Rosa León Zayas, Ph.D.
Dedicated to understanding how microbes interact with what's around them, Rosa got her start at a marine research station off the coast of her native Puerto Rico.
Finding your People
When Rosa first went to a summer internship at Georgia Tech, it took her minutes to realize her English classes hadn’t made her conversational enough to understand all that was going on. She sat down with the other interns while they were having pizza, and leveled with her new friends. “I am struggling with this English deal. I hope that you will be patient with me…and if I say something that doesn’t make sense that you will let me know so I can learn.” Their response? “They were super kind, and by the end of the summer things felt very different with me.” Rosa’s ability to advocate for herself helped her move forward, and increased her sense that people were a source of support.
And then there was the language barrier in math. Math language? Sure. Rosa says, “When they started talking about this number by that number, I was like, ‘What do you mean, by?’ Eventually I learned it was multiplied by.” There were many moments when she didn’t know what was going on, which made it scary to be so far from home.
Rosa experienced a cultural barrier, too. When one professor talked about dinoflagellates (a marine organism), he described them as the “Brussels sprouts of the ocean” because, like the vegetables, dinoflagellates are made of cellulose. Rosa says, “I leaned into one of my friends: what is a Brussels sprout? They were like, ‘Oh, Rosa!’
In college, Rosa participated in a U.S. National Institute of Health program called Minority Access to Research Careers (MARC). “It was very fostering, very focused” on giving students a sense of the scientific life — important for Rosa, because she was the first in her family to pursue a science career and earn a Ph.D.
She participates in the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos, Hispanics, and Native Americans in STEM (SACNAS) which holds an annual conference. “The first time that I walked into the place and everybody was mostly not white…every time I go to that conference I cry; at some point I bawl!” Now she takes her students of color to present their research there.
Rosa describes navigating coming out as “nonbinaryish.” “Puerto Rico is still a very Latin-American, macho culture. It’s gotten better through the years, but in 2007 is was very much like that.” She put a hold on talking to her parents until she had entered graduate school in California. “My parents are very open-minded,” she says. Her ‘cohort’ — the group of students she went to graduate school with — were there for her, too. “They became friends that became family, the people that I trusted and leaned on.”
But it’s an ongoing journey. “She/they pronouns is what I use now more than anything.” She describes being super-scared to wear a tie to the classroom (though she had always looked at them with longing when strolling through stores). She credits the new generation of her students with an accepting attitude. “They were totally cool and excited that they had a professor that wore a tie and suit once in a while, and that has mostly shaven hair and piercings. I was terrified at first. It’s a work in progress for sure.”
Finding Your People
I called Rosa’s bluff on being lucky with people, and asked her what skills she had developed in finding friends. She had to admit she’d learned a few things. “It takes a lot of work and energy and intention to create and foster relationships with people. Maybe it’s just who I am, or maybe it’s that I spend a lot of time having to do that by necessity. I tend to be the kind of person that has deep relationships with people and I enjoy that. I guess I just really care about people. I care about people’s wellbeing and lives and I learn a lot from people. I’m fascinated by people’s resilience and creativity and the beauty that people bring to the world.
Rosa’s work can take her into situations fraught with anxiety — such as diving into the Puerto Rico Trench in the human-operated vehicle Alvin. “Maybe I’m a little claustrophobic,” Rosa fretted at first, but then pulled herself together. “I’m going to do it. How can I not? It’s a once in a lifetime, you have to do it.” And Adam Soule, the chief scientist on the Alvin Science Verification Expedition Rosa took part in, kept telling her it might not be her only dive — given her line of research on microbial communities in extreme environments. “It’s a nerve-wracking experience,” she concluded. And afterward her dive? “Amazing! I want a job that lets me do this every day.”
MORE: Rosa took part in a series of outreach videos designed to give 15-second tastes of marine science. Find them here.