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Meet Dr. Verónica M. Negrón-Pérez, Assistant Researcher

Her tenacity has brought her to roam the road less traveled but it has also made her fearless to embark on the recurrent uncertainty in research.

Verónica M. Negrón-Pérez is an assistant researcher and principal investigator at the Agricultural Experiment Station located in Gurabo, Puerto Rico. Her research will aim to further elucidate the slick hair mutation in Holstein-Friesian cows with her knowledge in bovine embryology and reproduction.

It all starts with an experience...

Growing up, Verónica saw how her grandparents were involved in teaching children and the community about

agriculture. Being exposed to these experiences nurtured her love for agriculture but also on giving back to the community. She was further inspired to take part in the agriculture field by her sister who shared stories and experiences on the Animal Science program at the University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez (UPRM) Campus. It was then no surprise that Verónica also decided to attend the same program that her sister so fondly talked about. Like many who start in the Animal Science program, she had an interest in animal handling and health but her interest in research was further triggered after participating in undergraduate research in animal reproduction. She was additionally encouraged to remain in research through the Summer Research Opportunity Program at Ohio State University that focused on bovine sperm and embryos. Verónica then decided to apply to veterinary and graduate school but was not accepted in either of the schools she had first applied to. Despite this, her undergraduate research mentors, Dr. Mélvin Pagán-Morales and Dr. Esbal Jiménez-Cabán told Verónica to continue pushing onwards.

“As a college student, you are not prepared or taught what to do when you are told no and is something all universities lack on counseling their students. Since I was not accepted in either options for my future, I asked myself, `now what am I going to work in?’.”

You never know what you can do, until you try.

During the process of figuring out what her next step was, she knew for a fact not wanting to do anything involving molecular biology because of her inexperience in it. It took four different conversations for Dr. Pagán-Morales and Dr. Jiménez-Cabán to convince her to write to Dr. Rocío M. Rivera who specializes in mice and epigenetics. She then ended up doing a Master’s under Dr. Rivera in the Division of Animal Science at Missouri University (MU).

Mid master’s degree, Verónica decided to start looking for what she wanted to do and where to go because she still didn’t feel prepared for the workforce. Moreover, she wanted to go back to Puerto Rico and give back to the community because of her strong sense of service to the community that nourished her. But how could she do that? She decided to apply for a PhD and knew that through academia she could then give back to the younger generation and the community in Puerto Rico.

“When I talked about the molecular world to farmers or to the non-scientific community, that see the big picture, they had difficulty understanding and I had difficulty explaining it to them. I was interested, for my PhD, to be able to apply things to the ordinary world and its importance.”

Verónica ended up choosing the University of Florida (Gainesville, Florida) for her PhD because not only was it close to Puerto Rico but she also had the privilege to work with Dr. Peter Hansen. Her work consisted of describing the differentiation and development of the bovine early embryo. Four years later, she was offered a Post-Doctoral position by Dr. Michelle Rhoads at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia. Under Dr. Rhoads, Verónica’s research was centered in studying the effect of atypical insulin and glucose concentrations during heat stress on fertility of dairy cattle and embryo development. She also wrote a grant to secure further funding and was awarded the 2019 Post-Doctoral Fellowship from the United States Department of Agriculture. The grant consisted of her collecting bovine samples from the University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez Campus herd and processing samples at Virginia Tech. Soon after the USDA Post-Doctoral award notice, she was offered her current position as an assistant researcher and principal investigator at the newly inaugurated Research Center for Tropical Animal Reproduction (CIRAT) in Gurabo, Puerto Rico. This was of a result of her previous undergraduate research mentors and others whom wrote a grant and were awarded money by the Department of Agriculture in Puerto Rico for the construction of the CIRAT. She then needed to make a tough decision of either accepting the USDA Post-Doctoral Fellowship at Virginia Tech or declining the award to then leave for Puerto Rico.

“When I left Puerto Rico, I knew that I was going to be ten years in the United States but by luck it was only eight. I knew when I was offered the position at the Research Center for Tropical Animal Reproduction that if I didn’t leave now then I would never leave the United States.”

She then decided to take the chance by leaving her post-doctoral award and position at Virginia Tech with hopes of fulfilling what she longed to do...give back to Puerto Rico.

Follow your heart, wherever that may lead you.

Now, back in Puerto Rico, Verónica has the incredible task of not only being the principal investigator of CIRAT but re-building the laboratory space almost from scratch. Her days are filled with learning how to re-model buildings, buying said equipment for the re-modeling (Epoxy, PBC Tubing, etc.), buying laboratory equipment. She also serves as the project leader of the CIRAT in order for animals to be raised appropriately, and liaison of CIRAT and UPRM research projects collaborations taking place in Gurabo. Currently, the calves for the research projects are born in Lajas, transported (at 2-4 months) to be raised and impregnated in Gurabo and then are finally transported to back to Lajas for milking. The location of said research projects also depends on the type of project and their timeline which then dictates if they are performed in Lajas or Gurabo.

“I am grateful for having a team that works as hard as they can. As a primary investigator, I remind my team when an event is taking place such as bathing and making sure it occurs. This will help me to continue to understand and learn how to manage a herd of animals.”

Dr. Verónica M. Negrón-Perez with Heifers from UPRM Holstein-Friesian herd.

Furthermore, being that her appointment in CIRAT is a hundred percent research, she also needs to write grants in order to secure funding for her future graduate students.

