|Mexico City-born Adrián Rodríguez-Contreras has a PhD in Neuroscience, earned at the University of Cincinnati, in 2001. After 4 years as a Postdoctoral Fellow at Erasmus Medical College in the Netherlands, he has recently come to New York City as an assistant professor to head a laboratory in Neuroscience at City College. Located in Harlem, CCNY is a public institution with a history of providing the opportunity for high academic achievement to students of diverse socio-economic and cultural backgrounds. The Hispanic American Village was able to chat with Dr. Rodríguez-Contreras about his career path, his aspirations, and about U.S.–Mexican relations.
HOW DID YOU DEVELOP AN INTEREST IN SCIENCE?
That was back in high school. And it was a strange situation because [in Mexico], when you are finishing high school and you are about to go to college, you have to decide whether to take humanities or the sciences. I liked reading and I liked literature, but I also had an idea that I wanted to do biology, because earlier on I always read books about whales and I always liked animals. But, I was very curious about science. In Mexico you have to decide either to go for a career that will allow you to live, to have a good lifestyle, or to choose something perhaps closer to your heart, and maybe you will have to endure some hardship, because the truth is that there are not many jobs. But I realized that I really wanted to do something that I liked.
HAD ANYONE ELSE IN YOUR FAMILY BEEN INVOLVED IN SCIENCE?
No one. If I recall, I am probably the first one to actually have been through college. My dad went to the university, but he never graduated. He got a job and he began working, and dropped out of college.
AND YOUR FIELD, OTOLARYNGOLOGY, THAT’S BASICALLY EYE, EAR, NOSE AND THROAT STUDY, IS THAT CORRECT?
Yes, but I’m mostly interested in the auditory, in the hearing part.
HOW DID THAT COME ABOUT?
I was already interested in understanding how the brain works. There are so many aspects of brain science that you can study, and I was inclined to study sensory systems. Vision. Touch. Hearing. It was not really clear to me which one to choose. That same year that I started at the University of Cincinnati, there was a new hire. This person came with a background in the auditory system. And he had a strong personality. He was originally from Ghana, an African. And he had spent time doing research at NIH [National Institutes for Health] and another university with very strong departments and a very good reputation in science. He was very aggressive intellectually and scientifically and he just drew me into his group to study with him. So, that’s how I got into studying hearing.
WHY DID YOU CHOOSE TO STUDY APPLIED SCIENCE AND NOT MEDICINE?
I had a couple of friends who went into medicine who also had an interest in doing research. They always considered that they could do two things at the same time, or to switch back and forth, but I realized that that’s not really what I wanted. What I wanted to do was just research. I thought if I’m going to spend ten years preparing to do something, I’d better do research.
DESCRIBE YOUR NEW DUTIES.
It is very scary. It involves a new level of planning. You not only have to make sure that your projects are attracting people within the institution, but that they are also attractive to the people outside the institution who provide the funding to sustain the research. So, of course, the institution has made an investment in me, in hiring me and providing the space and the resources to build the lab, but some of the new obligations here are to bring in money from outside sources. The other part is the teaching part, which I find very challenging because it is not related to whether or not I have experience, but to my having this central role of delivering information to someone who’s interested in acquiring information. It’s a very exciting challenge, to be able to communicate clearly and concisely.
DO YOU ALSO SEEK TO MOTIVIATE STUDENTS?
Yes, definitely, yes, absolutely. And even more in the context of City College. That is one of the goals of the institution, to provide access to people.
BRIEFLY DESCRIBE THE PROCESS BY WHICH YOU WERE HIRED.
About a year ago, I began sending out applications to a number of universities after spending some time doing what is called a post-doc stage. Things were working in terms of projects and ideas, but then I realized that I needed to go to the next step. I asked senior colleagues how to do this and people said, “Well, if you can do it by word of mouth that’s probably the best thing because you can almost target the community where you would like to go. But you should also consider that this is not very easy and if you have not built relationships to use in looking for a better job, this is going to be very difficult. So, next option is to start looking for advertised positions, apply to these advertisements, and see what the response is.” So, that’s one thing that I started doing. I saw an advertisement posted in the Society for Neuroscience Forum where you can look for jobs, and I saw this advertisement where City College was looking for neuroscientists.
