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Making It

Top Chemist Breaks Ground Inside and Outside the Lab

March 04, 2001|SUSAN VAUGHN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Creative thinking and unyielding self-esteem enabled Eloy Rodriguez, 54, to overcome poverty and prejudice and establish himself as one of the world's top plant chemists.

The Cornell University professor and research scientist co-founded the scientific discipline of "zoopharmacognosy," or how animals medicate themselves with natural substances. Rodriguez and his research teams study these substances to determine whether they may have therapeutic value for humans. He also has advanced the study of "agromedicinals," which is how farmers can integrate medicinal plants with their cash crops.

Hoping to inspire minority students to pursue scientific careers, Rodriguez started Kids Investigating and Discovering Science, or KIDS, while he was on faculty at UC Irvine. According to UCI, his educational programs have helped double the number of Latino students majoring in the sciences at that school.

"Never let yourselves be discouraged by negative and mean-spirited people," he tells the students. "Education will get you what you want in life, but you must work at it."

Rodriguez grew up in South Texas, the son of a short-order cook and a housekeeper. Though his father completed only first grade and his mother seventh grade, they instilled in him a fierce desire to learn. Education, he was told, could help him break through barriers. From elementary school until he graduated high school, Rodriguez never missed a day of class.

"If anything, I learned from my parents self-esteem," Rodriguez said. "I was always told by my parents, 'Oh, Eloy, you are so smart.' Those incredible words of encouragement made so much difference."

His relatives introduced him to medicinal herbs that they grew on their farms and in their gardens. When he was sick, he was visited by curanderos, Mexican healers, who offered natural remedies for his ailments. Later, as a scientist, Rodriguez would more deeply explore these treatments' efficacy.

But even with his family's constant encouragement, Rodriguez faced difficult challenges as a Latino in a predominantly white education system.

"My eighth-grade teacher hit me on the head with a ruler and told me to write on the blackboard, 'I will not speak Spanish in the classroom,' " Rodriguez said. He was teased by classmates over the Mexican lunches his mother prepared.

"I felt shame," he said. "That's the ugliness of that kind of racism."

And though Rodriguez had been excelling in college preparatory classes, his high school guidance counselor suggested he attend a technical school and consider becoming an auto mechanic.

"I don't understand where she came up with that," he said. "I was in the top 3% of my class. There are some memories that you never forget, that stay in your mind, and this is one of them."

Rodriguez enrolled at the University of Texas, first at its Edinburg campus, then transferred to Austin. While there, he took a janitorial job at a university lab to help offset his tuition expenses.

"I was hired as a cleanup boy," he said. "But very quickly I noticed that some of those guys in the lab didn't want to do all that stuff, so they let me do it. I became pretty good at it too. Little did they know that this janitor was a lot smarter than they thought me to be."

One of the lab workers taught him how to extract, isolate and crystallize chemical substances. Rodriguez showed adeptness at the tasks and soon found a mentor in plant chemist Tom Mabry, who was impressed by his dedication to learning.

While earning his bachelor's degree, Rodriguez helped manage Mabry's lab and published three papers in the Journal of Organic Chemistry. By the time he was a graduate student, he'd already published 20 papers.

"I love breaking ground in new areas," Rodriguez said. "I like to share the excitement of discovery."

Rodriguez established himself as an indefatigable worker. After obtaining his doctorate in phytochemistry (plant chemistry) and plant biology, he took a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of British Columbia at Vancouver, Canada. Then he accepted a dual appointment at UCI as an assistant professor in the departments of Developmental and Cell Biology, and Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

He also took a professorship with the UCI College of Medicine's Environmental Toxicology Program. For 11 years, this heavy workload required him to put in 18-hour days and often to sleep in his lab.

But Rodriguez believed he had to prove himself to his nonminority colleagues, some of whom, he said, expected him to trip up. Working hard, publishing and maintaining high ethics were his ways of proving himself as a scientist.

During this time, Rodriguez also yearned to be a role model for minority children who came from poor homes. "I knew these kids were bright," he said. "I figured they were in the same situation as me. And knowing what I do, it's not surprising that many of these kids give up very early.

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