• by Eloy Rodriguez, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • June – July 1996 • 

Eloy Rodriguez, Ph.D., the James A. Perkins Professor of Environmental Studies at Cornell University and a native of Edinburg, Texas, is the first U.S. – born Latino to hold an endowed position in the sciences. In his decades-long quest for organic cures for human diseases, he has developed a new, controversial, discipline that studies how animals use plants as medicine. Since the 1970’s, he has traveled to deserts, jungles and rain forests around the world to gather plants to bring back to his lab to analyze because he believes that plants are a virtually untapped source of natural drugs to treat human diseases. (He also served as a technical consultant for the movie, The Medicine Man.) Rodriguez has pioneered programs to excite Latino and other minority children about science. Below are some of his comments about education and his experience.

“You know, I used to pick cotton as a kid. Cotton, strawberries, cherries. And I hated it – I hated it! I swore I’d never do it again. It’s why you got an education. And look at me now. I’ve got a Ph.D. and I’m still collecting plants for a living.”

-on being one of the world’s leading plant chemists

“When I’m tramping about in the bush, I don’t pretend that I’ll discover the cure for AIDS, that’s not the reason I’m passionate about being there. I just continue to be amazed by nature and am driven by an intellectual hunger to better understand it.”

-on his interest in biological chemistry

“We were so poor that crime really didn’t pay. It really didn’t. I mean, who do you steal from in a neighborhood like ours?”

-on growing up in a small frame house on stilts in Edinurg, Texas

“But they (his family) all knew that education was really important. Education would be the way out. And all of us, the kids, we could see that.”

-on his family’s appreciation of education despite the fact that his migrant-farmer father was in school through the first grade and his mother was in school through the seventh grade

“I know how it feels to be marginalized. It starts in the first grade, when you aren’t called upon. It stars early in the game…They (teachers) hit me on my hands and made me write on the blackboard ‘I will not speak Spanish.’ They had this idea that your brain didn’t have the capacity to handle two languages.”

-on racial bias and the lack of appreciation in Texas public schools for his home language

“I told her, ‘But I don’t even know where the engine is in a car.’ And I really didn’t. I couldn’t have cared less about that stuff.”

-on his high school counselor’s recommendation that he apply to a technical college for mechanics even though he was in the colleg-prep program in high school

“I’d never really thought about being a scientist. It wasn’t something many Hispanics seemed to do. I always say I saw my first snowflake before I saw my first Hispanic scientist.”

-on being introduced to biological sciences by mentors in college

“All along, I was very aware that I was the first this, the first that, and I knew, I knew these guys were waiting for me to slip up…I was going 18 hours a day, living in the lab, so there was no way I could have gotten married – that would have been disastrous.

-on being the first U.S.-born Latino to teach biological science at his university and his efforts to win tenure

“Most of the kids have never met a scientist. They know nothing about what they do, or why you would want to be one…There is a critical mass of really good kids out there. Now is the time to bring them in (to the sciences).”

-on deciding, after the birth of his children, to encourage Latino and other minority youths in science

“The topic of how animals use plants, and of herbal medicines in general, allows me to connect to the public. That’s very important to me. There isn’t anything scientists are doing at research universities that they shouldn’t be able to communicate to the average person on the street. There’s no excuse; I don’t care how brilliant they are. If they cannot communicate what they’re doing, we’ve got a major problem. After all, the public invests in scientific research and education through their taxes. The least we can do is explain to them the importance of their investment.”

– on travels to lecture two to three times each week about conservation and biomedicine of the rain forest and on his fluency in both English and Spanish, which means he can talk directly to half a billion people in the Americas

Remarks excerpted from “The Really Secret Life of Plants” by Virginia Morell in The New York Times Magazine (December 18, 1994), “Organic Cures and ‘Marginalized’ Kids” by Julie L. Nicklin in The Chronicle of Higher Education (July 7, 1995), and “Cure’s Medicines” by Metta Winter in Cornell Focus (Volume 5, Number 1, 1996) with permission from Dr. Eloy Rodriguez.

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[©1996, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the June – July 1996 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]