From a threatened tree to environmental leadership

Waleska Rivera Rios, Teacher

Photograph of Waleska Rivera Rios
Waleska Rivera Rios shares her love for science with students at Ysleta High School in El Paso, Texas. She is an alumna of UCAR's SOARS program. (Photo courtesy Waleska Rivera Rios.)

 

One tree: that's what made Waleska Rivera Rios a scientist. No, make that one tree plus one school bus driver.

At the age of 11, Rivera Rios was riding the school bus one day in her then-hometown of Carolina, Puerto Rico, when the bus driver took a detour past her own home. The driver casually pointed at a neighbor's tree and told the children that she was tired of sweeping its leaves out of her own front yard, so she was trying to kill it by pouring bleach on its roots. "At that moment, she became a witch to me," Rivera Rios recalls.

That was when she realized that she wanted to work to help save the environment. "I have always kept that moment in my heart."

The bleach-happy bus driver may have steered her toward environmental science, but Rivera Rios had other reasons to incline toward some kind of scientific career. Her mother is a nutritionist, and Rivera Rios enjoyed learning about biochemistry from her. Her father worked for Fisher Scientific and has always been interested in science. She grew up reading Popular Mechanics. Because of her science aptitude, her parents encouraged her to apply to University Gardens High School in San Juan, Puerto Rico, a prestigious public school with a science and math focus. She passed the entrance test with flying colors and was admitted in 1994, graduating in 1997.

‘[SOARS] taught me to do research by myself and not be intimidated by those big words in journals.’

 

Award-winning school days

Despite her aptitude for science, during high school, Rivera Rios's plan for saving the environment was to become an environmental lawyer. But when she learned that she would need a bachelor's degree to get into law school, the obvious choice of major was environmental science. "I didn't know much about it; I thought it was solely about protecting the environment."

Rivera Rios was accepted at the University of Puerto Rico, but her parents learned that a private school, Universidad Metropolitana (a UCAR academic affiliate), offered a full scholarship. She took computer science and math classes at UMET in the summer before her freshman year. "I really liked being at school there. I had the chance to take courses that were going to count toward my degree, and I didn't have to pay." Her undergrad years were funded by a grant from NSF's Model Institutions for Excellence program. But she's also proud of winning another honor: first prize in a poetry contest at UMET. Some of her poems are inspired by her love of science and nature. Another prestigious award, the Gates Millennium Scholarship, made it possible for her to enter graduate school at the University of Texas at El Paso.

‘Education ties up with the commitment I feel to nature and the fact that I studied environmental sciences.’
 

While at UMET, Rivera Rios applied for and was accepted into UCAR's SOARS program (Significant Opportunities in Atmospheric Research and Science). Although she eventually made the decision to leave research for teaching, Rivera-Rios still looks back on her SOARS experience as "one of the most influential things to happen in my life. I am deeply, deeply grateful to SOARS. It taught me to do research by myself and not be intimidated by those big words in journals, it taught me to work in a group and ask questions when I need to, to communicate. I learned to write in English. We produced wonderful things."

A natural choice

When she eventually decided to become a teacher, El Paso was the natural choice of locale. "Ever since I left El Paso, I wanted to come back. When I was working on my master's, I fell in love with the desert. I have friends here, and I identify with the Hispanic community. The personal relationships with my students are very important to me, and I work in a school where the majority of students are Hispanic."

She now sees her career in teaching as the natural outcome of her life journey. "Education ties up with the commitment I feel to nature and the fact that I studied environmental sciences. Ever since I was doing the B.S. degree, I felt that educating people was the best way to enrich awareness toward the damage we do to the environment."

About Teaching

By the time she entered graduate school, Waleska Rivera Rios had beaten the odds.

A Puertorriqueña from a family with few financial resources, she began winning awards and scholarships in middle school. Her outstanding academic work eventually earned her a place in a high school with a math-science focus, and on graduating she received a full scholarship at Puerto Rico's Universidad Metropolitana. After finishing her B.S. degree in 2001 she went on to complete a master's degree at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) in 2004. In 2005, she was on her way to earning a doctorate in environmental science from the Universidad del Turabo in Puerto Rico, funded by the prestigious Gates Millennium Scholarship.

So when she left the research world to teach science at a poverty-stricken high school in El Paso, Texas, the decision was not made lightly.

