A first-gen chemistry student wants to use science to change the world
Juan Pablo de los Rios is a chemistry graduate student in Professor Megan Fieser’s lab, which is focused on tackling the plastics polluting our oceans. (Photo: Mike Glier)

A first-gen chemistry student wants to use science to change the world

The polluted river that separates his family is the same river that inspired Juan Pablo de los Rios to pursue a career in science as an avenue to improve our world. [5 min read]
ByMargaret Crable

The Rio Grande starts high in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, carving canyons through much of the southwestern United States before it washes, along with 32 other rivers, into the Gulf of Mexico. Along its meandering journey, the river also slices apart the U.S. and Mexico.

This borderland, where an invisible line down a thin gully of water serves as the end of one country and the start of another, is home for Juan Pablo “JP” de los Rios, a chemistry graduate student at USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

He, his brother and sister were all born in El Paso, Texas. Their parents are originally from Chihuahua, Mexico. They now live in Juarez, where his father crosses the border to work in the U.S. as a truck driver. In order to continue their high school studies in the states, the de los Rios siblings rented a small apartment together in El Paso without their parents. On weekends they’d cross the river to rejoin them, and It was along this river that de los Rios’ interest in chemistry first ignited. 

On the Texas side, feet from the river’s banks, the American Smelting and Refining Company (ASARCO) had been extracting metals from ore for more than a century. It also dumped huge amounts of toxic waste, including arsenic, lead and sulfuric acid, into the surrounding environment. The plant shut down in 1999, and in 2010, ASARCO was forced to pay $52 million towards a (still ongoing) hazardous waste cleanup at the site.

For de los Rios, the polluted river was a catalyst sparking his interest in chemistry. What strange metals were flowing through the bloodstream of his dual hometowns? How could they be quantified, and how could the waters be cleansed? Science seemed to promise healing to an area pummeled by pollution and also by environmental inequality. The large payout benefited primarily the American side of ASARCO’s operations, but thousands of Mexican citizens were exposed to poisonous water and to lead-tainted smoke that blew into Juarez each time the wind shifted.

Lab culture 

After receiving his undergraduate degree in chemistry at the University of Texas at Austin, de los Rios began searching for a graduate program where he could focus on environmental issues like those plaguing the river. A campus tour of USC got him immediately hooked.

“I visited here and I just fell in love with it,” he said. He was particularly drawn to Gabilan Assistant Professor of Chemistry Megan Fieser’s lab.

Fieser had just arrived at USC Dornsife and was building her program from the ground up, researching biodegradable plastic alternatives and innovative ways to break down existing plastics.

“JP is a kind soul who took a chance on a new professor, a risky thing, as I don’t already have an established program,” she said. “We fit well on interests in sustainability, and in the passion of building something new together,” 

De los Rios, yellow shirt, stands with his mother and siblings. (Photo: Courtesy of Juan Pablo de los Rios)

The risk paid off. De los Rios has found Fieser to be an ideal mentor. “She’s just phenomenal. She’s so open to her students and is there constantly to make our work easier.”

Fieser and de los Rios also share a concern for the environment. In addition to research, they and the rest of the Fieser Lab established a relationship with Heal the Bay, a nonprofit focused on improving the health of Los Angeles’ coastal waters and watersheds. Through Heal the Bay, they’ve adopted Hermosa Beach for regular beach cleanups. Three times a year the lab gathers on the sand to collect discarded packaging and single-use containers, the same types of plastics they hope to soon replace with more sustainable options.

JP the Science Guy

For de los Rios, graduate school is a full-time job. Each morning he heads into the lab where he examines experiments set up the day before to run overnight. The delicate nature of the experiments requires special “gloveboxes,” sealed acrylic containers with gloves fitted to the front that allow researchers to perform tasks without exposing the materials to outside air that could disrupt sensitive reactions.

Once new experiments are set and the gloves are off, de los Rios heads out for a full day of classwork, meetings and instruction. He’s teaching undergraduate analytical chemistry where, fittingly, his class examines water from L.A.’s wetlands for contaminants like heavy metals and pesticides.

He admits it can all be a little overwhelming. “Sometimes I lose motivation, but I do want to leave having made a positive impact on my grad school. Even if it’s just increasing polymerization rates a little bit, or making recycling methods better.”

Life beyond graduate school may look less like a lab though, and more like a TV studio. De los Rios, inspired by popular science personalities Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye, is looking to move into science communication.

“I want to travel, meet different of types of people and explain the science behind what’s going on in the world,” he said.

New citizens

De los Rios has another dream, which is to help his parents move to his side of the river. He and his three siblings have been attending college in the U.S. while his parents remain in Juarez. A family of scientists, his brother Marco Antonio graduated with a biochemistry degree and his sister, Ana Maria, will graduate this year with degrees in neuroscience and chemistry.

The separation from his parents has been a challenge. Increased scrutiny at the border has made it difficult for his parents to attain a tourist visa, so neither has yet been able to visit him at the USC campus. For de Los Rios, the sacrifices his parents have made to ensure he and his siblings achieved a better life motivates his own studies.

“When you have parents that sacrifice a lot for you, you really want to honor that,” he said “I feel like I’m never going to be able to do something to thank them for everything they’ve done.”

He and his siblings are hopeful that, with a little luck, their parents will be allowed to immigrate and reunite with their children soon. After all, says de los Rios, “they have produced three stellar Americans.”