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  • Writer's pictureCarolina Gonzalez-Berrios

Meet Dr. Rocío M. Rivera, Animal Science Associate Professor

Grit and passion define Rocío’s non-traditional journey through science that led her to research in the fields of animal reproduction and epigenetics. 

Rocío Melissa Rivera is an associate professor in the Division of Animal Science at the University of Missouri in Columbia, Missouri. Her laboratory studies the effect of assisted reproduction on the epigenome, embryos and malformations (large offspring syndrome; an overgrowth condition) in cattle. By studying these models, they are able to elucidate why these malformations take place in cattle and human (i.e. Beckwith-Wiedemann syndrome).

“This is of interest to the laboratory because many cows are produced using assisted reproduction and was thought for many years to be a syndrome that had been eliminated. In order to really understand this particular syndrome, it has required the understanding of both reproduction and epigenetics.”

Dr. Rocio Rivera's laboratory working together.

And the journey begins…

Having been born and raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico, she did not know what a career in academia meant. She remembers going to school and only hearing about professions like police officer, firefighter, lawyer, doctor or veterinarian. This is very common in Puerto Rican culture where there seems to be a lack of promotion for other types of careers. Naturally, her love for animals progressed by enrolling in the Animal Science major (Pre-Vet minor) for two years at the University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez-Campus in Mayagüez, Puerto Rico. She then transferred to Iowa State University to finish her undergraduate degree because there are no veterinary schools in Puerto Rico. It wasn’t until her junior year, in an Animal Science required course, namely reproduction, that she became fascinated on the topic of animal reproduction and decided to join a research group. Rocío then realized that she wanted to pursue graduate school and stayed an extra year to prepare for graduate school. For her master’s degree, she remained at Iowa State in the same laboratory where she did her undergraduate research. Towards the end of the M.S. some issues arose in the program that made her realize that a career in science was not for her.

“After completion of my Masters, I started to work part time at a grocery store (6 am to 1pm) and at a fast-food restaurant (2 to 10 pm) in Ames, Iowa. At that point, I did not want anything to do with science and this was all I wanted to do with my life. It made me very happy.”

Life had other plans. 

A few months later, Rocío received an email from a professor that she had collaborated with during her master’s degree. The email was an invitation for her to apply to a job to be a technician in Dr. Peter Hansen’s laboratory at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Florida. Rocío had no desire to work in a lab environment because of the negative experience she had. She applied to the position, only out of respect to this professor. Afterwards, she got a reply from Dr. Hansen to interview for the position. 

“I was clear that I did not want or care about the position but I believe that you should never burn a bridge. Everything that Dr. Hansen asked, I answered as plainly as I possibly could. At the end of the interview, he hired me and I accepted. I figured if things didn’t go as expected I could quit and find a job on stocking groceries or at a fast-food restaurant in Gainesville.”

In three weeks, Rocío packed and left Iowa to work with Dr. Hansen for a total of seven and half years. She mentions that Dr. Hansen was, and still is, an incredible mentor who made her fall in love again with science. In fact, early in her employment, she started taking animal science classes because she had always loved to learn new things. Many people had attempted to convince her to get a PhD, but she did not want to live with the stress that resulted from seeking for grants, publishing manuscripts, and balancing work and life.

“After having taken a year and a half of classes, a student from Venezuela who was in a lactation class that I was attending said to me ‘Rocio, in five years you can have a lot of classes or you can have a PhD’. Which to I responded ‘Good point’ and decided to talk to Dr. Hansen on a PhD position to which he responded ‘I have been waiting for you to say that’.”

And the rest is history…

As a PhD student, she kept her full-time technician position. This meant that she seldom made it to some classes because she did not have time, but she was able to maintain her GPA. Towards the end of her PhD, Dr. Hansen and her were “butting heads” which she came to know as normal. Students that have matured in their knowledge and questions things more are sometimes in intellectual disagreement with their mentors, this usually means that they are ready to leave and start their own laboratory.

Dr. Rocio Rivera and a calf with large offspring syndrome.

 “By then, science had become a passion again and it's funny to think back to that a bad experience in my Master’s program almost destroyed me. However, a good mentor was able to “repair” me. In retrospect, I am glad that all of that happened because it made me who I am today but at the time it was not pleasant and was very painful.”

For her postdoctoral degree, Rocío wanted to explore research areas that could further her career. She joined an embryo laboratory in genomic imprinting at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Her mentors were Dr. Richard Schultz whose expertise is in oocyte and embryology, and Dr. Marisa Bartolomei who is one of the pioneers in genomic imprinting in mouse models. She confessed that before her post-doc she had never performed a Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR; a technique that makes millions of copies from a DNA template). One of the reasons she is romantic about the idea of academia is due to an undergraduate student training her on how to do PCR.

When the going gets tough, the tough get going. 

Following her postdoctoral position, at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, she joined the University of Missouri. She was the first woman to be hired with a primary research appointment in the Division of Animal Sciences. She found herself feeling isolated and facing challenges before she acquired tenure. The promotion and tenure process did not start well and she had to present her case to defend why she was worthy of becoming a tenured faculty member. The process progressed through the university and she was awarded promotion to associate professor with tenure in July of 2014. In retrospect, she thinks that her departmental colleagues did not understand her research field and its expectations and is the reason for the initial negative votes.  