A grain of sand can still change the sea.

Being part of CIRAT, Verónica’s main purpose in her career is to leave a positive experience for others to continue the work once she is gone. An example of this is the inauguration video of CIRAT that became public almost a year after she came back to Puerto Rico.

“After seeing the video, I am able to recognize how much I have accomplished in my first year working in CIRAT. This can often be difficult to notice when funding for research is cut and the research process is slower in Puerto Rico. Everyone at work continues to tell me that if I don’t do it, then no one will. Although this responsibility may lay heavy on my shoulders, I continue to tell myself that I can do it despite hurricanes, earthquakes and the current pandemic.”

Dr. Verónica M. Negrón-Pérez giving a tour of the CIRAT facilities in Gurabo, Puerto Rico.

Research at CIRAT, will tackle a world agriculture problem of the rising temperatures which affect the growth, muscular yield, metabolism and reproduction of dairy cattle. They specifically aim to do this by identifying animals that have the slick hair mutation. This makes both dairy and beef cattle highly tolerable to heat stress and are less impacted by the previously mentioned negative effects.

Being real is more important than being perfect.

According to Verónica, people in academia are often faced with constant stress from daily challenges. She also feels that this can often be exacerbated when you are not a United States native and the distance between your loved ones becomes from having a different cultural background.

“You eventually learn how to deal with homesickness but when it kicks in, it can really have an effect on your work. It is up to one’s character to recognize your problems and decide how you are going to solve them and find your inner strength to continue moving forward.”

She also talks about how depression or anxiety are not necessarily a negative to your persona nor is it something that people make up. Verónica describes it instead as a part of the process of growing as a person and learning how to face the situation or circumstances that you are given.

Strength lies in our diversity, not in our similarities.

Working with others in different scenarios (research, clubs, etc.) had a big impact in Verónica’s life to which she attributes being able to now see the different possibilities in life and research. An example of that was working with two undergraduate students in MU. The first student was more hands on and confident on being taught once and then did it by herself the next day. While the other student was shy about doing things and needed more of a hand in learning to complete research tasks.

“This gave me the tools to learn how to deal with a variety of people with different backgrounds, age groups and learning curves that others had compared to me. Understanding how people work and knowing how to explain things in different ways are essential in this job.”

She also brings up the point of how diversity and inclusivity are necessary to highlight different ideas but also women in agriculture science. Verónica often finds that women feel like they are less and fall into the background when they are here to stay. She also says that when women stay away from the spotlight, they also leave the recognitions to the older faculty or just men, in general.

“In our current world, it is not just a matter of women having equality but also acknowledging that we are more than capable to do our job.”

Women supporting women.

Through Veronica’s life, she has been inspired by many women but three of them always come into mind. The first being Dr. Rocío M. Rivera, her master’s degree mentor. Dr. Rivera was one of few female scientists in the Division of Animal Science at MU and also is Puerto Rican making her a double minority. She learned from Dr. Rivera that you had to become impervious in academia and to not take things personally in certain situations. She also inspired Verónica by showing her what a hard worker is and to never give up because you can still go far even when adversity occurs to you. Next comes Dr. Michelle Rhoads, her Postdoctoral mentor. She demonstrated to Verónica that as a woman you can work with you and still be able to have a family. Dr. Rhoads has three children and is always a believer of having clear cut communication with her students by saying when she was available and when she was not. Meaning that having a family as a female scientist does not make you less of a serious or valid scientist. You just have to have a balance. Finally, but not least, Verónica’s mother. She describes her as not only a hard worker but as a titan because raising five kids is not an easy task. Not to mention, her mother is currently in her PhD and should be finishing next year.

“I learned with my mother to keep going but also to stop when needed. To recognize a hard moment but not let it affect or lose sight of your goals. To see women for who they are and not only by their cultural backgrounds, ages, or sizes. And to treat people as people.”

Verónica now knows that part of keeping women in academia is women reaching out and supporting each other even when they feel that they are “drowning” in the process.

Invest in yourself, every day.

Outside of work, Verónica enjoys being in nature specifically, the beach. This is to

many Puerto Ricans a natural way to distress and enjoy the island life to its fullest. Activities that she enjoys at the beach range from swimming, snorkeling, kayaking or just sitting on the sand to find some inner peace.

“Sometimes you forget to have time for yourself. After work, I grab my bathing suit and change into it. I then head to the beach to enjoy one of Puerto Rico’s delight which is being able to enjoy the beach all 365 days a year.”

Other passions apart from the beach are being outside such as walking through mountains or biking.

Choose wisely who you surround yourself with.

If there is one piece of advice that Verónica can give to anyone going into graduate school is to choose carefully who you will be working with. In fact, she attributes her success in graduate school and career to having great mentors that supported her.

“In my master’s degree with Dr. Rivera, I matured as a person. While in my PhD with Dr. Hansen, I matured as a scientist. In my Post-doctoral position with Dr. Rhoads, I finished growing as a trainee because it helped me obtain the skills to manage both a laboratory and students.”

She also notes the importance of being prepared both emotionally and physically for graduate school. In other words, graduate school is definitely an endurance race and you will need all the support you can get in order to succeed.

Thank you for sharing your story Verónica!

Verónica can be contacted through:

Twitter: @veromnp

This interview was conducted, transcribed, and written by WAGS team member Carolina L. Gonzalez-Berrios.



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