Rodrigo Gonzalez

Hometown: Guatemala City, Guatemala
Universidad del Valle de Guatemala

It’s hard to find someone with more varied interests and hobbies than Microbiology & Immunology graduate student Rodrigo Gonzalez.  First there is music.  He studied violin and opera when he was younger and while he hasn’t performed in many years, he does listen to classical music on is iPod or at live performances.  “I like it all, but the Baroque period is my favorite because it’s such difficult music and the musicians and singers are incredibly talented”.  Then there are the orchids. “They grow wild in the city I lived in as a child (Cobán) and my family cultured them, so I learned how to as well.  A childhood friend of mine became an orchid taxonomist and actually named a new species of orchid after me – Mormodes rodrigoi”.  And there is ancient medicine and the history of science.   “Right now I’m listening to a podcast about Medieval Islamic Medicine and it’s fascinating.  They were so certain they understood how things worked and now looking back and it seems ridiculous to us.  It’s a good reminder that the ideas I have right now might be very wrong.  We have to keep questioning things and not be limited by dogma.”   But these days Rodrigo spends most of his time on his main passion: his research in Virginia Miller’s lab where he studies Yersinia pestis, a bacterium that causes plague in humans.  “I really like working in lab thinking about experiments, talking about them with Virginia.  It makes me really happy and I am honestly excited to go to lab every day.”

It is no surprise that Rodrigo found his way into a pathogenesis lab.  He always had an interest in infection and disease and says that as a child he set up a microscope in his grandmother’s kitchen so he could examine water samples he collected from nearby streams.  Before coming to UNC he worked on everything from Chagas disease, an illness caused by the parasite Trypanosoma cruzi, to Onchocerciasis, a tropical disease caused by infection with the nematode Onchocerca volvulus to malaria.  When it came time to look at graduate schools, Rodrigo was attracted to UNC because of the large number of labs working in infectious disease and the variety of coursework available to students in the Biological & Biomedical Sciences Program.  He wanted to make the switch to using bacteria as a model system and so he focused his rotations on bacteriology labs.  Ultimately he was drawn to the Miller lab because of the people in the lab and the overall research area, but he had an idea for a totally different project that the lab was not really working on at the time.  To his surprise, Dr. Miller was supportive.   “We were both just honest with each other about what we wanted.  People told me that the mentor and the relationship with the mentor would be the most important thing, more important than the project even.  But I was lucky to be able to find both – a great mentor that I really like AND the project that I wanted”.

Rodrigo’s goal is to understand how Yersinia interacts with its host, humans, during early stages of infection.  Bubonic plague starts when the Yersinia bacteria are introduced into the skin where an infected flea bites a human.  From the skin the bacteria move first to lymph nodes and in later stages of infection, disseminate all over the body causing organ failure and eventually death.  “I could not believe it, but no one knows how the bacteria travel from the flea bite to the lymph node.  It seems so simple, but no one had tested it”.  To address the question, Rodrigo is using tagged strains of Yersinia that he can follow throughout infection.  Because of the potential for Yersinia to be used as a bioweapon and because naturally occurring cases of the plague are on the rise again worldwide, even in the US, understanding Yersinia has important implications for human health.  Rodrigo doesn’t get offended when people don’t know about this and wonder why anyone would work on the plague “I actually get really excited when I hear that because I get the chance to tell them about what I do.  It’s easy to explain it because it affects people.  It hurts, it kills.”  For this work Rodrigo was recently awarded a prestigious ASM Robert D Watkins Graduate Fellowship for rising talent in microbiology.  The award includes 3 years of stipend support and funds to attend meetings and writing institutes.  When asked about having Rodrigo in her lab, Virginia Miller said “Rodrigo is a true renaissance man with broad interests and knowledge, not just in science, but in art, music, philosophy and literature as well.  How lucky are we that he chose science?”

As passionate as he is about his research, Rodrigo does spend time outside the lab following some of his other interests.  One of his favorite things about Chapel Hill is the arts performances, especially the Carolina Performing Arts Series.  “It was surprising how great the arts are around here.  When I came here it seemed like such a small place.  But there is so much to see, and the quality is amazing.  They bring people here who are famous, the best singers, and I pay $10. Then at the end they bring the artist out so you can talk to them and interact”.   He also serves as a Peer Mentor in a BBSP First Year Group. In that role he listens to practice talks and gives advice on courses and rotations as student navigate the first year.  For Rodrigo it’s just a way to make sure that the students that come after him get the same kind of personal attention and support he found when he came to UNC.  His number one piece of advice for grad students is to do as he does and “be honest with yourself.  What makes you happy?  Try to pursue that.”