BY JOE MOSLEY
Connect these dots: Fidel Castro and the Mariel boatlift. The Miami Dolphins and that city’s Little Havana neighborhood. The Everglades, alligators, pythons and a fossilized tooth. Intellectual curiosity. Southern Oregon University. Those are waypoints on the road map of Frank Rodriguez’s life. He is anchored to and guided by them even as he takes a giant step toward the career that, until recently, he would have lacked the audacity to so much as dream about – paleontologist and research scientist.
Frank – a McNair scholar, isotopic analyst and large personality in SOU’s STEM Division – completed requirements for his bachelor’s degree in biology during fall term. He has applied to nine paleontology-related doctoral programs at schools ranging from Yale and Princeton in the East to Colorado, Oregon and Oregon State in the West.
A career in the lab and the field is within reach.
“I want to do research – working with fossils, for sure,” Frank says, recalling a key course he took from SOU biology professor John Roden, in which he learned to explore the worlds of extinct animals by studying stable isotopes from fossils they left behind.
“We use stable isotopes to establish how herds move and what plants they’re eating,” he says. “I love reptiles – that’s my thing. If I was going to work with something that’s not extinct, it would be something like geckos. But after taking that class with Dr. Roden, I thought, ‘OK, I could do some paleontology work.'”
Cuba, Castro and political prisoners
Frank’s story begins with that of his father. Francisco Rodriguez was born in Cuba and was called to compulsory military service at age 15, in the mid-1960s. He lasted a year, then tried unsuccessfully to escape to Florida by boat. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison and served 14 as a political prisoner of Cuban President Fidel Castro.
“He was a driver for the military (before his escape attempt), but for him it was like torture,” Frank says.
Francisco Rodriguez drove his truck to the coast and boarded a boat of would-be refugees but the group was apprehended just offshore. He was incarcerated until Castro emptied his prisons and sent the former inmates to the U.S. as part of the massive Mariel boatlift in 1980.
The elder Rodriguez landed in Florida, moved to California and met Ana Maria, the single mother of two daughters. They married, two more daughters and Frank were born in California, then the family returned to Miami.
“I grew up, basically, in (the Miami neighborhoods of) Little Havana and Little Haiti,” Frank says. “My mother is still there.”
“When he was younger, he was a pretty fearless dude… He always taught me how to approach big animals. He had a way with animals.”
— FRANK RODRIGUEZ, ON HIS FATHER’S COURAGE
One more daughter would be born, but Francisco’s health declined and the marriage failed. Francisco lived in various shelters between a series of heart attacks and strokes.
“My dad just dropped everything after the divorce,” says Frank, who was out of high school and working at well-paying nightclub jobs in Miami, but wanting something more.
“No one in the family was really speaking to him at this point, except me,” he says.
Frank eventually enrolled part-time at Miami Dade College, but by that time was six years out of school and he had to test his way into some of the junior college’s baseline classes. He was still working two and three jobs at the clubs.
He had taken a quick trip to the Bahamas when he received news that his father had died.
“That whole time was pretty dark,” Frank says. “He wanted me to dump his ashes in Cuba. But I don’t see myself going back to Cuba.”
Frank Rodriguez – Scientific Research in the SOU Biology/Chemistry Labs
Big lizards and intimidating snakes
Frank’s father had talked with him often about college. He envisioned his son earning a degree from the University of Miami, the hometown school, but Frank was doubtful.
The two followed the NFL’s Miami Dolphins together and shared a heartfelt passion for the nearby Everglades National Park. They spent countless hours together when Francisco wasn’t working, discovering the wilderness and its creatures.
“When he was younger, he was a pretty fearless dude,” Frank says. “He always taught me how to approach big animals. He had a way with animals.”
Francisco taught Frank how to safely wrestle and subdue alligators that needed to be moved, and how to catch and handle the various snakes of the Everglades.
“We would remove pythons, chameleons, tortoises – anything that was invasive,” Frank says.
And then on one trip into the swamps with his father, the two made a find that would become monumental: the fossilized tooth of a very large animal.
“I thought, ‘This is really what I want to do, is work with fossils,'” Frank says. “‘If I’m ever going to school, this is what I’m going there for.'”
He was attending Miami-Dade at the time, but his career track at the junior college was pointing toward a job in fish and wildlife management rather than research. His interest in reptiles and love for the Everglades were driving his dreams – and not always in safe directions.
Frank’s father had taught him to approach alligators only on land, where they are less comfortable and more manageable. Then Frank went to the swamps with a friend from south Florida’s Miccosukee Tribe, who offered to show him another approach.
“He was teaching me this technique for calming gators down in the water,” Frank says. “I was watching from behind, and the gator came right at me – it hit me right in the chest.”
But his passions ultimately led to an unexpected – and opportune – intersection.
“I was working in a reptile store,” Frank says. “That’s where I met my wife. She was looking for snake food – little rodents.”
Ashland, tree-lighting, SOU and Ronald McNair
Ayáse Rayel Bet-el is a botanist, and when Frank met her in the reptile shop, she was already planning a move to Ashland. The two dated for a while in Miami and when the time came, Frank decided to move with her to Oregon.
It was early winter when they arrived, and his first impression of Ashland was from the Festival of Light tree-lighting celebration on the downtown plaza.
“I was just standing there, downtown, and saw the whole community together,” Frank says. “That just sparked me. I thought, ‘Wow, I want to be part of a community like this.'”
He began applying to universities up and down the West Coast and when he was accepted at SOU, his decision became an easy one. But he paid non-resident tuition for the first year, so went to school part-time while also working at various ranches, grooming horses and cleaning stalls.
