12 Oct Nematologist Rodriguez-Kabana retiring from 50 years of research
by: JAMIE CREAMER
It’s a safe bet that no one has ever called Cuba native Rodrigo Rodriguez-Kabana a conformist. That’s not in his DNA. From an early age, he was a threat to orchestrate mischief and flirt like crazy with danger.
And who knows what might have become of him, had he not started running covert messages for Fidel Castro and his Cuban revolutionary army. But he did, and that’s when his father, fearing for the boy’s safety, gave the 17-year-old a choice: Go to Europe, or go North.
The safest choice would have been Europe, because, as a child and young teen, he had lived with his family in his parents’ native Canary Islands and could speak Spanish and French fluently. But the safest choice is not the one he made.
Though he knew not one word of English, the son chose North—the United States—and on Sept. 4, 1957, a single cardboard suitcase in hand, the young Rodriguez-Kabana walked out of a rudimentary airport terminal onto the streets of New Orleans.
No family, no friends, no familiar sights or sounds and no way to communicate might have gotten the best of many a young man, but not Rodriguez-Kabana. By that month’s end, he was in Baton Rouge, enrolled as a freshman at Louisiana State University.
“I couldn’t speak English, but I was very good at math, so I took all math classes,” he says. “Math is a universal language.”
Over the next seven and a half years, Rodriguez-Kabana didn’t merely survive; he thrived. In 1961, he was awarded his bachelor’s degree in agronomy from LSU, followed a year later by his master’s in soil microbiology and, in 1965, his Ph.D. in plant pathology.
“All I did was go to school,” he says. “I went straight through; I never took a break.”
His doctoral research involved nematodes—microscopic, soil-dwelling, crop-destroying worms that he to this day finds absolutely intriguing.