The College of Science is celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month by featuring some of the College’s outstanding faculty with Hispanic roots. Our next featured faculty member is Dr. Ulises Ricoy, an Associate Research Scientist and Faculty Director in the Neuroscience and Cognitive Science department.
The College of Science spoke with Dr. Ricoy to learn more about his journey to the University of Arizona, his passion for teaching and research, and the importance of having a voice to serve all students. Apart from his work as an Associate Research Scientist at the University of Arizona, he is the Director of Outreach of the Grass Foundation and works with students in his own lab, named the Ricoy Lab.
You can learn more about Dr. Ricoy and his work here.
Dr. Ulises Ricoy
Associate Research Scientist
Neuroscience and Cognitive Science
College Of Science: Tell us a little about yourself, your background and your journey to the University of Arizona.
My Name is Ulises and I use El/His/Him pronouns. I identify with the identity of the Chicano culture, and this took time as I ultimately feel as a foreigner both in Mexico and the U.S. I grew up in inner city Mexico City, having been born in Austin, Texas (1975). As a newborn, the family returned to Mexico City up until I was 13 years old, and we moved back to Austin, not knowing English and myself being a U.S. Citizen, the only one in my family. Moving to Austin as a thirteen-year-old not speaking English, attending a high school where there were only 5 Mexicans was very difficult and lots of bullying. I exceled in my studies as way to escape how inadequate I felt socially and emotionally. I always enjoyed math and science and did not really know what I wanted to study. My scientific journey began as an undergraduate at the University of Texas, San Antonio in the laboratory of Dr. Joe L. Martinez Jr. I was a work study student in the library, and a Professor (SACNAS former President Dr. Louis Haro) walked in, saw me study math and asked if I had heard of the NIH, MARC program while working in the microfilm area on a Sunday in 1995. I had never heard of that program, but I applied and was accepted. I quickly learned I needed an advisor / mentor and had to change my major to Biology as there were no Engineering mentors available and that was my major at UTSA. This is how I met Dr. Joe L. Martinez Jr., who became my mentor for both my undergraduate and doctoral training. I never realized the importance of my background, identity, and sense of belonging in science, always feeling different, feeling as I did not fit it. It was only via the training and mentoring that I received from the Martinez laboratory and "Joe" himself that I was "exposed" to a firehose of excitement, kindling curiosity, passion for experimentation and thirst for knowledge from a person that although did not sound like me, looked like me and most importantly, I felt he "got" me.
I joined the Department of Neuroscience at the University of Arizona to lead (Faculty Director) the undergraduate program in Neuroscience and Cognitive Sciences (NSCS) in the Fall 2019.
Prior to coming to Tucson, I spent 10 years at Northern New Mexico College (NNMC) where I earned Tenure, was promoted to Director of Biology, founded the Department of Biology, Chemistry and Environmental Science as Chair, and served as Dean of Arts and Sciences for two years. Despite a lack of any science infrastructure there, I lead student-centered and institutionally centered efforts to 1) increase research capacity of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) students and 2) increase the number of underrepresented minority students (URM) successfully engaging in STEM while 3) creating an awareness and culture of career opportunities in science and research. With severe limited financial and human resources, and no access to lab space at NNMC, I utilized invertebrates (ex: cockroaches) for teaching and created original undergraduate research projects as early as 2010. Initially, I housed the cockroaches in my home and would bring them to campus daily. Once I secured extramural funding from the Grass Foundation (2011), NIH (2012), and NSF (2009-20), I expanded these opportunities to other students by creating formal active learning (problem based; problem oriented) curriculum such as undergraduate research experience courses (CURE), Undergraduate Teaching Experiences, life-path seminar series by URM faculty, journal club discussions, and professional development workshops, like the SPINES course that Dr. Joe L. Martinez Jr., co-founded at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL).
I was appointed Director of Outreach of the Grass foundation and have hosted two workshops from successful funding (2019 in person and 2021 in pandemic) https://grassfoundation.org/outreach-initiatives/ since my arrival to UA by creating the NEURON
(Neuroscience Education in Undergraduate Research, Outreach, and Networking) program. The NEURON program engages first year underrepresented minority (URM) students in Neuroscience and Cognitive Science (NSCS) at the University of Arizona (UA). NEURON is a peer mentorship program that uses best practices to increase retention and recruitment of URM students. This project deploys culturally responsive mentoring activities and educational tools to engage URM students in basic and clinical neuroscience education, creating a network of diverse students in the southwest building a pipeline for URM students to neuroscience/STEM careers.
COS: When looking back on your childhood and spending time with family, are there any favorite traditions or memories that stick out to you?
I have great memories of going to Amecameca on a blue VW Combi (Bus) with the family. Amecameca is located just at the feet of Iztaccíhuatl and Popocatépetl volcanos of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. The name Amecameca comes from Nahuatl. It has been interpreted as a “place where the papers signal or mark, or paper used ceremoniously.” As a kid, I recall sitting around a giant Nogal (Walnut) tree in a circle around a fire hearing stories from elders, kids and the family. Although these visits were not very often, these are memories and traditions that I believe have been very valuable to me in recognizing the importance of traditions and culture in my life as a person and as a scientist: my own cultural wealth.
COS: Who are some of the people who have made the greatest impact on your life?
My third-grade teacher Isabela "Chabela" when I studied in CEEPSTUNAM (a Union school for the workers of UNAM) is an exceptional human, teacher, and motivator. She encouraged all of us to journal, to draw, to keep a lab notebook and it was here for the first time that I started carrying a lab notebook with drawings of the bugs I would see and observe. I now realize that this has been a solid foundation to engage in scientific curiosity, observation, and experimentation. I am grateful for this.
COS: What was it that drew you to your area of research and expertise?
Neuroscience and generally life science programs often require expensive equipment and institutional research clearance for protocols when vertebrate organisms are used even in undergraduate teaching laboratories if space is available. An alternative solution is to use invertebrates, and although invertebrates have a smaller number of identifiable neurons, the neurons can remain viable for long period. Through NIH, NSF, Grass and Dana Foundation funding, I have created and implemented accessible and innovative curriculum specifically in neuroscience and neurophysiology while increasing awareness of career opportunities and education in biomedical sciences. I also involve the entire community through informal science conversations, workshops, and community engagement events. The utilization of invertebrates (via low-cost approaches) to understand how neurons encode and compute information allows for an experimental platform to the study of the brain without the barrier of needing designated "laboratory" space. In remote, rural, and marginalized regions, we have created student opportunities for hands-on experiences with such techniques on live neurons, which is rare in science education. Some of the findings from this work were recently published in Advances in Physiology Education Journal (Teaching Innovations) titled “A low-cost computational approach to analyze spiking activity in cockroach sensory neurons,” https://doi.org/10.1152/advan.00034.2020.
COS: What is your favorite part of being a scientist?
I would have to say my favorite part of being a Scientist is that I get to share my story. That I get to interweave my passion in teaching, research, outreach, and have a voice to serve all students, especially those that are underrepresented (URM) through culturally enhancing, equitable approaches that offer transformative experiences leading to both academic (e.g., course completion, graduation, post-graduation jobs) and non-academic (e.g., science identity, aspirations, leadership) outcomes. I am committed to strengthening the conditions needed to responsively support the needs of students with diverse backgrounds, particularly our historically URM students. The vehicle I have used to reach URM populations utilizes low-cost research/education approaches in neurophysiology/neuroethology.