A taste of teaching

"I had the opportunity to teach for over a year at the college level as part of the master's program at UTEP and independently while I was doing my Ph.D. work," Rivera Rios explains. "I loved the interaction with the students, I loved how I felt teaching, and when I did it well, I loved the rewarding sensation of hearing someone say, 'I was inspired by something that you taught us.'

"At the same time, I was not liking the Ph.D. work in environmental science. I was having trouble finding some interesting research that I could be engaged with, and I felt within myself that I wanted to do something different." She left school and took a job as an environmental consultant, a career goal since undergraduate days, but soon was ready to move on. "I realized that I really wanted to be teaching."

Besides the fulfillment it gives her, teaching enables Rivera Rios to pass on her deep-rooted commitment to improving Earth's environment—the commitment that led her toward a science career in the first place. "I think that many people make bad decisions about the environment out of ignorance. Educating people is the best way to create a culture of awareness toward the damage we make to the environment. I also think that fresh minds, such as young students, are often more flexible and receptive than older ones, and that it's good to start early with them."

Daunting challenge, wonderful feeling

In 1998, while Rivera Rios was an undergraduate, she met Thomas Windham, at that time the director of UCAR's SOARS program (Signficant Opportunities in Atmospheric Science and Research). He encouraged her to apply. Although her degree work in environmental science focused on chemistry, not weather, "I was always interested in hurricanes, and I was interested in helping the people of Puerto Rico [which is often struck by hurricanes], if I could." She was accepted at SOARS, where she worked with NCAR's William Randel on analyzing the thermal variability of the tropical tropopause.

Two graphs in black and white
As a SOARS protege, Rivera Rios worked with NCAR scientist William Randel on a rich set of data showing variations in temperature high above the tropics in the layer of the atmosphere between the troposphere and stratosphere known as the tropopause. An overview of their published findings is available on Randel's website. (Illustration courtesy Willliam Randel, NCAR.)

She found the work daunting at first: "When you receive some data from a huge database, you have to be brave to dip into it." Randel, who has mentored a number of SOARS protégés, explains, "The first summer, it usually takes a while for protégés to get their feet on the ground and learn how to use the computers. The project Waleska and I did was learning how to use new GPS data, so we had to play with the computer on these data files. It took a fair amount of spinup for her to get comfortable." During the following academic year, Rivera Rios continued to work on the data. Randel says, "We got a nice project done and published a paper together. She got a good feeling for what it's like to be a professional scientist."

Looking back on that project, Rivera Rios admits, "To be honest, even to this day I don't understand it completely, because it was so complicated. I didn't have much math, but when they told me what I needed to produce, I tried. I did deliver to the expectations they had, and that is a wonderful feeling."

You can take the woman out of the lab, but you can't take the lab . . .

At Ysleta High School in El Paso, Rivera Rios is both teacher and role model to her students. "I work in a school where the majority of students are Hispanic, and it's a low-income school. [The young people] think they cannot get far. I am able to tell them: I did it, and perhaps under even harsher circumstances than you.

"When I see someone who has scientific tendencies I tell them, You have the face of a scientist. They don't think of themselves that way."

Rivera Rios takes promising students to visit the lab of a UTEP professor she's stayed in touch with since her work there. Besides a tour, they do some hands-on science. "I know that's going to impress them."

It may have been something of a baptism by fire, but her research experience formed Rivera Rios, as a person and as a professional. "The rigor of the process of science influences everything I do. It made me realize that if you work hard for something you can reap some fruit for that. I learned to do research by myself and not be intimidated by those big words in journals. It taught me to work in a group and ask questions when I need to. One of the most wonderful things," she adds, was improving her written English. "That raised my own standards."

She brings all those experiences with her into the classroom daily. "Having done research is what permits me to be a science teacher."

August 2007

One-minute mentor

What advice would you offer to someone interested in a career like your own?

Articulate your dreams

Determination is the key to success, says Waleska Rivera Rios. "As long as you make up your mind to do something, from the depth of your heart, you will reach that goal. You will do it. I make my students write about their dreams, what they want and where they want it, because once I did that myself, every single thing I wrote came true."

Rivera Rios has an extra word of advice for Latinos and Latinas who might follow in her footsteps: "Whoever speaks more than one language opens many doors." She grew up speaking only Spanish, but she began teaching herself English by watching mainland TV and talking to herself in a mirror. By the time she was in college, "I didn't feel scared by the language, and I could take up opportunities like SOARS."

Waleska Rivera Rios, Teacher

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