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Cecilio Barrera, PhD

I was born in a town called Rio Grande City, Texas, but I grew up in Roma, just a few miles away. I have an older brother and a younger sister. My father was from Roma and my mother came to the United States from Mexico when she was six. Part of border culture is having family on both sides and crossing the border on a regular basis. This has always been a part of my life. My interest in science grew out of my interest in nature. I used to grow plants and flowers with my grandmother, and I had a fascination with wildlife. I also enjoyed going out to our farm, planting and being involved in the harvesting of crops.
While growing up, the obstacles I faced were self-imposed and had to do with accepting challenges and not underestimating my own abilities. For example, I was not a risk taker. My mother, who was a teacher, constantly challenged me and pushed me in directions I would not usually go in. I was able to make decisions on my own and realize I had the ability to do well in many activities when I started to take the risk. Once I was persuaded to participate in a statewide poetry reading competition, even though I had never done this before. I discovered it was something I could do. The experience also taught me poise, self-confidence, and how to be comfortable talking to people I did not know.
I used to talk to our family dentist about my future plans. Of course, he wanted me to be a dentist, but I wasn”t sure I wanted to do that. There were new events going on with space exploration when I was in college, and microbiology was frequently mentioned. Microbiology is a branch of biology which looks at tiny life forms we can only see with a microscope, such as bacteria. That fascinated me, and I chose to major in microbiology.
Originally I did not consider going to graduate school. However, one of my microbiology professors at the University of Texas, Austin, encouraged me to pursue more education. During my senior year he asked me if I was going to take a special test called the Graduate Record Exam (GRE). The GRE is what you take after college to apply to graduate school. My professor encouraged me to take this exam so that I could continue on in higher education. His encouragement was very important to me at that time. I took the test and did well. I applied to the University of Texas, Austin, graduate program in microbiology, and I was accepted.
When I was doing research in graduate school, I used to study the relationship between a particular type of fungus and grasses. The green stuff that grows on moldy bread is an example of fungi. Mushrooms are also a kind of fungus! The fungus I study lives within the tissues of a certain type of grass, but you cannot tell from looking at the grass that the fungus lives there unless you take a piece of grass, dissect it, and look at it under a microscope. The fungus produces chemical compounds which end up helping the plant, by keeping away animals and insects which normally eat it. The fungus benefits from this relationship with the plant because the fungus derives all its nutrients from the plant itself, so these two different organisms help each other. Amazingly, when the grass releases seeds to produce more plants, the fungus is already within the seed, ready to grow.
For many years I had a career as a research scientist, and during that time I worked in the lab, published papers, and taught classes. I am currently associate dean of the graduate school at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, New Mexico. My responsibilities deal with getting students into programs so that they can pursue their career goals. For example, if you want to be a scientist, or teach your favorite subject at the college level, you will need to attend graduate school.
The advice I”d like to pass on to you is that you should not be afraid to dream of the things you would most like to do in life. The dreams themselves can lead to aspirations and hopes, and through continued work those aspirations can become a reality. Your dreams are achievable and the secret to converting those hopes into reality is education.