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.
"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."
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.
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."
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."