Third Pod Presents: Sci & Tell – Rafael Loureiro on Space Plants

Loureiro with a Winston Salem State University student.

Rafael Loureiro may confess to being an introvert, but he has no fear of people. He started off talking about AGU’s Voices for Science initiative, which he is participating in this year to develop his science communication and policy skills. That segued into his personal philosophy going back to his upbringing and study in Brazil. What makes a scientist a scientist, in Rafael’s view, is their commitment to serving people and connecting to them in personal, meaningful ways. After a challenging transition to the US, where he had no network, he landed a job and taught his first class. He now passes on challenges to his students at Winston-Salem State U. First class taught in USA: teaching completely different culture, and different teaching modes – pass on content in the best way possible, getting to know students, understanding their needs, knowing students on a personal level.

This episode was produced and mixed by Shane M Hanlon. Special thanks to Jordana Schmierer for production assistance. 



Shane Hanlon: I’m from rural Pennsylvania…if you’re trying to nail down my accent, and I’m also fighting a cold right now…but I went to grad school in Memphis Tennessee. It was quite a culture shock for a number of reasons, including language. There is a word that folks from my neck of woods say – yinz. The etymology is hard to nail down but I believe it comes from “yous guys”, which is also quite wrong, but basically meant to mean, you all. In the south, they have a word for this – y’all. And, it makes sense, it’s a contraction. I never really said “yinz” but I was especially aware of the way I spoke being a strange man in a strange land with a strange voice. When I taught, my students would call me a Yankee, and not in a positive way. When I used words like “jagger” to mean thorny or left out “be” verbs and said things like “this needs done” instead of “to be”, I would just get looks from my peers. Eventually, I removed a lot of my regional lexicon and just became…boring. When I moved back north-ish, I retained “y’all” b/c it’s just fun, makes sense, and isn’t gendered. But I also started using some of my Pennsylvanian words again out of a point of pride – to show that I’m proud of where I from. And if that means getting strange looks when I say I’m going dantan or call someone out for being nebby (nosey), so be it.

Shane Hanlon: Everyone has a story, even, or maybe especially, scientists. Science affects each and every one of us. Let’s talk about it. From the American Geophysical Union, I’m Shane Hanlon, and this is Sci & Tell.

Greg Roth:          My guest in this conversation is Rafael Loureiro?

Rafael Loureiro:  That’s perfect.

Greg Roth:        That’s as close as I’ve gotten it so far.

Rafael Loureiro:  That’s [crosstalk 00:00:21] yeah.

Greg Roth:        Assistant Professor of Botany at Winston Salem State University.

Rafael Loureiro:  Well, thank you for having me, and this is a great opportunity to just share my science, but also talk about the things I have been doing with AGU of Us, Professors For Science, which has been a tremendous thing that has happened in my life and I believe in the life of everyone that has been involved in it.

Rafael Loureiro:  I like to say that I’m a space botanist to just break the ice, but usually people will ask me first, what’s a botanist?

I’ll say, “Well, I’ll work with plants and I use mostly climatic data and soil data provided by these wonderful AGU scientists to create plant hybrids. To be able to assess regions with these plants where they would not normally grow, either being here on earth for food security or out in space for maybe growing crops on Mars.” So that’s mostly, in general terms about I do with my science.

Rafael Loureiro:            I moved here in 2014.

Greg Roth:        ’14, okay. So talk to me about the transition from South America to North America.

Rafael Loureiro:  I mean it was interesting. I got my PhD there, and my plans were not to come to the US. I wanted to stay there, but I met my wife, and she’s an American and the transition from there to here was just a natural transition. Because she wanted to be here and I was like, “Okay, let’s go to the US.”

And I would say it was initially very difficult for you to transition from a country that I considered myself to be okay in terms of being established professionally. I had a job and everything was fine after my PhD. And coming to the US I didn’t have anything. I was completely alone in terms of, didn’t have any connections or anything that could help me out in terms of getting a job. And most schools that you apply to being a foreigner, and I completely understand why they do it, they have, I would say some sort of a step back and take a look at who you are, why you’re here, and why you’re trying to apply. And also all the paperwork problem that you have to go through in terms of getting permits and everything else.

Greg Roth: The citizenship aspect of it, everything, yeah.

Rafael Loureiro:  So all this weighs on you being hired or not by a school, or by an research institute.

