Growing up in the mountainous areas of Puerto Rico and being in constant interaction with nature aroused my interest in human-environmental relationships. How to achieve a balance between resource use, conservation, and increasing people’s knowledge and capacities of how to reach that balance has always been an interest to me-- particularly in marginal communities that do not have access to a lot of resources. My father is a farmer, so I was always exposed to and was curious about different processes of nature. Also, my family was always trying to teach us about social justice and the importance of community. As a result, I grew up environmentally and socially conscious--just trying to make my surroundings a better place. So that definitely was an influential source of my interest in human and environmental interactions as well.
In prep school I always had really good science teachers that got me into studying science. When I first applied to the University of Puerto Rico, I went into natural science and from there I entered into biology because I was unaware of the environmental science program at the university. That first year, I took some ecology courses and through class projects I was able to conduct some university-based research and class research within an ecological setting. I found that it coincided with my interest of linking ecological systems with humans and evaluating their interactions. Through one of those classes, I started working with my ecology professor in his lab researching land use, land cover change, and the determinants of such changes. Through working in that lab, I experienced some of the practical applications in what I would then expand into my research and work. After that first year, however, I found out about the university’s environmental science program, which better combined the human part of this type of scientific work, so I switched to environmental sciences because it was a better balance and representation of what I wanted to do.
At the university level, those professors that taught my first ecology classes and the professor that I worked with in the lab certainly influenced my career afterward. Having that research experience was something that –since I was still in the early stage of my undergraduate education—helped me decide what I would do.
Additionally, between degrees I was able to teach and I found that I really liked teaching. I also realized that I had to have my Ph.D. because I always envisioned myself teaching at a university level. I also like doing research and disseminating information to different audiences and within an academic setting you can do both.
In an academic setting, you have students that get interested in your research and working with you. For me, being able to influence my students, their interests in continuing studies, conducting research, and seeing how they develop is very fulfilling. That is something that I really enjoy in my work. Also being able to do work and to publish it in different and creative ways that allow me to reach different audiences is also rewarding. For instance, I do cartographic work, so I make maps and atlases. Being able to publish my work in the form of books that school teachers and students from middle schools and high schools use is always cool for me. It’s great to be able to transform this type of research-based academic work, into something that will reach a wider audience in the form of a textbook in public education.
From 2008-2010 I was working at the University of Puerto Rico with a grant that I wrote the proposal for. A year prior to finishing that, I came to an interview for a joint position at Rutgers between the Department of Geography and the Department of Latino and Hispanic Caribbean Studies. I came two years ago and it was a perfect position for me because it allowed me to combine Geography, which is my main area of study, with the Caribbean, which is where I am originally from. So what else could I ask for?