Dr. Vela’s contributions to UNT

Dr. Gerard Roland Vela Múzquiz, UNT Professor Emeritus of Microbiology and prominent community leader, was one of the first Latino faculty members at UNT (North Texas State University at the time he was hired), and the first Latino to be granted tenure; he arrived at UNT at a time when our University had no adequate science laboratories in which to conduct serious research, no funding, and no investment in building science programs of regional or national significance. It was only thanks to Dr. Vela’s passion for science, his love of teaching, his inexhaustible energy, and single-minded determination that he succeeded in laying the foundations of the NT microbiology program.

A nationally and internationally recognized scientist, Dr. Vela tirelessly mentored his students, and over the period of his career at UNT supervised 45 master and 19 doctoral theses and dissertations. Himself a sought-after visiting professor at American and foreign universities, a member of prestigious professional organizations and frequent participant at national and international conferences, he introduced his students to regional and national science organizations, and encouraged them to attend professional conferences. Dr. Vela’s remarkable achievements as a UNT administrator are truly a testament to his never flagging preoccupation with the welfare of NT students. Concerned as he was by the small representation of minorities in the student body at UNT, Dr. Vela also led initiatives to improve minority students’ academic performance at the elementary and high school levels.

Discovering the collection

Dr. Vela’s archival collection is of particular significance to the UNT Special Collections: it documents his impressive achievements in the study of nitrogen-fixing-bacteria and his research in bacterial physiology; it contains numerous professional publications and other material pertaining to his prestigious national and international engagements; it also chronicles his work as a noted community leader. What is equally remarkable about this collection is the fact that it reveals a striking connection between Dr. Vela’s personal story of his 35 year tenure at UNT and the story of the gradual and not uncomplicated transition of what was a small, local institution of higher education to a multicultural university with serious research ambitions. In fact, it brings to light the important role Dr. Vela played in this transition.

Chronicling Dr. Vela’s research as well as his professional and civic engagements and appointments, the collection is a veritable treasure trove of material. It is impossible to list here everything that can be found in the ten large boxes in which it is housed. There are countless prints and slides of bacteria, bacteria related literature, and literature on bacteriology and parasitology.  Also found in the collection are materials documenting students’ research and their dissertations; correspondence and documents pertaining to Dr. Vela’s professional affiliations and his participation in national and international conferences and congresses, such as the American Society of Microbiology, the International Congress for Microbiology, the International Associations of Microbiological Societies and many others. An important part of the collection documents Dr. Vela’s efforts to secure governmental and private research grants, including those from the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Health and NASA. In addition, there are twenty some folders with records of committee work and faculty research, notably letters of recommendation, faculty appointments and records related to the NTSU Center for Ethnic Affairs. Noteworthy among the latter are the document “Historical Perspectives for Ethnic Affairs,” a list of activities from the conference “Sharing-in-Growth Conference Reach Out and Touch,” and copies of the Title IX: Individual Rights and Institutional Responsibilities in Eliminating Sex Discrimination at North Texas State University, and others.

Dr. Vela in his own words

The value of the collection is richly enhanced by the transcript of the interview with Dr. Vela conducted in 2004 for the UNT Oral History Project by Dr. Roberto Calderón, Associate Professor in the UNT Department of History.** Indeed, the transcript is a perfect complement to the archives, and, at the same time, a captivating read. Dr. Vela, a native Texan born to a family of 18th century Spanish settlers to the San Antonio and Rio Grande Valley, reminisces here about his family, his childhood and early education; he recalls his brief service in the WWII-era U.S. Navy, followed by his undergraduate years at the San Antonio College and graduate studies at UT Austin. From his engaging stories there emerges a figure of an outgoing and fun-loving youth whose budding interest in science turns out to be a determining factor in shaping his future life. In the end, his fascination with chemistry, genetics and microbiology prompts him to pursue a doctoral degree in microbiology, and transforms him into a highly respected academic.

The section of the interview devoted to Dr. Vela’s tenure at UNT reveals the truly astounding breadth of his engagements as a researcher, educator, mentor, and administrator. Of special interest here are Professor Vela’s recollections of his efforts to create a solid science research program, securing outside grants and laboratory equipment. One can sense the satisfaction with which Dr. Vela speaks of his determination to provide the best possible research environment for his graduate students, and encourage them to participate in national and international conferences

Dr. Vela also talks about his involvement in many organizations and projects, both those related to his professional life and those benefiting the community.  Among others, he brings up his two terms as Chairman of the Airport Board in Denton, his service on the Denton City Council, and the six terms on the Board of Directors of the Texas Municipal Power Agency. Completing the account of his life is the section devoted to Dr. Vela’s many and diverse interests, which include literature, music, photography, and history. Mentioned here is also his recently published book about Antonio López de Santa Ana and plans for other books about important figures in Mexico’s history.

Thus, at the same time as it illuminates the archival collection, the interview offers a colorful, vivid portrait of a passionate scientist, an inspiring teacher and mentor, a tireless administrator, an energetic community activist, and a man who enjoys a wide spectrum of interests: a fascinating Renaissance figure.

* Dr. G. Roland Vela is listed in the millennium edition of Latino Monthly magazine as one of the top 100 Texas Latinos of the 20th century

** The copy of the transcript of the interview with Dr. Vela is available in Special Collections (call number: OH 1628 c.). It can also be found on line: http://digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc306857/

– by Marta Hoffman Wodnicka, Special Collections Cataloger

Further Reading:

Recently, Dr. Vela was one of the featured Faculty members and mentors at the conference Raíces: Raza History at UNT which highlighted the Latino/a student experience at the University of North Texas. View the on-line exhibit related to the conference.

See published books authored by Dr. Vela and dissertations of his students in the UNT library catalog. You will find books by Dr. Vela and some by other authors which Dr. Vela included in his archival collection.


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