“When I finally got residency I said, ‘OK, I’m going for it,'” he says. “I started taking 12 to 15 credits (per term), and then last year 18 credits.”
“What makes Frank stand out from other students is his pragmatic personality and unmatched enthusiasm for scientific research – both undoubtedly influenced by his upbringing.”
— HALA SCHEPMANN, SOU CHEMISTRY PROFESSOR
Along the way, Frank drew the notice of his professors. He was a good but not outstanding student by the numbers, maintaining a grade point average of about 3.3. But his passion and sense of purpose were unique.
“What makes Frank stand out from other students is his pragmatic personality and unmatched enthusiasm for scientific research – both undoubtedly influenced by his upbringing,” says professor and chemistry chair Hala Schepmann, who met Frank two years ago in her Principles of Organic Chemistry class.
“From the outset, despite carrying heavy class and workloads, Frank was quite engaged in class,” she says. “I was impressed by Frank’s genuine desire to learn, regardless of the topic, as well as his work ethic and professionalism.”
Schepmann recognized his combination of ambition and potential, and she knew where to steer him next. She nominated Frank for SOU’s McNair Scholars Program, which offers one-on-one guidance from faculty mentors as it helps participants complete their undergraduate degrees, enroll in graduate school and prepare for doctoral studies.
“Frank has not had the privileges that some of us take for granted, so he fully embraces each opportunity he encounters,” Schepmann says.
Frank applied for the McNair program – named for the late physicist, astronaut and civil rights activist Ronald E. McNair, who died in the 1986 explosion of the space shuttle Challenger – and impressed the interview panel with his enthusiasm and intellectual curiosity.
“Frank knew that to achieve his professional career goals he would need to attend graduate school,” says Dee Southard, the McNair program’s director. “But he also knew that he did not know very much about the types of graduate programs that are available, and knew little about the process of applying to graduate programs and the fellowships to financially support his lofty aspirations.”
SOU Chemistry Professor Hala Schepmann nominated Frank for SOU’s McNair Scholars Program
Scholarships, undergraduate research and success
Frank has received a variety of scholarships at SOU, both need- and merit-based. But until this year’s fall term, he had continued working his ranch hand jobs to make ends meet.
“I spoke to (Southard) and she said, ‘Frank, this is where you buckle down,'” he says. “So I got a second scholarship on top of the one I already had, and that put me over the top.”
Frank has a tip for other students who are struggling to pay for college: there’s money available; you just have to apply for it and be persistent. He’s developed a knack in applying for a wide variety of public and private scholarships.
“I always tell every student that you need to spread it out – apply for everything,” he says. “It takes a couple hours, but there’s so much money out there.”
There are also research opportunities at SOU, especially for undergraduates. Frank proposed his own project for last summer as part of his McNair program. He investigated the genetic diversity of mossy geckos from a pair of islands, and the likelihood that their evolution has been shaped by a “founder effect” – reduced diversity due to a small number of colonizing ancestors.
He intends to continue using the research skills he has acquired over the past few years at SOU – such as stable isotope analysis – to improve understanding of Earth’s five mass extinction events, and even the origin of life. Those who have worked with him don’t doubt his ability to achieve those goals.
SOU biology professor John Roden taught the class that triggered Frank’s interest in stable isotopes – atoms of the same element, which have the same numbers of protons and electrons but differing numbers of neutrons. Studying differences in stable isotopes – from animal diets, for instance – offers clues about environmental changes.
“He researched much of this on his own, asked for papers to read and we have had discussions of techniques, including both their promise and limitations,” Roden says. “To me, going the extra mile to learn about something unrelated to class requirements speaks to a hunger for research opportunities that may make him someone who could excel in graduate school.”
Going the extra mile to learn about something unrelated to class requirements speaks to a hunger for research opportunities that may make him someone who could excel in graduate school.
— JOHN RODEN, SOU BIOLOGY PROFESSOR
Interesting pets, working and waiting, SOU highlights
Remember how Frank said that reptiles are his “thing?” Make that plural.
He raises them in his Ashland home and occasionally buys, sells, trades or holds animals for other reptile hobbyists around the country. Geckos are his favorites – mossy or leaf-tailed – but he’s also partial to Australian spiny-tailed skinks, various snakes and others.
“The most I’ve kept is like 100 to 150 at a time,” Frank says. “Now I have about 40. I want to keep some big stuff, but my wife is not having that. But I’ll hold, sometimes, some big snakes or a monitor (lizard) for other people.”
So far, no conflicts with the cat, dog or chickens that are also part of the household.
Frank Rodriguez at the SOU Science Building
Frank, the new SOU alumnus, is biding his time for now, waiting for news on his doctoral program applications – probably in March or April. In the meantime, he’s trying to catch on for a few months of fish and wildlife work with a state or federal agency.
Already, he’s missing being an active part of the tightknit science community at SOU. The helpfulness and genuine concern of faculty members have made a lasting impression.
“Just being able to walk into someone like Dr. Roden’s office – someone so well-educated, and the fact they’re willing to help with anything,” he says.
Frank suffered several injuries in a bike accident last summer, but told only one person at the university – his faculty advisor – because he was away working on his research for an extended period.
“But when I got back, everyone I saw said, ‘Hey Frank, how are you doing from your accident?'” he says. “Which was pretty cool.”
Rise to the Challenge
Raiders Rising is a series of in-depth feature stories about SOU students and recent alumni who have risen to academic, career or personal challenges in spectacular ways.
Joe Mosley – Author
Joe Mosley – Photography
Greg Martin – Graphic Design
Sean Glassford – Website Development