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Leo Gómez, PhD

I was raised to have respect for everyone, but to be in awe of no one. I was taught that I was responsible for my own life and that no one had the right to keep me from pursuing my dreams. Currently, I work as a radiation biologist at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the town that I grew up in. It was a funny thing that got me interested in science. When I was a kid there was a movie that came out called THEM where ants had been exposed to radiation and grew to be huge. That got me to wondering if ants could really grow that big! We had a lot of ants in our yard and I used to mix various concoctions to make them grow, but they never did.
High school was really easy for me, because up until then I had gone to Catholic schools and the nuns were very strict about coming to school prepared. When I was going through school we were rather poor, so I had to work every day from the time I was 14 years old until I graduated from college. I worked up to three jobs at a time during the summers. I did this so that I could get an education and have a large degree of control over my own life. Since I had no role models growing up, I went to the public library to read about science and scientists, such as Louis Pasteur, Niels Bohr, and Marie Curie.
I was the first person in my family to go to college. When I got to the University of New Mexico, I wasn’t sure what I would major in but that changed in the second semester of my sophomore year. There was a professor there named Gene Rypka who acted as my mentor. He helped me to choose what classes I should take, and while I didn’t have the best grades, I still knew I could do well in school if I had direction. I decided to major in biology. I earned my bachelor’s degree in biology but took lots of courses in mathematics, chemistry, physics, philosophy and foreign languages. When I graduated I worked as a technician in a radiation biology research lab. This work interested me and I decided I would apply to graduate school. I received my graduate degree at Colorado State University. I did very well in graduate school, finishing first in my class for both my master’s and doctoral degree programs.
In my work, I’ve studied the natural radiation environment of the deep oceans, using biology, chemistry, and physics. From what I learned in graduate school, I’ve been able to do all kinds of work, from cancer research to oceanography. I felt that the more education I received, the more freedom I would have in my career. I want to pursue my own interests and ideas. I want to understand nature by asking my own questions.
I serve on three international commissions on the environment of the oceans. I’ve had an opportunity to travel all over the world and collaborate with some of the best scientists. I have close friends and colleagues in the U.S., Canada, Central and South America, Europe, the Middle East, the former Soviet Union, Japan, China and Africa. From my cultural background I am attuned to differences, as I was taught not to assume that my cultural values are better than those of the countries I visit. I’ve become a citizen of the world.
Radiation biology encompasses studies from the molecular level to ecosystem studies. I am working to understand more about the environment of the deep oceans of the world, and how men can affect our environment both positively and negatively. Right now I am working on a project studying the pollution of the Arctic Ocean by radioactive releases from the former Soviet Union. All the Russian rivers run north, so any pollution in the river system eventually ends up in the Arctic Ocean. Ask your teacher why this is! My coworkers and I are also concerned with the transport of radioactive materials across the oceans to Alaska and how it affects ocean life. We are also collaborating with Japan, where a lot of seafood is eaten. The people there are very concerned about the quality of their food supply. We are using computer codes to estimate the risk people are exposed to. We will then try to create a model to understand that risk.
My advice to you is always try your best with whatever you do. You will always be happy with yourself if you know you have tried your hardest. Be your own advisor because you are the only who who has to live with the decisions you make.