Find your passion.

Currently, as an associate professor, she considers herself an incredibly demanding mentor and passionate teacher. She has very high expectations of her graduate students because it will prepare them for the next steps in their careers. 

Dr. Rocío M. Rivera's current laboratory integrants. From left to right: Zhoulin Wu, Alondra Figueroa, Bhaumik Patel, Roshealy Brau, Rocio Rivera, Edgar Soto, Yahan Li, Amanda Moreno and Kris Kim.

“I tell my students ‘If you do not wake up happy about what you are doing, then find something else because life is too short. There is no shame in that, instead there is shame in losing control of your life to someone else’s expectations’.”

In her epigenetics graduate course, she often perceives that students are terrified of her due to the high expectations at the start of the course but as time goes by, she is able to see an amazing transformation in them. She also enjoys the growth process that students go through, and always puts in an immense effort for students to be able to understand a concept. In her undergraduate course, she has made this class very entertaining for herself and students in order to keep them engaged. She admits that at first, she purposely did not teach the course because her demanding methods would not be well received by the younger generation. However, as time passed and she gained more teaching experience. She became interested in teaching undergraduate students and volunteered to teach Companion Animals, a sophomore level course. This is a team-taught course that has become very popular. 

It is not only a man’s world…

Throughout her animal science career, Rocío has learned to be impervious. She attributes this as the main reason for her to continue to press on and succeed in a male dominated environment. Rocío mentions that it has to do with the fact that there were not a lot of female role models back in the day and having to accept the status quo. This was further evident to her when she gave a recent talk at a symposium and got an email from a female colleague congratulating her on being the only woman in the program.

“I have realized how out of tune I am about things that have to do with women representation. In fact, I was more interested with the topics presented in the symposium than who was giving the presentations. I attribute this way of thinking to the way I was academically raised but I do see now how much these things do matter.” 

Her colleague also pointed out in the conversation that there have always been female graduate students in Animal Science, but that they drop out early when in academic positions. Rocío further explains that this issue may be attributed to the lack of support when women are expected to take care of their children. This can then lead to faculty colleagues to think that these women are not pulling their weight and this can affect the tenure process or they simply abandon academia. She admits that academia expectations are often up the roof and considers that there needs to be a change in mentality. Happily, things have changed quite a bit since she started and now the division of Animal Sciences at Mizzou has a good number of principal investigators who are women.

We are stronger together.

She believes that it is important to highlight women in agricultural science because it brings diversity of thought and action. This can be done, according to Rocío, by raising the numbers of women in agricultural science and for trainees to see that they can do what other women have. 

“Over the years I have found that if you behave like the status quo, then you are accepted. Such as a woman behaving like a man or being from a different background but still behaving like the status quo. However, if your true colors come out, then you get looks or comments like ‘what is wrong with you?’ I find that being yourself is still a problem today and I can only hope that in the future there is a change.” 

In fact, she also finds that universities can be hypocritical when saying that they want to increase diversity. She hopes that this is an area where she can contribute as she has done by being the faculty advisor to the Latinx Graduate and Professional Network on campus since 2011. Students that are part of this group come from different backgrounds and many are first or second generation to enter college. It all started when she was approached by a student who wanted to start an inclusive graduate group for the Latinx community.

Latinx Graduate and Professional Network 2019 Welcome BBQ.

“The group has grown to around 50 members and we sometimes meet at my house. I really like this group because they have created a community that helps graduate students have a sense of belonging and stay in graduate school.” 

Vulnerability is not weakness.

Having gone through so many obstacles, when Rocío was asked what advice would she have wanted when she started her journey, she answered the following:

“You should be impervious, passionate, have grit to push on and laugh…a lot! I also tell my female students (although horrible to say) ‘to not cry in front of a man colleague’.” 

She has encountered instances in which male faculty colleagues say that they don’t know what to do when a female student/colleague cries in front of them and has noticed the change in demeanor and caused a diminished respect towards the female. This is another thing that she mentions that we should work on in the academic world, especially those fields that are male-dominated. We need to be understanding of how women and men react. Just because women are much more emotional does not mean that they do not have a brain. 

There is more than meets the eye.

When Rocío is not working, she finds herself enjoying life through cooking, dancing, gardening and hiking. She plays the viola in the local symphony and volunteers by taking her certified therapy dog (Chihuahua) to visit patients in the Ellis Fischel Cancer Center. She also enjoys having guests over and entertaining but due to the COVID-19 pandemic she is aware that staying apart keeps us together.

Dr. Rocio Rivera's Laboratory 2020 Pumpkin Carving.

You can reach and find out more about Dr. Rocío Rivera and her initiatives at:

Latinx Graduate and Professional Network:

Thank you so much Rocío for sharing your story with us!


The Women in Ag Science Team (WAGS)

This interview was conducted, transcribed, and written by Carolina L. González-Berríos WAGS Team Member.



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