In this issue:
Managing Editor:Yolanda S.
Making Strides is a free, quarterly (April, July, October, and January) research newsletter published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Directorate for Education and Human Resources Program. Its purpose is to share information about minority graduate education in the fields of science, mathematics, and engineering. It is available in print and electronic format. Inquiries, information related to AGEP, and all correspondence should be sent to the editor.
|An Interview with Dr. Hector
By Virginia Van Horne, Senior Research Associate
Each issue of Making Strides features a short interview with an underrepresented minority SME professor who has been instrumental in mentoring and encouraging students through the pipeline, as well as demonstrating leadership and outstanding accomplishments in the world of SME.
This month I had the opportunity to chat with Dr. Hector Flores, Professor of Plant Pathology and Biotechnology at the Pennsylvania State University, University Park campus. Currently, he is on leave to the National Science Foundation as a Visiting Scientist/Program Director in the Molecular and Cell Biology Division. Dr. Flores received his B.S. in Biology in 1974 from the Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos in Lima, Peru, and an M.S. in Horticulture in 1977 from the University of Puerto Rico. He received his Ph.D. in Biology, “Studies on the Physiology and Biochemistry of Polyamines in Higher Plants” in 1983 from Yale University and joined Penn State in 1988. Throughout his career, he has developed an active international and national program—balancing basic and applied research—in plant biology. With more than 85 technical papers published, Dr. Flores' research projects center around the metabolism and biochemistry of biologically active compounds produced in plant roots, and the uses of plants for nutrition, pharmaceutical and agrichemical applications. He has trained a number of undergraduate and graduate students from the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Minority Apprenticeships Program, the Department of Education’s Summer Minority Research Opportunities Program, the Howard Hughes Summer Institutes Program and the USDA’s National Needs Fellowship, as well as advised local high school science students from the Pennsylvania Governor’s School. Of note, Dr. Flores has developed innovative approaches to biology, and in particular, science teaching. Since 1992 he has hosted visiting scientists and advised a number of graduate students from around the world and served as the Director of the Science, Technology and Society Program at Penn State from 1995-1998. Most recently, he began an international initiative for research and training in Latin America, focusing on Andean root and tuber crops. Dr. Flores research has been funded by the National Science Foundation, USDA and the McKnight Foundation, among others.
How did you become interested in science?
I imagine because I grew up in a household that encouraged and fostered an interest in science. My father was a doctor and my mother a housewife. From the time I was a child, I was surrounded by science—I read stories about Louis Pasteur and Galileo. I received my first microscope at the age of ten! My love of science simply took on a life of its own. I knew that I wanted to do something in biology.
|I did well in mathematics and science. By high school,
I knew I would go to college to study biology, but not medicine.
I attended the Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos in Lima, Peru and
graduated in 1974 with a B.S. in biology. In Peru, obtaining
a Bachelor’s of Science in biology is a five-year commitment. One
must take all of the biology courses, thus getting a very broad background.
After graduation, I worked at the university as an instructor in biology
and molecular biology through 1975. In addition, I selected a short
research topic and gathered bibliographic cards while I waited for a position
opening in a lab at the university. During this time—it was 1973—I
met Javier Zapata, a plant biologist who had just returned from Kansas
with a Master’s degree in plant biochemistry. He offered me a position
in his lab at the Universidad Nacional de San Marcos and I began working
Were your experiences in graduate school positive?
I had a wonderful time in graduate school. I made great friends, had supportive and warm classes as well as an abundance of lab materials. My lab was like a big, diverse family. Surprisingly, for me, the greatest challenges I have faced as a member of an underrepresented group have occurred in recent years—as a faculty member.
I knew I wanted to get my doctorate. Because Peru does not offer any Ph.D. programs in biology, I moved to Puerto Rico and applied to the University of Puerto Rico, Mayaguez for a training fellowship in nuclear techniques in biology. From 1975-1977 I worked as both a teaching assistant and research assistant on the Rhizobium Project with Dr. Carlos Fierro, a professor from Chile. I was also interested in getting a Master’s in horticulture. Under my mentor, Dr. Carlos Fierro, I investigated the micropropagation of plants and wrote a thesis entitled In vitro Culture and Radiation Studies of African Violet Saintpaulia ionantha Wendl. I obtained my Master’s from the University of Puerto Rico in 1977 and made the jump to the United States that same year by taking a horticulture fellowship at Rutgers State University.
My goal was to attend Yale University, but I wasn’t immediately accepted. While at Rutgers, I wrote to Dr. Arthur Galston, a member of the biology department at Yale, and made a point to visit him. I was persistent! In 1978 I was accepted. From 1978 to 1980 I worked as a teaching fellow in the department of biology; from 1980-1982 as a research assistant. Dr. Galston was an admirable mentor. In fact, I consider him to be a good friend. He was encouraging and inspiring—challenging me to remain open and curious to a variety of topics. This was a perfect match with my personality since I tend to concentrate on many topics, rather than specifically focusing on only one topic at a time.
