Rebeca Rodriguez brings passion and commitment to research, outreach, and advocacy
There are myriad lenses and perspectives that Rebeca “Becky” Rodriguez brings to being an outstanding graduate student, researcher, outreach volunteer, and advocate. Forging her commitment to science and making a difference in all that she does, are Becky’s experiences as a first-generation college student, female scientist, daughter of immigrants, person of color, social justice advocate, and so much more.
Becky is originally from Charlotte, NC, and obtained her bachelor’s degree from American University in Washington, D.C. Her parents came to the United States from Mexico in the 1980s to work. Her father completed sixth grade, and her mother finished middle school. Her mother has her own cleaning business and her father works maintenance at a church/private school. They work hard to put their three daughters through college, and now graduate school.
“My parents mean the world to me. They are my biggest inspiration,” said Becky. “They made a lot of sacrifices to help me achieve my dreams. My mom was willing to sell her house if it meant I would be able to afford college. I have a whole community rooting for me back home hoping that I succeed, so I definitely feel a little pressure to do well.”
As a first-generation college student, Becky has had to overcome a number of obstacles on her path. She worked extra shifts at her school’s library so she could afford to live and pay for graduate school applications, Graduate Record Exams (GRE), score sending, relocation costs, etc.
She had so much to learn: “I didn't know science doctorate programs had free tuition. I didn't know that the GRE offers 50 percent fee waivers for its exams based on low parent income. And I for sure did not know that Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) summer programs are recruiting people like me to do research. I didn't know what a REU program was,” said Becky.
Becky believes there is much work to be done to encourage, support, and retain first-generation and people of color in college and graduate school. She hopes to let others know of resources that exist specifically to help them succeed and thrive.
In addition to her research and studies, Becky is an involved graduate student and social justice advocate. She is the Women in Science & Engineering representative on the Department of Chemistry’s Diversity & Inclusion Committee. She also is a graduate student mentor through the Society of Women Engineers, public relations officer for the American Chemical Society Division of Polymer Chemistry (POLY) and the Division of Polymeric Materials: Science and Engineering (PMSE) University of Minnesota chapter, the Department of Chemistry’s representative to the Council of Graduate Students, and a member of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers.
Becky is passionate about outreach and has been involved in doing science demonstrations for middle school and high schools girls, with young people at the West 7th Community Center in Saint Paul, and a local Boy Scout troop. Recently, Becky and graduate student Natalie Hudson-Smith created shrinky dinks in English, Spanish, and Somali for young people to color and make necklaces and bracelets.
“My heart melted when a young boy picked up a Somali one and said he was going to make it for his mom,” said Becky.
Professor Christy Haynes, Becky’s doctoral adviser, said: “Becky is amazing during outreach events. She knows how to get the attention of groups of kids and explains chemistry so that it’s exciting and relevant to them. Her passion for chemistry and inclusivity is palpable.”
For Becky, science should be accessible to all people, and she wants to help ensure that happens. In 2017, she was actively involved in the first March for Science held in Washington, D.C. She was interviewed and followed around during the march by a Chemical & Engineering News reporter, and a video was published on the American Chemical Society’s Reactions YouTube page. One side of Becky’s poster showed various scientific accomplishments done by immigrants.
“I marched because it was my way to speak out, to protect my rights as a scientist, and for those who couldn't: undocumented scientists, scientists who are refugees, scientists who would not be able to return home after the travel ban was implemented, and scientists who wanted to march, but who feared the repercussions that could follow if they were arrested,” said Becky.
Becky is outspoken and has used her willingness to speak up and confront issues to create a social media platform on Twitter. Her blog is another platform where she writes about day-to-day life as a graduate student. “I had a tweet go viral and received a couple of death threats, but that has never deterred me from speaking my mind and standing up for what I believe in,” she said.
The further along Becky gets in her career, the more she realizes that there aren't a lot of people like her in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields—first-generation college students, children of immigrants, women, people of color, etc.—because of the lack of resources, support, and advocacy.
“That’s why I like to volunteer, working with kids of non-traditional backgrounds and girls of different ages,” said Becky. “I didn't have access to things like that when I was younger. That is why I speak so frankly and openly about the difficulties women of color face in the workplace, in STEM, in graduate school. I want to work toward changing that. I want to encourage and retain people like me.
“Some days, I still feel as though I don’t belong,” said Becky. “But, I know that if one girl is inspired in science and pushes through the obstacles to get here, then I will have accomplished more than I would’ve imagined possible as a female, first-generation scientist.”
Professor Haynes said, “This positive attitude, in circumstances where it would be easy to become cynical or discouraged, are what makes Becky’s voice so important and impactful.”
Detecting and capturing dangerous toxins
Working under the tutelage of Professor Christy Haynes, third-year graduate student Rebeca “Becky” Rodriguez is focusing her research interests on detecting and capturing dangerous toxins.
Her current research involves detecting small molecule toxins that contaminate food with polymer affinity agents. Becky uses a technique called surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy (SERS) to monitor vibrational changes after toxin and polymer bind. She is working with mycotoxins, toxins produced from fungus that contaminate crops such as corn, grain, and nuts. She has spent the last two years detecting Aflatoxin B1, the most potent, naturally made carcinogen known to man.
She is working to detect two different mycotoxins (ochratoxin A and deoxynivalenol) with the same polymer affinity agent that she successfully used to detect aflatoxin B1. Ochratoxin A (OTA) is a toxin that contaminates grain and pork products as well as wine and beer. OTA is carcinogenic and can cause neurological damage to humans. Deoxynivalenol (DON), or vomitoxin, contaminates wheat, grain, and corn. It is not carcinogenic, but can cause severe dehydration and death due to vomiting. The hope is to be able to detect these toxins in food matrices that they are commonly found in. Because the polymer affinity agent is less specific, it can potentially bind to all of these toxins due to their similar structures.
“Becky brings her naturally inquisitive nature, broad interests, and willingness to speak out to each seminar and group meeting,” said Professor Haynes, “where she asks deep scientific questions even when a topic is far from her research focus area.”
After Becky obtains her doctorate she hopes to work for the government or a government contractor detecting chemical and biological warfare agents and, perhaps, some day working on chemical and biological warfare policy, or earning another master's degree in global security.