Meet Zoelie Rivera-Ocasio, Soil Science Research Associate
Updated: Apr 25
Hard-worker and determined, Zoelie Rivera-Ocasio excels as a creative soil science communicator.
Zoelie Rivera-Ocasio is a Soil Scientist at the Agriculture Experimental Station at Mayagüez, Puerto Rico. She recently completed her master’s degree in Soil Sciences at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez (UPRM). Something that distinguishes Zoelie is her efforts on integrating art as part of soil science communication. More specifically, Zoelis creates pigments from soils that can be used to create paintings. She shares her creative soil pigments processes and creations through social media, where she also provides educational content.
As a research associate, Zoelie works on projects related to soil quality, citrus greening, and hemp production. Part of her responsibilities includes conducting soil analyses, maintaining and operating lab equipment, ensuring laboratory conditions and safety protocols, performing statistical analysis, and coordinating fieldwork.
The path leading to the world of Soils
Zoelie’s interest in research sparked by participating in outreach activities as a Biology undergraduate student at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) at Río Piedras.
“A lot of questions were emerging, so complementing outreach with research to answer some of our questions was very satisfying.”
These outreach experiences motivated her to work at the Entomology Laboratory at the Agriculture Experimental Station at Río Piedras, Puerto Rico, where she stayed for three years. Upon her undergraduate graduation, she participated in a community organization workshop called “Josco Bravo Agroecological Project”. Zoelie described this course as her inspiration to continue graduate studies in sustainable agricultural sciences. So, she did her Master’s project at the UPRM by looking at the effects of cover crops on soil properties with Dr. Yaniria Sánchez and Dr. Carlos Ortiz.
“Studying soil sciences felt like opening a door to a different world under my feet.”
During the summer of 2018, Zoelie was the first ag science student to win an Extramural Research Experience Award Project TIGER. With this award and the financial support of the College of Agricultural Sciences of the Pennsylvania State University (PSU), she had the opportunity to work at PSU during a summer internship. During this internship, she worked with Dr. White on studying soil organic matter functional groups. This experience sparked her interest in pursuing a Ph.D. program in the future.
Zoelie described the reasons she chose to work in academia are that she enjoys solving problems and being constantly challenged while contributing to the well-being of society.
“The transition from public high school to college was tough”
Since Zoelie did not qualify for affordable lodging in the UPR- Rio Piedras campus and could not afford off-campus housing, she had to commute for two hours each way (4 hours total) every day from her parent’s house to campus.
“I was neglecting my mental and physical health. I remember a night that I called my mom crying because I was so tired of being in traffic congestion for almost 5 hours knowing that when arriving at my house I would need to study, barely sleep 4 hours, and then wake up to drive again to the college.”
This changed when she started working at the Entomology lab since she was able to live near campus and have a better quality of life. She mentioned her mentors (Dr. Verle and Dr. Galindo) helped her develop organization and efficiency skills.
Inspiring experiences outside the classroom
The 4-H club inspired and motivated Zoelie to stay active and learn. The mentorship from 4-H club leader Carmen Sierra encouraged her to develop leadership skills, participate in activities, and enjoy agriculture.
Participating in extracurricular activities and organizations at the college level was empowering for Zoelie. For instance, she worked as a Botany tutor with Dr. Gladys Nazario who provided her a space in the department to develop a garden.
“This was our place to be. The student organizations gave me the environment to find other students like me and learn outside the classroom.”
The mind and the body
Zoelie highlighted it is essential for our health to reach a work-life balance and to always prioritize health. For instance, she mentioned that finding a hobby and quality time for ourselves might expand our enthusiasm.
“Most importantly, believe in yourself. The perception that you have about yourself will impact your performance. So, work hard but keep confident about your capacity. Finally, and very important, enjoy the journey, enjoy the class, enjoy the work, enjoy every step, learn from every experience, and don’t compare your pathway with others.”
To all the women out there:
“Follow your passion and be persistent. Don’t let anyone discourage you with "jokes" and stereotype threats. Sometimes people can discourage women with unconscious comments that are discriminating. I always open a dialogue with arguments to bring down those stereotypes. It’s important to talk about this.”
Zoelie strives to become a researcher and educator
Working with students as a teaching assistant was a gratifying experience for Zoelie.
“I really liked the experience of teaching students and encouraging them to learn by curiosity, solving problems, and finding answers to questions.”
Her aspirations as an educator are to help students develop skills and gain self-confidence.
As a researcher, Zoelie’s goals are to contribute to her country and communities by working towards preserving soils and promoting sustainable agriculture.
“I want to make an impact outside of academia, with the community and farmers.”
She’s working towards these goals by participating in community organizations like the “El Josco Bravo Agroecological School” project. This project aims to increase agroecological projects around the archipelago of Puerto Rico.
Zoelie’s future plans include communicating her work this year, publishing academic articles from her master’s thesis work, and looking for Soil Science Ph.D. programs.
Life outside of work
In her free time, Zoelie enjoys participating in outdoor activities like hiking, kayaking, and gardening. She also likes cooking and exploring different recipes.
“Loss and degradation of soils = loss of life and food security”
Once soils are degraded, it takes a lot of effort and time to restore them. Therefore, Zoelie mentioned, it is crucial to improve soil management practices, especially in agroecosystems where our food mainly comes from.
“Soil is a finite resource. Loss and degradation of soils, means loss of life and food security. The agriculture sector needs to recognize soil as a living body and not merely as a substrate. We need a healthy soil for a healthy planet.”
Why highlight Women in Ag Science?
“It’s important that women that are active in agricultural sciences stand out and encourage other women to educate, learn, and be part of the changes. It’s important to promote gender equality and diversity. Moreover, having professionals with diverse backgrounds and cultures will promote diverse inputs to improve agricultural sciences.”
You can find Zoelie on:
Thank you, Zoelie, for sharing your story with us!!
-The Women in Ag Science Team
This interview was written by WAGS co-founder Noelymar Gonzalez-Maldonado.