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Gina: the mangrove researcher

Gina was my friend for 17 years, and as in many friendships it had its ups and downs. Of those years, about 10 years was spent in partnership on mangrove research. When we remember her and her academic achievements, it is the mangrove story and the story of a woman who fought hard and sacrificed much to be a researcher in Mexico.

It started in 1990. I was a newcomer to Mexico, did not speak a word of Spanish, and my understanding of the Mexican research system was zero. Yet, I was nominated to be the head of the Department of Microbiology at CIBNOR. In a past era, CIBNOR, then only CIB, had research departments. I badly needed some help to survive and Gina provided that help. At that time, Gina was a licenciatura student (=B.Sc.) in marine biology and was providing her national social service obligation with another researcher. She approached me and asked if she could do her licenciatura thesis with me. This was a difficult request. “I am an agricultural microbiologist, dealing with bacteria and plants and all I know of marine biology is close to nothing. I cannot be the director of a thesis in marine biology,” I told her. She responded that she would think about it as she could not graduate in marine biology with a thesis on tomatoes in Valle de Santo Domingo, Mexico. Days later she came with an offer. Perhaps she could study mangroves? They are plants, even though growing in the sea. The local university would accept mangroves as a thesis because they grow in coastal marine water. Whether or not they have associated bacteria was worth studying; this was something we could explore. I knew close to nothing about mangroves. As nobody around at that time knew any more, and nobody in the world, at that time, knew anything about the microbiology of mangroves, I accepted the challenge. There was a fringe benefit in the offer. Gina, who spoke English perfectly, suggested that she could teach me how to survive in Mexico and would help me in my administrative chores. This was an offer “coming straight from Heaven.
Gina Holguin

Waiting outside the domestic airport of Buenos Aires with Luz and Yoav Bashan.
The 5th workshop on plant growth-promoting rhizobacteria in Villa Carlos Paz, Argentina 2000

From this humble start of one thesis, the microbiology of mangroves project at CIBNOR and the large scale program of conservation and restoration of mangroves in Baja California Sur was born. Whatever the mangrove project accomplishes in the future, the project owes everything to Gina who came with the original idea. Gina started her career as a scientist in very small steps. With no funded project on mangroves, two small kids at home, and a sacred lunchtime with them at 3:30 every day, her progress was painfully slow and close to collapse. She very quickly realized that she would go nowhere this way and somehow re-arranged her time. While the lunch with her kids was always a top priority and severely interrupted with her scientific work, she found the extra time in the evenings, over many of her weekends, and the numerous “dia del … (holidays) to catch up with the demands of her research. She collected samples on weekends, holidays, and into the evenings, a behavior unheard of at that time at CIB, whose activities ceased at 3 p.m. because the personnel busses shuttled workers and students back and forth to La Paz at that time. These days of being absent from home caused her many family troubles. She only briefly mentioned this to me and I did not ask too many questions. Yet, she solved them in a way known only to her and carried on with her research. One day, she asked for a low-paying job at CIB as my administrative assistant and technician, a very surprising request from a woman with significant financial resources. She got it. Years later, I learned that her family strongly resented the idea of her research and preferred that she stay home after graduation and be a housewife, as was the common custom and attitude. I believe this request had more to do with her self-esteem and self-confidence as a future researcher and was not related to the financial concerns of a woman who had three full-time domestic helpers at her disposal. This 500-peso-a-month job that later converted into the lowest level researcher in 1992 started Gina’s career as a scientist.
Gina Holguin

With Maria Mercedez Gonzalez from Colombia (L) and Luz and Yoav Bashan.
The 4th International Symposium on Cleaner Bioprocesses and Sustainable
Development. Veracruz, Mexico