And if you’re coming just by being here in terms of, I didn’t come here with this guaranteed position. And it took a lot of emailing, insisting, showing my ideas, pushing my   ideas, sharing my ideas with people that I thought that I could work with-

Rafael Loureiro:  And all of a sudden someone came to me and said, “I think that you have a good idea, come work for us.” And that was the foot that I needed inside of the door, just a little bit to be inside, to work really hard to get what I am now. And I still want more, and I think that I can do more. But what I am at now is just tremendous. I am at a institution that I wanted to be at. I’m at Winston Salem State, it’s an HBCU institution. And I wanted to be there to reach out to students, HBCU students who couldn’t possibly fathom the idea to work with space related stuff.

And I wanted to be there to show to them that, yes, you can do this. And here’s a way that you’d maybe be able to get into this field. And I have a tremendous amount of students that are very interested about it.

Greg Roth: Tell me about the first class that you taught here in the States.

Rafael Loureiro:  Here in the states I taught-

Greg Roth: Was it terrifying?

Rafael Loureiro:  A little bit. I think that, people say that I don’t have a very thick accent. And some students that actually, were like making bets, trying to find out where I was from initially. And I had to show them my green card to prove that I was from Brazil because they didn’t believe me. They thought I was from Canada or something like that. That’s fine. But it was intimidating because you’re in a country that, the whole educational system is different from yours.

You come from a completely different background, you’re dealing with. But at the same time, students are students and people are people. And I think that in a way I try to not translate what I was taught to do back then, learning how to be a professor or learning how to be a biology educator back home. I try to just pass on content in the best way that I could, and try to relate with the students the best way that I could. And I think that is good professorship. I think that when you get to know your students and get to know your needs, as we were talking about, getting to know the people and getting to know their needs, I think that is what you need to do to not feel intimidated by a class or a number of students or something like that.

I think that getting to know the students as much as you can on a personal level, it’s important for you to succeed as a professor.

Shane Hanlon: I gotta pop in here to say that up top I mentioned that Rafael is part of our Voices for Science initiative. Greg will mention Voices of Science…which we did contemplate as a name too.

Greg Roth:        I would think that approach would carry over somewhat well at least, to the Voices of

Science program, where you then need to talk to non scientists about what they would probably view as highly conceptual type stuff, and sometimes too academic, too iterative for their own policymaking leadership minds.

Right. So talk about a little bit about the influence of the program and how that is, your experience in the Voices of Science program and how that’s shaped how you communicate with both your students and with the non scientists.

Rafael Loureiro:  I think it’s important to first say why I’ve joined and why I wanted to join. I think that at  least my view of science, science should be about service, and you should serve people through your science. I think that either in my case making plant hybrids for food security, or to even serving people on giving them the answers that they know about, maybe the fundamentals of human curiosity in terms of where are we going? What are we doing here, and where did we come from? This is about service, this is science. So I joined in the way that I wanted to pass out this message, especially to policymakers.

Greg Roth:        What has been the most difficult part for you, personally? To learn or to do or a habit to break?


Rafael Loureiro:  I think I’m an introvert person, and I think that the program pushed me, and I think that this is pretty normal in the scientific field. That we’re a bunch of introverts.

Greg Roth:        Sure. Yeah. One or two of you.

Rafael Loureiro:  And I think that the program pushed me to know how to reach out, know how to connect to people on a personal level and not just talk to them as colleagues. Talk to them as possible friends and make associations and make long lasting friendships with not only my colleagues in the field, but with people out there that can give me tons of information that I could have never imagined getting.

Greg Roth:        How have you changed your approach as a result of the program?

Rafael Loureiro: I think that getting to know people, opening myself to them and allowing them to open themselves to me. I think that that is important and influenced my view on science in terms of, if science is about service, I need to know who I’m serving, and I need to know who are these people and what they’re suffering, and why they suffer, and how can I make this better. And especially when I deal with small farmers or people who are losing their homes, and people who are losing part of their history due to, for instance, climate change, because they need to lose their farm because what it was growing there before is not growing anymore.

 This was a way that I used to kind of getting contact to a deeper personal level, and understand what they are going through and push myself to be more open to hear their stories, and see how I could use my science to help them out.

Shane Hanlon: Rafael really hits it on the nose here. Being from rural PA, I know people who have lost their mining jobs or farmers who have had to shift what they grow and when they grow it because of climate change. They don’t want to hear from me as a scientist, coming in, telling them what’s best. They want someone to listen to them, like a human being. Communication is a two-way thing and thanks Rafael for reminding us of that.

Thanks also to Greg Roth for conducting this interview.

If you like what you’ve heard, stay tuned for more episodes tucked in amongst your regular Third Pod episodes.

From this scientist in the studio, to all of you out there in the world, thanks for listening to our stories.



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