Dr. Raúl Cuero grew up in Buenaventura before finding his destiny in science. With numerous inventions to his name and years advising NASA, the molecular and astro-biologist was recently named Hispanic Scientist of the Year. He spoke with The City Paper.
Dr. Raúl Cuero is a soft-spoken man, precise with the words he chooses to describe a life dedicated to science and which began while observing the movement of roaches in the cracks of bamboo from which the family home was built.
Cuero’s story also defies logic and the odds. If you are a firm believer in “the harsher the conditions, the more resilient the people,” you couldn’t pick a more defining place to grow up than in Buenaventura in the 1950s.
During this decade, 30 percent of all children died before the age of ten, due to parasites, malaria and tuberculosis. Of those who did survive, only a third would learn to read or write. “The only black people who left Buenaventura were chauffeurs and truck drivers,” states Cuero.
Buenaventura, like many other parts of Latin America, depended on humanitarian aid from the United States. School children like Raúl Cuero enjoyed the daily ration of cheese sent to his household by the Alliance for Progress program. Then he would walk down to the docks and rummage through the donations of clothes and books to see which paperback novels he could take home to read. The piers at Buenaventura introduced this young boy to the adventures of Oliver Twist, the Man in the Iron Mask and a sack of European classics. There were “days” when his father had gone to buy single bricks for the new home that the money simply ran out. The inquisitive student would search the teeming forest behind the house to fetch guava, mangos, coconut and a stalk of plantain. Not wanting to miss out on chocolate treats, Raúl did the homework for other students in exchange for their sweet “bonbons.”
When school was out Raúl spent time with a Pastuso auto mechanic who saw promise in the boy and taught him to work on carburetors and weld radiators. He was 12. Despite holding down two jobs, Raúl still didn’t have money to go to the movies or buy comic books. Instead, he spent his afternoons in the hut of his great grandmother, Petrona. Despite there being not much money around, the house was always filled with Raúl’s aunties who provided the laughs.
Everyday objects became “toys” for the young boy and useful in their own right. He would observe roaches on the floor as a way to try and understand the natural world. During the hottest times of the day, from 11 am to 3 pm, the roaches would disappear then emerge again, almost to the minute in the late afternoon, in pairs. Although there is a chemical process with roaches pairing, Raúl was fascinated by the underlying science of all animals, but had no formal education in biology.
Raúl’s family was very similar to many others in Buenaventura. His father worked the docks, loading and unloading cargo from ships. Despite a meager income, Raúl’s father was the first black man in Buenaventura to have a home made from brick. It took 40 years to build. Then there was more than one night when Raúl didn’t eat because his father used the grocery money to buy more bricks. Determination and resiliency are qualities Raúl learned on an empty stomach.
As a 7-year old, Raúl would wake up in the morning at 4 am to study, play some basketball and bring the family bread from the baker. But it was the long walks with his great grandmother to pick herbs to be used as remedies for many different ailments which stimulated Raúl’s interest in plants and the idea that one could invent things so people could be healthier.
During a visit to the dock he found a symbolic and enduring memento of the United States, in the form a dime. He couldn’t believe his luck. In a town as poor as Buenaventura, not many people had the luxury of misplacing ten cents. He held on to this coin and made a plan to one day spend it in the USA.
When not observing crickets and lizards, searching through the discarded donations for books or welding radiators, Raúl played soccer with the neighborhood kids, until one day his brother was kicked in the leg and suffered a deep cut from a metal soccer cleat. Tragically the soccer cleat was tainted with tetanus and Raúl’s brother died shortly thereafter. It was at this point that his family banned Raúl from playing soccer. Instead he switched to basketball and due to his height, he excelled. At age 17, he became a member of the Colombian National Basketball Team.
To the bewilderment of many who knew him, Raúl made the decision to focus on academics rather than sports. He decided to study at Universidad del Valle in Cali, which at that time was one of the best universities in Latin America. It was there that Raúl met the visiting Rockefeller Foundation professor of plant physiology, Dr. Percy Lilly. Lilly was so impressed by Raúl’s first discovery of growing a parasitic plant without a host – that he offered him a full scholarship to Heidelberg University in Ohio. He would finally be able to reunite his American coin with its original home, but more importantly he would be able to continue his studies in plant pathology and show his coaches that a poor Afro-Colombian basketball player from an obscure South American city could be a valuable part of the scientific community. Or as Raúl Cuero says: “It is good to be good.”
Despite the fact that the United States was suffering from racial violence, due in part to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, Raúl never felt segregated while studying at a prestigious college.To the contrary, there were many Goodwill Hunting moments where Raúl was actually able to entertain and impress his fellow American students and teachers with his vast knowledge. He found that many of the students were very respectful and even more willing to make friends and interact with him than what he expected.
One day, while at Heidelberg University, his entire class was given a tough mathematical equation to solve. It had to do with the concentration of a molecule. Raúl looked around the room as his fellow students took out calculators and began working. Raúl didn’t have a calculator because he couldn’t afford one, so he sat there wondering what to do. Finally the teacher looked over at Raúl and asked, “Cuero, do you understand?”
Raúl explained to the teacher that he usually did such problems on paper. His teacher then handed him a piece of chalk and invited him to work the problem on the board in front of the class without the use of a calculator. When he was finished, the rest of the class sat dumb-founded, wondering how he correctly solved the problem. The next day his classmates went out to buy a calculator.
After receiving his Bachelor of Science in Biology, Cuero obtained a scholarship to study his Master of Science in plant pathology at Ohio State University. He earned his Ph.D. in Microbiology at the University of Strathclyde in Scotland. During the pursuit of his doctorate, he developed an invention related to the containment of solid-state fermentation, and with it, the praise of faculty and fellow classmates. He went on to develop 26 inventions, 12 of which have been patented.
Dr. Cuero has had the privilege to travel to China and South Africa and lecture on biotechnology. He has published more than 110 peer-reviewed papers in different international journals in the fields of biology, microbiology, molecular biology, environmental biotechnology, food and synthetic biology. He is the author of the books ‘Between Triumph and Survival’ and ‘De Buenaventura a la NASA.’
Cuero joined the faculty of Prairie View A&M University in Houston, where he worked with a team of researchers on numerous projects that ended up in the hands of the NASA astrobiology department. As a NASA scientific researcher, he discovered a molecule that protects astronauts from the effects of UV radiation. This new technology has opened up an entire field of study for scientists looking at how to nurture life beyond Earth’s atmosphere.
Part of Cuero’s current research looks at the possibility of setting up a greenhouse on Mars, thanks to private funding. The UV protection that works for astronauts might also be applied to any form of life, including plants in harsh environments like the Martian landscape.
In 2008, Dr. Cuero became one of the first Hispanic scientists to receive the NASA Brief Tech Award and was recently nominated for a second award. He also received the Texas A&M Invention Award in 2008 and the 2012 Colombian Leadership Award for outstanding performance in science and technology.
Published May 2013, edition 61 of The City Paper.
*****Editor’s note: The scientific accomplishments of Dr.Raúl Cuero were questioned October 24th 2013 in a column published on pages 20-21 of El Espectador newspaper by Colombian scientist Rodrigo Bernal. The article titled “El dudoso ídolo de Cuero” (The doubtful idol of Cuero) challenges the number of patents attributed to Dr.Cuero. According to Professor Bernal, only 2 of Cuero’s inventions have been patented in the U.S. (5830459 of 1998 and 7309437 of 2007), others were abandoned or remain in process of patenting. We regret any confusion these discrepancies may cause our readers.