TAMPA — Colombian scientist and inventor Raul Cuero Rengifo credits discipline and creativity for his successes in science.
Cuero already has been awarded the 2004 Knight of the Order of Simon Bolivar medal given by the government of Colombia, and this week he’ll add another — Hispanic Scientist of the Year. The award will be presented by the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) in a sold-out event on Saturday.
Cuero, 65, has mostly been recognized for his work in biotechnology. He also was a professor at Texas A&M University and has been part of several NASA investigations. He now lives in Texas, where he works for a laboratory.
Cuero was born in Buenaventura, a port town in Colombia’s Pacific coast that is one of the country’s poorest cities.
“Buenaventura may not have had the advances that other cities had, but it was environmentally rich thanks to its people. Their self-esteem would help keep you strong in such a way that you wouldn’t realize that you were poor. In the human context, everyone was at the same economic level,” said Cuero.
His parents did not know how to read or write, Cuero writes in his autobiography, “From Buenaventura to NASA.” He also talks about how his father, Félix, always carried a gold pen in his shirt pocket even though he could not read or write.
Because the family had so little, Cuero had to play with whatever nature had to offer.
“I had no idea what science was, but as a kid I played with lizards, roaches, crabs, birds or even the iguanas, which were always around because the town was in the tropics,” he said. “There were a lot of bamboo trees and woods where roaches reigned.
“My great grandmother would wake me up to pray and then I would look at the roaches and notice that they were all crawling in pairs, except at certain hours. So I started to ask myself why they would do that and noticed that it was because of the heat between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. And then later I found out that they walked in pairs because they had pheromones that got dispersed with the heat,” he said. “I would get sad when the roaches left and then be happy when they returned.”
He graduated from Heidelberg College in Ohio, thanks largely to a scholarship he received for his research on parasitic plants. He also has a master’s degree in plant pathology from Ohio State University and a doctorate in microbiology from the University of Strathclyde in the United Kingdom.
Cuero said he developed his love for plants from his great-grandmother, who lived to be 109. “I would follow her through the streets of our town until she was 100, and we would pick up plants and would try home remedies. She used to say to me: ‘This is sweet, it’s good for the heart’ or ‘this is bitter, it’s good for the liver,’ and that’s how I learned about plants,” he said.
When Cuero began his university studies at Universidad del Valle in Colombia, he was not only a good student, but he also quickly developed as an athlete. Thanks to his 6-foot-4 frame, basketball came easy to him.
But Cuero opted for academics. When he began his coursework in Colombia, one of his first projects was about parasitic plants, and it was that research that earned him a scholarship to study in the United States.
Cuero also developed the concept of Creativity Park, whose mission is to develop and enrich the creativity of young people to serve scientific and technological production.
“In Colombia, we already have five parks running so that students can develop their inventions,’’ Cuero said.