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In Puerto Rico, LSEN Liaison Natasha DeLeón-Rodríguez Sews a Network of Problem-solving Scientists

Woman with big curly hair, black blazer, and yellow pants
Natasha DeLeon Rodriguez, Photo Credit Natasha DeLeon Rodriguez.

At her home in Puerto Rico, microbiologist Natasha DeLeón-Rodríguez discusses the importance of the world’s tiniest organisms across the room from her well-worn sewing machine, a nod to her first love of fashion design.  

Like tugging a loose thread in a sweater, tampering with the balance of microorganisms in an environment might cause an entire ecosystem to, quite literally, unwind. 

“Microbes rule the world,” says DeLeón-Rodríguez, an assistant professor at the Inter American University of Puerto Rico. “Understanding microbes is crucial to understanding how the world is changing.” 

Luckily, these single-celled beings – the first form of life on our planet – aren't her only area of expertise.  

As a liaison with the AAAS Local Science Engagement Network (LSEN), DeLeón-Rodríguez is charged with building connections and communication among the most complex species on Earth: her fellow human beings. 

In her role, she aims to construct feedback loops between scientists, communities and local officials to address Puerto Rico’s most pressing environmental issues and eliminate “colonial science.” 

Scientific colonialism involves academics from wealthy Western countries coming to poor areas for research. They gather data and leave without acknowledging contributions from local scientists or disseminating actionable findings. 

DeLeón-Rodríguez hopes to connect experts with real-world problems they can solve and reduce the potential for research that is conducted based on personal assumptions or interests. 

Related to her LSEN work, DeLeón-Rodríguez helps organize “Science Cafes,” informal talks on local issues hosted by scientists at bars and restaurants. And she participated in an LSEN workshop at the 2024 AAAS Annual Meeting in February about relationship-building and how to hold two-way, inclusive conversations. 

“Scientists should go to the community and learn from them first,” says DeLeón-Rodríguez. “They should learn what’s happening and come out with questions everyone can answer together.” 

Complementing her LSEN work, she serves on the board of Casa Pueblo, an environmental watchdog organization that protects Puerto Rico’s wild places and influences policy around conservation. 

Casa Pueblo hosted the last conference for AAAS’ Caribbean Division. For the event, DeLeón-Rodríguez brought together organizations and young scientists to talk about engaging with communities. 

“For me it’s very important that we scientists work to better the community,” she says, adding that her volunteer activity with Casa Pueblo also involves motivating scientists to help inform public policy. 

“We are a small island with many universities,” DeLeón-Rodríguez says. “We want to increase those channels of communication so everyone knows we are here and they can reach out to scientists to help solve problems.” 

Born and raised on the Island of Enchantment – a nickname that stems from Puerto Rico’s vibrant biodiversity and beautiful scenery – DeLeón-Rodríguez never thought she’d count herself among these scientific troubleshooters. 

As a child, she gravitated toward the arts, namely sewing and writing. Meanwhile family members pushed her to pursue science, eager to have a doctor in the family. 

While earning her bachelor’s degree at the University of Puerto Rico-Mayaguez, DeLeón-Rodríguez encountered a professor who was investigating the effects of military activities on the environment and ways microbiology can restore certain ecosystems. 

“That was my ‘Aha!’ moment. I realized I could do science and help my community,” she says.  

“With microbiology, there’s so much imagination involved,” she adds. “Thinking about microbes in this tiny, tiny world helped me imagine what was happening in the ecosystem and come up with questions and solutions to problems.” 

After finishing a Ph.D. at Georgia Institute of Technology, DeLeón-Rodríguez returned to her homeland where she now researches the microbiology of atmospheric events. 

Currently, she is in the early stages of analyzing health effects caused by bacteria brought to Puerto Rico via Saharan dust plumes, swept thousands of miles from Africa by weather events. She is also working with students to collect samples in Puerto Rico’s bioluminescent bays, pools of water which appear to glow due to single-celled organisms called dinoflagellates that emit light near the surface. 

The bays are part of a complex ecosystem, filled with fish, plants and algae. In the spirit of her LSEN work, DeLeón-Rodríguez plans to engage other scientists outside her expertise to understand how bacteria works alongside other natural processes to preserve these fragile, beautiful natural resources. 

“Doing collective work is better than working by yourself,” she says. “When we collaborate and increase our network of people, then we can look at the big picture.”