February 2012

Research Spotlight: Alberto I. Roca

Tell us about your current career position. 

During my postdoctoral training as a biochemist, I started volunteer activities to help underrepresented postdocs. My activities began at conferences of the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science. While I saw that there were many support systems for minority students, there was none specifically for postdocs. I founded the SACNAS Postdoc Committee and co-founded the Diversity Committee of the National Postdoctoral Association with Dr. Arti Patel. In 2004, a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation allowed me to organize the Minority Postdoc Summit and to create the Web portal MinorityPostdoc.org. Since 2010, I have been working full time as a diversity consultant, helping graduate students transition to postdoc training and helping grads (and) postdocs find professional positions. I am eliminating the inertial barrier of “we do not know where to find them” that search committees express when faced with the challenge of diversifying a candidate pool.

Alberto Roca

What are the key experiences and decisions that have helped you reach your current position? 

I maintained my diversity volunteer work at a high level in case it would be my backup career if a faculty position did not pan out. I did interview for an assistant professor position at California State University, Fullerton; but, the search committee did not hire anyone that year. Briefly, I took a position as a diversity administrator in the graduate division at the University of California, Irvine. However, I realized that the responsibilities were too limiting and would inhibit my work on the national problem of disenfranchised postdocs. Being on my own gives me the freedom to work with any constituents who want to help the most underserved stage of the Ph.D. training pipeline. Since my wife was also searching for faculty positions, I decided that pursuing a portable career would better support our priorities in raising children and staying close to extended family. My effort in creating end products from my volunteer activities has now paid off, since I can show clients my website, articles and events as accomplishments that can safeguard their investment.  

How did you first become interested in science?  

Growing up, I made dinosaur picture books and explored the bayou forests of my hometown Houston, Texas. In high school, I was captivated by biology, especially biomolecules like protein and DNA. As the son of a physician and nurse, I was exposed to biomedical careers. However, a college summer research experience at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson (Cancer Center) with Professor Edwin Murphy exposed me to the idea of graduate school for Ph.D. training.



Were there times when you failed at something you felt was critical to your path? How did you regroup and get back on track?  

Inexperience is often the root cause of most setbacks, beginning with mistakes in coursework, foul-ups at the bench and later navigating the politics of academia, such as paper authorship. Graduate school is a wonderful opportunity to explore research, but careers are built on accomplishments. I wish I had learned earlier how to balance the exciting, high-risk questions with more pedestrian, but publishable, experiments. I ended up with essentially two thesis projects (theoretical bioinformatics and experiment-based molecular biology) when I should have picked one and completed my Ph.D. sooner. Getting back on track involved choosing a postdoctoral project where the publications came quicker but not necessarily easier.

What advice would you give to young persons from underrepresented backgrounds who want to pursue a career in science similar to yours?  

My general advice would be to focus on a specialty and be productive through deliverables such as publications in either peer-reviewed journals or news stories. My motto is “we’re all minorities, so let’s help each other” because being a minority just depends upon your context. Thus, we should all help one another achieve common goals. I also recommend practice to improve writing skills that are critical to careers in academia and other sectors. While many students are regularly texting, they should use long-form writing to communicate thoughtful ideas. I will be exploring the use of blogs as a training ground for students to build up their writing momentum for future projects such as manuscripts and theses (1).

My specific counsel for underrepresented, marginalized individuals is to draw upon your resilience when facing environments and circumstances that disrespect your values and accomplishments. While your home community of family and friends might not understand your research, their unconditional support should stoke your drive to push forward through adversity. Be true to yourself, and your priorities when balancing work and personal demands. Use wise mentors so that you do not have to toil alone; but, be prepared to listen to advice that may contradict your short-term view. For example, in college I have Professor Nancy Mills to thank for setting me straight when I was falling behind in my organic chemistry class. Finally, once you are a successful, remember to give back so that others can benefit, too.  

What are your hobbies? 

Since graduate school, I found that movies with a great plot distract my curious mind and allow me to forget the troubles of the day. Later, my wife and I became parents and our fulfilling hobby was caring for our daughter.  

What was the last book you read? 

“Consulting for Dummies,” since research training does not teach self-sufficiency outside of academic settings. I plan to create my own nonprofit in the near future.  

Do you have any heroes, heroines or role models? If so, describe how they have influenced you?  

From my personal life, my parents are my role models. They are dedicated to each other and their family. My parents arrived to the U.S. with little money, but their education from Peru led to successful careers. My papa likes to say that no one cares where he went to medical school. With three boys, my mami stayed home taking care of us but took leadership positions in school and neighborhood volunteer activities. So I learned the value of hard work, family bonds and community engagement.

From my professional realm, I hold in high regard Professor Gisela Mosig, who was a recombination geneticist. Her career is chronicled in a Genetics “Perspectives” article (2) so I only highlight what I learned from her. She challenged dogma, beginning with her high-school biology classes in communist East Germany that were politicized with the imposed teachings of Lysenko. She was also a humble scientist who took very seriously the mentoring of her own students and other young scholars. SACNAS teaches us to respect the sacrifices of our elder science predecessors. I am heartened when I also find role models in my recombination community to emulate.  

What is it that keeps you going? 

I live for building communities and correcting social injustice. My passion is mentoring people to achieve their potential, and this drives my diversity work. In science, I still maintain a bioinformatics project to satisfy my curiosity about proteins. Remaining active in research legitimizes my advice to students and postdocs about how to conduct academic life.

1. D. Hernandez, Social Science: Experimenting with Social Media to Build Scholarship Communities, DiverseScholar 2:4 (2011)
2. N.G. Nossal, J.L. Franklin, E. Kutter, J.W. Drake, Genetics 168: 1097–1104 (2004)

To learn more Roca and his work, visit these links:
Education and work profile  
FASEB/MARC peer mentor role 

Bioinformatics research project 

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