And, after Yale?
I graduated from Yale in 1983 with a Ph.D. in biology. At that time I mostly wanted to do lab work and to remain in academia. Dr. Galston recommended that I first get some experience in industry. It was the early 1980’s and I was quite fortunate that many oil companies were hiring plant biologists to work in biotechnology. From 1983-1985 I worked as a postdoctoral research associate for the ARCO Plant Cell Research Institute in Dublin, California.
Why did you leave industry?
After two years at ARCO, I was ready to move on and try something else. I thought about returning to Peru, but there were no job opportunities in my area of expertise. I applied to Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, and was hired as an Assistant Professor in their Department of Plant Pathology and Crop Physiology and stayed there from 1985-1988. Unfortunately, support for my specific area of research declined rather quickly. A job search led me to Pennsylvania State University, University Park where I was hired as an Associate Professor in 1988.
I’ve been at Penn State for 12 years and was promoted to full professor in 1994. I took a leave of absence in October 1999 to work at the National Science Foundation as a Visiting Scientist/Program Director in the Molecular and Cellular Biology Division.
Tell us about your students.
I work with both undergraduate and graduate students and have also made it a point to advise local high school science students. I firmly believe in mentoring and make it a priority to mentor and reach out to all students. My main goal is to stimulate my students’ interest in their studies and to encourage initiative and risk-taking. I encourage my students to be risk-takers—to broaden their horizons as much as possible—just as my mentor, Dr. Galston, encouraged me to do.
My special academic love is interdisciplinary work. For example, I teach a class called Seeds of Change that integrates botany, chemistry, history and economics. In the class I use cooking as my method of demonstration. The students are charged with “deconstructing” things such as salads, rice, etc. Not only do we have fun, but we learn a new way of integrating several subject topics. I also teach a seminar called Science and Creativity that encourages students to build an historical and philosophical background of science.
The theme of diversity is in all of my work and teachings. All of us—students and faculty alike—need to be aware of what is outside of our fields. We must approach science in very broad terms. The importance of diversity parallels the importance of interdisciplinary work. We have basically exhausted the social and economic rationale for diversity. It is in our best interest to have a diverse group of scientists doing sciences. It increases choices; and, it fosters different ways of looking at things.
It’s clear you enjoy working with students, is that why you became a professor?
Yes. Plus, I’ve always had the desire to make a difference in the minds of young people. I love teaching; I am passionate about it. I also think I can provide alternative examples for doing research. My style is to explore—to open up new avenues of inquiry. The thought of doing the same thing, forever, is boring! I think there is a value and a need for this kind of approach to research.
What about your own personal experiences and views on diversity?
I have had some interesting experiences. In my native country of Peru, I am not considered an underrepresented minority. I lived a very typical, middle class existence. In fact, I had many advantages because I spoke English fluently. Yet, in this country, I am part of an underrepresented group. There seems to be an underlying assumption in the U.S. that if you belong to an underrepresented group, by default, you are underprivileged. Personally, I can’t even presume to identify with this. I cannot presume to understand the hardships endured by underprivileged groups, but I can identify with their plight and their effort to be the best they can be.
It is everyone’s responsibility to be proactive in minority student recruiting and mentoring. All of us need to confront the cultural gap and do our best to mentor and recruit students from underrepresented groups. That being said, I also believe that we should mentor all types of students and that students should be willing to approach faculty who do not look like them as potential mentors. This increases diversity and integration—allowing for the broadening of horizons. As an analogy, think of grafting. In my case, placing an Hispanic bud on a European rootstock, ending up with the best of both. Both student and mentor learn from one another. This is an example of promoting diversity in an integrated fashion.
Tell us about your department at Penn State.
Neither my department nor program are very diverse. I am the only Hispanic member of a department of roughly 25 faculty; three of the 25 are female. There are no African Americans in my department. I’m also the only minority faculty member in our plant physiology interdisciplinary program, which has about 40 faculty members. I’d say that overall, out of close to 4,000 faculty at Penn State, perhaps 49 are Hispanic. None are in any position of administrative influence.
As far as students, I’ve taught a very diverse group of undergraduates. It’s been very difficult, however, to recruit underrepresented minorities into the graduate program. Not only is the recruiting pool rather small, some faculty may find it burdensome to recruit. And, overall, our graduate program was having a rather difficult time recruiting top students. Period. Using my own grant money, I’ve been proactive in recruiting students on my own through visiting schools such as Cal State (Northridge and Los Angeles) and the University of Puerto Rico. For example, last year I recruited our very first Hispanic student to the plant physiology program!
What type of advice do you give to your students?
My Ph.D. students always ask for advice so I always encourage them to
be proactive—to be a risk-taker. Ultimately, this is what will make
a difference. And, I always tell them that there is no right or wrong
answer as far as career choice. Some students are very entrepreneurial
and would be happy and do quite well in industry. Others would have
a better fit in academia.
Thank you, Dr. Flores.