From ag worker to ag researcher: Anabel Rodriguez, PhD, studies the industry that shaped her childhood

Anabel Rodriguez, PhD
Anabel Rodriguez, PhD, assistant professor in San Antonio in the department of epidemiology, human genetics and environmental sciences
Anabel Rodriguez, PhD, conducting research at a dairy farm in the Rio Grande Valley
Anabel Rodriguez, PhD, conducting research at a dairy farm in the Rio Grande Valley
Anabel Rodriguez, PhD, conducting research with farm workers at a dairy farm in the Rio Grande Valley
Anabel Rodriguez, PhD, conducting research with farm workers at a dairy farm in the Rio Grande Valley

Anabel Rodriguez was just 13 years old when she started working in agriculture, joining her siblings and parents in the grueling labor of harvesting produce every summer, in the heat, under the sun, muscles aching.

Even then, she knew that was not the future she wanted for herself, and she was determined to forge a different path.

Rodriguez, now an assistant professor at UTHealth Houston School of Public Health, believes she was able to write her own story because of her parents’ years of labor in the agricultural fields, the way they encouraged their children to succeed academically, and her own relentless dedication to academics and pursuit of opportunity.

“I carry the struggles of my ancestors and I carry their sacrifices,” Rodriguez said. “My dad, he always tells us in Spanish, ‘When I die all I’m gonna leave you is the opportunity we gave you for an education.’ So I was always super motivated to break this cycle. All of this sacrifice is in vain if I don’t go to school and do something about it.”

Schooling, however, was tough for Rodriguez in the beginning, when her parents were moving to California from April to September every year, pulling her and her siblings out of school early, and returning home to Texas when the school year had already begun again.

“I always felt like I had lost a couple lesson plans,” Rodriguez said. “I was always feeling like I was catching up.”

Eventually, when she was in high school, Rodriguez’ parents stopped doing the yearly migration to California, settled down in Texas, and found jobs locally. Despite the early setbacks and challenges of keeping up with schoolwork, Rodriguez more than caught up to her classmates in high school, and graduated valedictorian of her class at Rio Grande City High School in Rio Grande City, Texas in 2010. Her outstanding academic achievements earned her a place as a Gates Millennium Scholar, a scholarship from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which paid for 10 years of schooling in whatever field she chose.

Rodriguez chose St. Edward’s University in Austin for her undergraduate degree because the school offered the College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP) that she thought would help her adjust to college life and campus culture. She had always been interested in science and felt the pressure that she said many children of immigrants face to pursue a career in the medical field and become a doctor, so Rodriguez took a pre-health path and majored in biology.

At St. Edwards, Rodriguez met Patricia Baynham, PhD, who would soon become her mentor. She offered Rodriguez a paid internship one summer doing research for a USDA grant, and the option to live on campus over the summer. Rodriguez jumped at the opportunity, mostly because she needed a place to live and source of income, but soon discovered that she was thoroughly enjoying the research.

Rodriguez was committed to pursuing the path of becoming a medical doctor, so she took the MCAT and the results were devastating.

“I did terrible on my MCATS. Terrible,” Rodriguez said. “I was such a good student, my GPA was 3.97 in college, but for some reason I could not get my head around standardized tests. And I was freaking out, because what is my next move?”

Rodriguez went to her mentor for advice, and Baynham said she thought Rodriguez would do well in public health as a career path.

Rodriguez took the GRE, did very well on the test, applied to UTHealth Houston School of Public Health in San Antonio and was accepted. She quickly learned that David Douphrate, PhD, an associate professor in San Antonio, was looking for a graduate research assistant to help him do research on agricultural workers, particularly someone who could speak Spanish.

“I went to the first dairy farm with Douphrate for research and I was in love with going out there and doing research and meeting the workers,” Rodriguez said. “I see my parents in them and I see myself in these kids.”

As she began working on her master’s in public health, Rodriguez was already formulating her new, revised career plan. After finishing her master’s, she planned to retake the MCAT, make a better score, and with an extra degree, she told herself, she would then be ready to reapply to medical school.

“I studied for the MCAT, I retook it, but by the time I was gonna apply, I was so in love with what I was doing that to this day I’ve not checked my second MCAT score,” Rodriguez said. “I never reapplied to medical school. I applied for my PhD instead, because this is what I wanted to do.”

In 2019, Rodriguez graduated from UTHealth Houston School of Public Health in San Antonio with her PhD in occupational epidemiology and then completed her post-doctoral work at the school. In June, 2021, at just 29 years old, Rodriguez became an assistant professor in the department of epidemiology, human genetics and environmental sciences at the San Antonio branch of the school.

She has since been awarded several grants including an OSHA Susan Harwood Training Program grant for research and training with agricultural workers and continues to facilitate vaccine outreach in rural communities across west and south Texas.

As an assistant professor and researcher at just 31 years old, Rodriguez said she sometimes gets comments about how much she has accomplished at such a young age, but from Rodriguez’ perspective she had no choice.

“The reason I’m so driven is because I feel like I’ve been in this survival rat race my whole life,” Rodriguez said. “I have not had the privilege to take a break. There have been no gaps in my CV, because I can’t afford to have gaps. Those are the cards that I’ve been given in my life, and it’s fine because it’s made me the woman who I am today.”

While her career path has been shaped by unexpected opportunities and detours, and choices made from necessity, Rodriguez believes she found her calling and is passionate about working to improve the health and well-being of agricultural workers and their families.

“I have so much respect for that profession and so much admiration for the people who wake up every single day at three, four in the morning to do the same thing over and over again just to give their children a roof over their heads, some food and move on another day in this country. And they feed us, every day, everything that we eat.”

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