She did very well from the start. She graduated as the best student of her class from the Autonomous University of Baja California Sur and brilliantly defended her thesis. Her thesis paper was accepted in one of the best international microbiology journals: FEMS Microbiology Ecology. She helped us in every project she could, even though she was now studying for a M.Sc. at another research center (CICIMAR) because the graduate school of CIBNOR did not exist at that time. She discovered (along with Gerardo Toledo and me) a new disease of the Cardon cactus, and helped in many agricultural consultancies and agricultural projects, even though she was a marine biologist and not trained in these areas. All she touched in her professional life turned out very well and many publications, both nationally and internationally, resulted from this cooperative work. She graduated with honors at CICIMAR in 1996 and decided to help our group by obtaining molecular biology skills through a Ph.D. in Canada. She came with the idea that the best option for her to survive well in Canada was to become a Canadian resident and she did, living well in Canada for 5 years. She found her second husband, and during this period, her scientific achievements from her time at CIBNOR as a junior researcher generated three Canadian scholarships in addition to the salary that we fought locally to maintain with numerous “white lies.” And it worked out well! All looked promising for her future. After a short post-doctoral period at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee that she did not like because it did not provide her with opportunities for innovative research, she returned to CIBNOR in 2001 and made her home in El Centenario as a “social experiment”. El Centenario at that time was an impoverished farming community whose inhabitants could barely made ends meet. She truly believed that if she lived there, she could make a difference in the lives of the poor and less educated inhabitants. She lived there for five years.

The long period in Canada had an unexpected and profound effect on Gina’s psyche as a scientist. The Gina who returned from Canada was a very different person than we had known. Another person was born, trying quietly to prove something that to this day, I cannot understand what it was. She maintained a professional distance from her previous colleagues, although she still socialized with them whenever she found time. She was always searching for new collaborators. Because the previous administration of CIBNOR encouraged this freedom, she decided to be independent, and suggested a subject that we had never worked on: cell-cell recognition in mangrove microbial communities. She fought endlessly in regional and national political committees to protect and preserve the mangroves in Baja California Sur. Mangroves were the main issue. There was no “small project” or “impossible project” when it came to mangroves.
Gina Holguin

With Luz and Yoav Bashan. Iguazu falls Argentina-Brazil

These endless struggles took much of her time and energy and probably affected her health as well. Her motivation and driving force were enormous, and most of the time I failed to understand why she was pushing herself so hard when everything within the research group and with her own research was going so well. She never explained or complained, and eventually became a closed person who minded her own business. Even though I saw her daily during these years, I knew very little about her struggles; some were clarified only years later and others remain a mystery. Perhaps she felt that she was living on borrowed time. Besides the work on mangroves, she proposed and led an institutional agricultural project on cultivation of a local papaya variety, probably a nostalgic memory of the time she worked with us on agricultural projects, but this proposed project never fully materialized, largely because of budgetary constraints. She created projects on mangroves in collaboration with Colombian and US researchers, recruited seven students who studied mangroves, and even planned restoration of an extinct mangrove in Loreto Bay in Mexico with a local company. This last endeavor never materialized.

Although Gina worked most of the time on her own with her students during the last years of her life, she was, overall, extraordinarily productive during her 17-year career. She published 75 papers, many in the best specialty scientific journals, but also in magazines and newspapers in Mexico to increase awareness of the local public to the plight of the mangroves. Her work has been cited by other scientists several hundred times in scientific journals. Several journals considered her publications to be milestones in science. She graduated five students with M.Sc. degrees and one with a B.Sc. and was a major asset for CIBNOR. During all these years of frenzied activity, she was my friend and this is how I will remember her.
Gina Holguin

With (from L) Macario Bacilio, Luz and Yoav Bashan.
6th PGPR workshop- India 2003

When she passed away in 2007, I was on sabbatical leave in Arizona and could hardly believe the news because she did not confide in me about the severity of her illness. Even her husband at the time, with whom I maintained friendly relations, mentioned nothing serious. I thought that her last illness was only another struggle that life placed on her. She had overcome several illnesses before and always returned to full-speed work as a researcher. I think it is symbolic that the day she passed away, her son got married, one of her students defended his thesis, and there was a terrible rain storm in Tucson, where I lived. Her ashes were scattered in the Balandra mangrove that she fought so hard to save from land developers, and which was finally declared a park in 2008. May she live forever in the shadow of the Big Mangrove in the sky and watch over the mangroves of Earth.

Yoav Bashan
La Paz, Mexico

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