Faces of the Forest Service

Meet Grizelle González

Office of Communication
October 17th, 2017 at 1:45PM

Editor’s note: In late September 2017, Hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated the island of Puerto Rico, where the International Institute of Tropical Forestry is based. We had planned to post this Faces of the Forest Service profile during the first week of October, but we first wanted to ascertain the status of our colleagues on the island, including Grizelle. See her update below on how Forest Service staff and others on the island are managing in the aftermath of the hurricanes. 

A photo of Grizelle Gonzalez
Research Ecologist and Project Leader Grizelle González. Photo by C. Nytch.

In 2000, Grizelle González was recruited as a post-doctoral scientist to the International Institute of Tropical Forestry by the Institute’s director. At the time she was working as a research associate at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks and looking for a permanent job. She was familiar with the Institute’s work, having conducted research for her MSc and PhD in the Luquillo Experimental Forest (also known as El Yunque National Forest) in Puerto Rico. She has been working at the Institute ever since.

What do you do in the Forest Service and what is your favorite part of your job?

I am a soil research ecologist, and since 2012 the project leader of the Research and Development Unit at the Institute.  Our research unit specializes in developing and disseminating knowledge that contributes to conservation of the forests, wildlife, and watersheds of the American tropics.  As the project leader, I am responsible for the implementation, coordination, and accountability of the research conducted by the Institute.  As a scientist, I strive to integrate new knowledge with concepts of ecosystem function and best management practices to ensure delivery of ecosystem services from tropical forests.  My favorite part of the job is the freedom to creatively develop, partner, and deliver scientific results that matter to the conservation of natural resources and to society. 

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in the Metropolitan Area of San Juan, Puerto Rico.  However, both my parents came from big families (twelve and five siblings on either side) with roots in the “countryside” of the island towns of Arecibo and Lares.  As a child my visits to the family farms were frequent.  Gatherings of 50 to 70 relatives were common and filled with fun activities on weekends.  We scavenged for fresh fruit (avocadoes, oranges, and grapefruit, among others), dug root crops like cassava and yams, chased chickens, and roasted pigs for the holidays.  In the summers we spent a lot of time RV camping, swimming in the ocean, eating empanadillas de chapín (a type of fried fish empanada), and drinking coconut water by our favorite beaches in the coastal towns of Fajardo, Humacao, and Boquerón.

A photo of Grizelle and her son
Grizelle and son (Iñigo Gould) enjoy taking selfies. Here they enjoy scenery and swimming by the river in the central mountains of Puerto Rico. Photo by W.A. Gould.

Who or what inspired you growing up?

Members of my family have been a great source of inspiration for me.  The senior women have served as a model of balancing life – hard work, and the fun-crazy – to nourish both body and soul.  The men taught me the love for the land they cultivated with so much enjoyment and passion. I grew up empowered by how my family treated me, and always enjoyed being outdoors.

What do you like to do for fun on your free time?

I love reading the biographies of influential women in history and stories about the lives and survival of pioneers from the Western United States, and Up North in Alaska and Canada. To me it is fun to find inspiration from experiences that have taken place in the “wilderness”.  In the company of friends and family, I like spending time by the beach and riding our horses.  I laugh hard, just being silly with my son while taking “selfies”. 

What is your highest personal and professional achievement?

My highest achievement in life is having a loving and supporting family at home – a supportive net at the end of every single day.  At work, I have many milestones I am proud of.  I have edited seven scientific volumes, authored nearly 100 publications, co-led and taught soil ecology during seven research expeditions to the Arctic, and served as scientific advisor in many endeavors, including land management plans, the Albuquerque Service Center Customer Service Board, award-winning art exhibits (Poetic Science) in Puerto Rico and Chicago, and even an IMAX movie (Hurricane).  In the Institute’s 75-year history, I am the first female scientist appointed as project leader. Yet, maybe the greatest achievement is the consistency of good, long-term work that has allowed me to grow from an undergraduate lab assistant to the principal investigator of large research projects, including the Luquillo Long Term Ecological Research Program and the Critical Zone Observatory funded in part by the United States National Science Foundation.

How would you like the public to perceive the work we do at the Forest Service?

I would like the public to know that Forest Service employees in Puerto Rico take very seriously their responsibility of delivering the agency’s mission of sustaining healthy ecosystems over the long term for future generations. I want them to know that some of the agency’s best employees and teams can be found on, or have passed by, this island.

A photo of Grizelle with the filming crew of the a local television program
Grizelle with the filming crew of the local television program Geoambiente. The show focused on the importance of ecological corridors and an all-lands approach to management. Photo by M.M. Rivera.

What are your future career goals?

I would like to reach an executive level in my career.  It is my goal to strike the right balance between development and deployment of projects and the administration of programs to most efficiently and effectively serve as an agent of positive change.

Do you have any advice for someone wanting to serve as a Forest Service employee?

My advice would be to try to know the people and places you will serve. Identify your strengths and skills and explore ideas on how they can better serve the agency. Also, be persistent and flexible about the work assignment and your career path, as the professional and personal experiences obtained by working in the agency can be meaningful, quite remarkable, and very rewarding.

How are you and your colleagues handling the impacts of the recent hurricanes?

Hurricanes Irma and María changed the routine life of all in Puerto Rico. After María, the overnight “new normal” was no electricity, water, telephone, or internet access. Gas, diesel, food and medicines became very limited. Everyone’s mindset immediately shifted into survival – making sure family, neighbors, the community, and workplaces had basic resources. The hurricanes blew away many material possessions and amenities, yet on the positive side, new friendships, cooperative work, and opportunities to share available resources and talents flourished. Overall there is a great sense that Puerto Rico will rebuild stronger than ever.