WAS THIS AN ONLINE POSTING?
Yes, the posting was online. The advertised position was for an Assistant Professor with interest in neuroscience and teaching.
The listing gave some idea as to the kind of people they were looking for, so I sent out my application. I got responses from a number of places. City College was one of the last ones to respond. But the next thing I knew, I got this email from Josh Wallman, the chair of the search committee. I was on holiday in Rome. It was through emails that we arranged to phone when I got back.
HOW IMPORTANT WAS THE INTERNET IN YOUR JOB SEARCH?
Very important. Most of these places request a number of materials to be sent. When you are doing this on your own, you can spend a lot of money, for example, just using the regular mail. When you are doing it from abroad and applying from a place in Europe to the U.S., it’s just terribly expensive. The internet makes it possible to contact these people right away and arrange to send an electronic copy of the materials. Another thing is that you can get your own message across very fast. That is important.
AN ARTICLE POSTED ON OUR WEBSITE SUGGESTS A NEW DEMOGRAPHIC OF TRANSBORDER MEXICANS. WHAT WAS YOUR REACTION TO IT?
I thought it was interesting, but I’m not entirely convinced that this is a new movement. People in intellectual circles are talking about this new generation. But as far as I can remember, in elementary school, I had friends who were very well off financially, and they always had this movement back and forth.
DO YOU SEE AN ULTIMATE INTEGRATION BETWEEN THE TWO COUNTRIES?
That’s something that people have been wondering about for many decades and generations. You have to remember that our countries have a very long history, and in terms of territory, there have been a lot of disputes and the border has been moving back and forth. In addition, in parts of Mexico it is very common for families to send their kids to American schools. You don’t necessarily have to belong to the middle or higher class. You just have to have a relative on the other side to be able to do this. I know this is very common.
WHAT ABOUT A CULTURAL INTEGRATION? WILL WE ACCEPT MEXICAN CULTURAL NORMS?
That’s definitely happening. There’s a big push from the South. As the cultures assimilate each other, I don’t know if it will generate a change of mind in the US, but who knows?
WHAT ABOUT IN MEXICO? DOES MEXICO SHOW SIGNS OF THIS INTEGRATION?
Culturally speaking, it’s interesting to see in Mexico City, for example, more bars where you can see someone coming from New Orleans to play blues. People are following that very much. They really appreciate it, and I think it is an example of assimilation of North American culture in Mexico. People really, really like things like that. It’s very popular right now.
WHAT IS YOUR IMMIGRATION STATUS?
H-1 B visa. It expires in three years. But I’m going to apply for a green card because it’s a very practical thing to do. For crossing borders and, professionally, you can apply for certain grants. In the end it’s more useful. It’s true that I’m a bit of an opportunistic fellow and I saw opportunity in the US, despite many of the contradictions I see here.
AFTER LIVING OUTSIDE OF MEXICO FOR SO MANY YEARS, DO YOU STILL CONSIDER YOURSELF MEXICAN?
I always feel Mexican and I always have a special feeling about being Mexican. It’s probably silly, but I’m very proud to say I’m Mexican. The problem comes when someone asks me what does it mean to be Mexican. The truth is, I don’t really know. It’s something that you sort of grow up with and you maintain as an identity. Sometimes it’s very difficult to define, but I feel very much that way.
DO YOU THINK THAT MEXICANS GET A BAD RAP HERE?
People believe that most Mexicans that come to the U.S. typify a certain type of people, but really we have so much to offer, not because we are of a different social or educational background, but simply because, as human beings, we really have something to contribute. Just provide interaction for them [Mexicans] within a society like this. When people can look for and find opportunities, I assure you they will produce.
IN CONCLUSION, WHAT DO YOU HOPE TO ACHIEVE LIVING AND WORKING HERE?
Professionally of course I would like to do the best science and contribute really something novel to the scientific field. It would be in the form of a discovery that others can use to build on, or, why not, maybe build a theory on how the brain processes information, for example. The other one is perhaps more personal. It would be fascinating if I can see my children grow up and make their own choices in a free society without restrictions. It’s probably what everyone wants to see, not only in their own children, but in the people they love. If I can do anything to make that happen, that would be an achievement for me. And, last but not least, I would consider it an important and tremendous achievement facilitating the academic progress of City College students.