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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.
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.
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."
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."