Public Health Graduate Student Paves Way for Women in STEM

By Laura L. Acosta

UTEP News Service

Michelle Del Rio vividly remembers how she felt two years ago standing with Michelle Obama backstage in the East Room of the White House.

Del Rio was a new student in UTEP’s Master of Public Health (MPH) Program and a role model for the young girls she mentored as president of the local chapter of the Association for Women in Science (AWIS) when she was picked by the White House to participate in the National Science Foundation (NSF) Family-Friendly Policy Rollout on Sept. 26, 2011.Michelle Del Rio was the first recipient of the Paula B. Ford Endowed Scholarship for public health students. Photo by Josh Garcia / UTEP News ServiceMichelle Del Rio was the first recipient of the Paula B. Ford Endowed Scholarship for public health students. Photo by Josh Garcia / UTEP News Service

The UTEP graduate felt anxious and excited as she prepared to introduce the First Lady to a room full of scientists, policymakers and news media. 

“It was definitely scary,” said Del Rio, who remembers Michelle Obama asking if her parents would be watching her live on the Internet and how they felt about their daughter being at the White House. “But I just had to say to myself, ‘It's not only me out there but I'm representing many girls back home and across the nation.”

Today, Del Rio’s hard work and dedication to her community have made it possible for her to benefit from the legacy of another exceptional woman. This semester, Del Rio became the first recipient of the Paula B. Ford Endowed Scholarship for public health students in the College of Health Sciences.

Ford, Ph.D., was a mentor, researcher and assistant professor of health sciences at UTEP who died Oct. 8, 2011, after a battle with breast cancer.

The endowment was established by her husband, William Hargrove, Ph.D., director of UTEP's Center for Environmental Resource Management, along with family, friends and colleagues to provide a scholarship in Ford’s name in perpetuity.

“I'm very proud of Michelle and so thankful that she was the one who was selected to be the first recipient of this scholarship,” Hargrove said during a plaque unveiling ceremony honoring Ford on Feb. 8 in the Health Sciences and Nursing Building. He was joined by Ford’s mother, Mary Anne, and his brother-in-law, Judge Nicholas Ford.

“(Michelle) is perfect. She's also been active in promoting women in science,” he said. “She started a mentoring program for young girls here in El Paso to get them into STEM disciplines. These are the kinds of things that Paula really believed in and would’ve worked on herself.”

Ford joined UTEP in 2009. She mentored many students, advised their thesis and research initiatives and encouraged them to finish their degrees. The UTEP Office of Research and Sponsored Projects recognized Ford with the Outstanding Performance Award 2010-11 for her achievements in securing extramural funding. She also authored or co-authored more than a dozen scientific articles. Colleagues have continued her work and three additional peer-reviewed journal articles have been published with Ford’s name on them, Hargrove said.

“I never met Dr. Ford but I'm getting to know her through all the people that I've met who knew her,” Del Rio said. “She was a great person and it’s a great honor to be associated with her through this scholarship.”

Del Rio earned her Bachelor of Science in biomedical biology from UTEP in 2010. She was the first student in the College of Science to graduate with three minors: in chemistry, Spanish and psychology.

But the road to collecting her degree was not easy.

After graduating from Riverside High School in the top 10 percent of her class, Del Rio was expected to get a job and help raise her two younger siblings. Her father had a high school education and her mother reached the third grade, but neither knew how to support their daughter in her goal to attend UTEP and study science.

In between classes and doing homework, Del Rio worked two part-time jobs and cared for her brother and sister while their parents worked. She graduated from UTEP at the age of 22 and began working as a     lead technician at the Texas Tech Health Sciences Center Paul L. Foster School of Medicine. She also became involved with the Association for Women in Science (AWIS), a national advocacy organization championing the interests of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) across all disciplines and employment sectors.

“Through AWIS, we target high school students,” Del Rio said. “We want to give them the resources, the guidance and the mentorship they need to go to college because I was in the top 10, yet I never applied for scholarships or to colleges. I don’t want anybody else to go through what I went through.”

Her goal is to become a doctor and do her residency in public health. Del Rio’s boss at Texas Tech, Daniel A. Terreros, M.D., worked with Ford to develop the Border Public Health Interest Group and encouraged Del Rio to apply to UTEP’s MPH program, which has kept her busy in the community.

She has done program evaluation for Promovision, a local nonprofit organization that provides resources to community health workers to develop HIV prevention education. She also is completing an internship at the Pan American Health Organization-U.S.-Mexico Border office where she is helping to measure border health demographics.

“I was really not aware how else I could help my community,” said Del Rio, who expects to graduate in May. “You think, ‘Well, I'm going to be a doctor to help my community but there's many other things that you can do to make a bigger impact.”

Like many women, balancing career, school and family obligations continues to be a way of life for Del Rio. Not one to abandon her promising future, Del Rio hopes to benefit from the NSF’s family-friendly policy, which provides greater work-related flexibility to women and men in research careers.

During the announcement about the policy in 2011, Michelle Obama said that the country couldn’t afford to miss out on someone like Del Rio.

“Today is also about helping every little girl in this country believe that she can be the next Michelle Del Rio,” Michelle Obama said. “… We’ve got to do everything we can to keep the doors open for women like Michelle and girls all across our country who want to be standing right in her shoes and will do whatever it takes to get there, if only we lend a hand.” 


Related Stories:

Paula Ford Leaves Lasting Legacy

Remarks by the First Lady at the National Science Foundation Family-Friendly Policy Rollout