At 94, interdisciplinary scientist, Juan Roederer, has witnessed the genesis of some of the world’s most revolutionary physical discoveries—nuclear fission, the existence of pulsars, the big bang theory and, more recently, the first photographic evidence of black holes.
During his seven-decade-long career investigating the Earth’s magnetosphere, writing textbooks that introduced generations of young scientists to physics and exploring musical perception, Juan has published hundreds of articles in scientific publications around the world.
But it was Science, a journal whose pages have long served as a space for brilliant minds from all disciplines to connect, that spoke to one of his real passions—interdisciplinary science.
“[At a point in my career], I realized that to progress ahead, it would be impossible to stay in just one field,” says Juan, who has worked on everything from the psychophysics of music to the early study of cosmic rays. “One has to start working in an interdisciplinary environment, and the journal Science deals with all these disciplines.”
Flip through the pages of Science’s back issues and you’ll find three generations of Roederers. Juan was first published in 1974 with his article, The Earth's Magnetosphere, his son Ernesto in 1981 for his research on spinal cord regeneration and his son Mario in 2010 for his groundbreaking research on HIV. Remarkably, Juan’s grandson Alex made it three generations of Roederer research with a 2021 paper on antibodies.
For this family of scientists, Science occupies a special place in their personal and professional lives.
“Having an article in a world-renowned journal was always the goal, and Science is sort of a pinnacle of the scientific publication trinity,” says Mario Roederer. Like his father, Mario’s career is not only defined by excellence, but also by his commitment to the public good. Mario currently serves as Chief of the ImmunoTechnology Section at the Vaccine Research Center at the National Institutes of Health, where his work is dedicated to understanding the individual components of the central immune system, with a particular eye towards the changes occurring during acute or chronic antigenic responses.
Alex’s young career can also be found at the intersection of science and its societal impact. Throughout his educational journey, he has been amazed at the lasting impact that Juan, Beatriz and Mario have had on the field of science. Originally planning to go into sports medicine, his lab work at the University of Washington ignited his passion to follow his father into the field of virology and immunology. He worked as a Research Scientist/Engineering Assistant at the UW Institute for Protein Design, where he produced, characterized, and designed self-assembling protein nanoparticles vaccines that were used in trials against Malaria parasite infection. It was this contribution that led to his publication in Science. Today, he is conducting his graduate research in virology at Harvard under the direction of Dr. Alejandro Balazs. He has spent the past two years at Thielsen Capital, a life science seed syndicate investment network that works directly with founders to build start-ups.
Perhaps none of these multigenerational scientific achievements would have been possible if not for a series of successful emigrations that Juan and his family endured earlier in his life. Born in Italy and educated in Austria, Juan Roederer had his most formative educational years in Buenos Aires, where his family migrated in the late 1930s to escape the turmoil of the second world war.
In Argentina, he discovered his love of physics and math in a high school science class with his classmate Beatriz Cougnet, the woman who would go on to be his scientific co-author, intellectual equal, wife, and mother to four children who inherited their wide-ranging global outlook and passion for science and inquiry.
Beatriz and Juan married in December 1952 and began a family the next year. It was also during this time that Juan was introduced to the concept of nuclear emulsion, a way of detecting the movement of fast-charged particles on a photographic plate. His first published paper, of which Beatriz was the first author, showed negative π−mesons captured by carbon nuclei of the emulsion. It was the first Argentinian nuclear physics paper published in an international, peer-reviewed journal.
Unfortunately for the Roederer family, the tranquility of Argentina was shattered by a military coup of the democratically-elected government and the establishment of a military Junta.
Juan threw himself into political actions against the Junta. “The Night of the Long Batons” soon followed, where students and faculty of the University of Buenos Aires were violently dislodged from occupied facilities. As a result, over 300 professors emigrated. Juan and Beatriz were forced to leave the country in 1967 and headed to the United States with their four children and three surviving parents.
This forced relocation would once again prove to be formative for the Roederer’s and their impact on science.
Upon emigrating to the US, he landed a position at The University of Denver as a professor of physics and began branching out into other areas of science. After 10 years in Colorado, Juan was appointed director of the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks where he also spent time as the dean of the College of Environmental Sciences.
Juan has authored five books, including the most widely-used textbooks in Latin American physics programs, Mecánica Elemental and Electromagnetismo Elemental. As the former foreign secretary of the American Geophysical Union, he also laid the foundations for the International Climate Research Program and International Space Weather Program, which have been the focus of internationally-coordinated research for 40 years. He is also a member of four Academies of Science and a recipient of five NASA Awards.
To this day, he sees the ‘interdisciplinarification’ of science—along with international cooperation—as vital to the future of STEM.
“Scientists cannot work in a vacuum”, he says, “[Poor cooperation] is the virus of science in all countries and in all regimes.”
“Life experiences like Dr. Juan Roederer’s illustrate the importance of an engaged scientific community,” says Kim Montgomery, AAAS Director of International Affairs and Science Diplomacy. “Science can serve as a valued bridge between nations, even when official relations are strained and can be one of the first areas of cooperation after diplomatic relations are normalized. Juan has dedicated his life to making connections in the scientific community with extraordinary impact.”
When Roederer looks back on his career, he is most proud of the Physics teaching materials he developed that train today’s scientists to work for a better tomorrow. Currently, as a scientist of the University of Colorado’s Laboratory of Atmospheric and Space Physics, he has redirected his efforts to documenting the history of science policy. Young people, Juan says, need to know more about “how science and scientific tests worked in the past.”
After more than 70 years in the field, he’s equipped to help them.
“I can tell a lot of stories, and hopefully one day you will, too.”