another difficulty that this period has brought is the availability of materials for the lab. The shortage of plastic of the past year has made it a challenge to keep the lab stocked so we have had to improvise. Things are getting back to normal now, so soon we will no longer need to use ~100 cm long 200 ul tips!! I had planned to spend a few weeks in the lab of a collaborator in Belgium and to visit colleagues/friends in Murcia, Spain this fall, however, because of Covid-19, those plans have been delayed until further notice. One thing that was positive about this year for my lab is that we participated in a weekly journal club with a colleague’s lab at another university which was also attended by students from other institutions and countries. Also, geographical barriers have been broken and now it is possible to attend seminars/scientific meetings that are being held in various parts of the world. That said, I can’t wait to get back to normal one-one interactions at scientific meetings and with invited speakers – Zoom is quite cold for some of these activities.
Have you gained any valuable lessons from life during the pandemic?
Absolutely, the sudden shift to online classes made me embrace technology for teaching. I must admit that I was a little terrified of the change and it was a steep learning curve at first, but I feel quite comfortable using various technologies now. I am using some of these tools with my lab and research as well and probably would not be using them if it weren’t for the pandemic. Also, some priorities have been put to the test and the new connectivity makes us perhaps work more, even at times we have separated for R&R.
What are you most excited to do over the next year?
I have two students graduating in May, one with his Ph.D. and one with her MS. I also have a new Ph.D. student joining the lab in December and will be looking to hire a new Ph.D. student to start next summer. Also, I am very much looking forward to attending national/international scientific meetings in person, SSR in December among them.
What words of inspiration would you like to share with the future generation of scientists?
A career in academia, like many others, is full of ups and downs; however, it is VERY rewarding. Relentless curiosity, grit, focus, hunger, and a healthy level of stubbornness and fearlessness will get you to your goal of becoming a scientist.
Are there ways in which you think your heritage has affected your perspective or career trajectory?
Yes. I have been following my career goals and passion since I started as an undergraduate researcher. I adapted early on to differences in culture and learned by observing, that minding your own business and working hard can help you get to your goals. Through all my schooling and training I was surrounded by Latinx students/postdocs, so while I would miss the particulars of my culture, I felt quite comfortable wherever I was. During my training, I acquired tools to train students in science, which comes easy to me. But, when the first email came in which I was asked to talk about my LatinX experience as a woman scientist and member of the faculty, I was quite clueless on how to proceed. During the 14 years, I have been at Mizzou, I have sort of organically become a mentor to LatinX graduate and undergraduate students as well as other underrepresented minorities campus-wide. Although I never imagined that I would become a role model in something other than science, I am quite honored to now serve in this capacity whenever required.