Latinas Driven by Science

Article by Monin Dombrowski and Gloria Romano-Barrera

Stereotypes say that science careers aren’t for women or that female students simply aren’t interested, but that’s far from the truth.

In a 2010 Bayer Facts of Science Education XIV survey of 1,226 female, African-American, Hispanic and American Indian chemists and chemical engineers, 60 percent actually said they became interested in science before age 11.

From mathematicians to scientists to educators, Latinas are reaching new heights in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), but more needs to be done. Today, inspiring Latinas are proving that opportunities for Latinas are available and that they too can make a big impact in STEM. Meet four Latinas who are making a difference in opening doors for the next generation of scientists.

Guillerma “Gigi” Lozano, Ph.D.
Professor and Chair
Department of Genetics
University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Houston, TX
TX Member
University of TX Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, Houston, TX

As a professor of Genetics, and chair for the Department of Genetics at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, Dr. Guillerma Lozano enjoys her job because she loves science. “I enjoy generating hypotheses, and designing experiments to test those hypotheses,” she says. “I love it when the experiments take us into new directions because it means I have to learn something new.”

Dr. Lozano is currently working on generating new mouse models of cancer to study the p53 tumor suppressor pathway. As explained by Dr. Lozano, the p53 gene is often deleted or mutated in the development of human cancers. When not deleted, Mdm2 and Mdm4 are highly expressed because they are p53 inhibitors that eliminate p53 activity. One model will examine the relevancy of mutatations in Mdm2, on inhibition of p53. Other mice will model the kinds of mutations in p53 that occur in human cancers.

Born in East Chicago, Dr. Lozano became passionate for science in high school while learning how cells divide and how genes are inherited. However, constant family relocations from one school to another and to McAllen, Texas, seemed discouraging but she didn’t let it stand in her way.

“I attended a local college in South Texas, Pan American University, thinking that I was going to be a biology teacher,” she states. “I had no idea what careers were available for biology majors, much less that anyone could actually do research- I really didn’t even know research existed.”

She later joined the honors program at the University, applied to a summer research program at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and was accepted during her junior year. Later, she received her honors thesis and graduated magna cum laude.

An independent scientist for 25 years, Dr. Lozano is an example of how hard work and sacrifice paves the way to a successful career. As the oldest of six children, she was expected to get married, and have children; instead, she chose to go to school because she wanted a career. “It’s really hard to transition from a family type environment where you are a woman and you are expected to do certain things,” she states. “I remember when I graduated from college and I had to tell my father that I was going to leave home to go to graduate school. When I was graduating, my father wouldn’t talk to me because I was leaving home. I just couldn’t imagine not learning. I was hurt but at the same time I did it. The transition is hard but once you get past the transition, it’s what drives you.”

Driven by science, Dr. Lozano will be the first person to advise an aspiring Latina in STEM to not be afraid of taking that step. “If you love science, just go for it,” she asserts. “Don’t be afraid to take on new challenges. You will learn something and you may fail, but you will be better prepared for other doors that may open up for you. Take one step at a time.”

Naturally curious, Dr. Lozano continues to inspire and motivate the next generation of scientists and researchers. “I love mentoring,” she states. “I love the naive questions that trainees sometimes ask. These questions often make me question what we really know and what might not be supported by the facts.”

Mariel Vasquez, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Mathematics
San Francisco State University

Specializing in DNA topology, Dr. Mariel Vasquez, Ph.D. gets to blend mathematics and biology together every day as a professor of mathematics at San Francisco State University. The award-winning professor’s work can help inform and improve drug design.

“I primarily study DNA, how it folds and how it fits in space, what it looks like and what its geometry is,” says Dr. Vasquez. “Now we’re moving toward being more focused on DNA, viruses and bacteria, and how proteins called enzymes break the DNA and change the shape of the DNA- these are very important proteins in every organism.”

Her research has won her some prestigious awards, including the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE), which is the nation’s highest honor for early-career researchers, and a National Science Foundation CAREER grant. The NSF research grant will fund Dr. Vasquez to further her research and educational activities for five years.

“The educational component is very important, where scientists have the opportunity to bring research to the public,” says Dr. Vasquez. “I proposed to develop curriculum for elementary school children where I teach them about what I do. I also proposed to work along with the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco to develop activities for the museum in Golden Gate Park.”

Through Math Circles, Dr. Vasquez teaches children through games that math is fun, taking them beyond what they learn in the classroom setting in this after-school program.

Although she’s a professor, Dr. Vasquez points out, “My main activity is to mentor students who do research with me and to do my own research. I love teaching, traveling and giving talks, but the research is what gets me to a place where I could be invited to be a keynote speaker and receive awards by the president.”

In the past, she’s been a keynote speaker at the Modern Math Workshop for the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) and Sonia Kovalesky Math Day for high school girls at University of Texas at Austin. “We need the role models for younger people who need to see that they can acheive it.”

At SFSU, where she teaches, Dr. Vasquez often encounters Latina students in their classes who, although are very capable, seem too intimidated to participate, but she encourages them to speak up and stand out. “I think our cultural backgrounds sometimes pull us back,” she says. “If we work hard, we can show the world we can be just as good or better than anyone else.”

Ana Maria Rey
JILA Fellow and Assistant Research Professor
Department of Physics
University of Colorado at Boulder

Proof that making a career out of studying atoms is possible, Ana Maria Rey always knew she’d someday become a scientist, but her dream job as a theoretical physicist revealed itself many years later.

“Ever since I was very little, I loved physics, science and nature,” says Rey, now a JILA fellow and professor at University of Colorado at Boulder. “When I was in high school, something that fascinated me was being able to use a mathematical language like an equation to describe how the world, the universe or nature behaves. You can use the mathematical model to predict a more complex behavior. That’s what I try to do- use math to describe the behavior of objects and particular quantum objects such as atoms and molecules.”

In high school, Rey already had her sights set on studying physics in college, which she did. She earned her bachelor’s degree in physics from Universidad de los Andes in Bogota, Colombia, where she’s originally from, then came to the U.S. Wanting to delve even deeper into the subject, she found herself at the University of Maryland as an eager graduate student. All it took was listening in on a lecture to set her course for a career in research.

“I was in my first year and heard a lecture given by William Phillips, who received the Nobel Prize in physics,” says Rey. “Hearing him speak about atoms and his work excited me.”

During that lecture, Rey intently listened to him speak about how he cooled down atoms with light. Captivated by the topic, she wanted to learn more. Rey then did a little research of her own and found out that Phillips was directing a course during the summers to prepare the students for the qualifying exam for the Ph.D. program at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersberg, MD. She immediately signed up. “He liked my performance and asked me to join his group,” she says, and he later became her advisor for her Ph.D. in physics.

That eventually brought her to her current job, which centers around research and collaborating with other experimentalists, while also teaching part-time. “Atoms or molecules, when they are cooled down to very low temperatures can be manipulated,” says Rey. “We use light to trap and control atoms and molcules, and this can be applied to quantum simulaters, or quantum computers or systems. Even though the systems are very controllable, they’re very complicated. Sometimes our model doesn’t see what our experiments see, which can be difficult.”

Coming to the U.S. to pursue her career has been nothing but positive for Rey, who’s received a lot of support from her colleagues and recognition for her work. Most recently, she received the 2013 MacArthur fellowship, or “Genius Grant”, for her research on ultra-cold atoms. “I’ve worked very hard doing what I do, but I love it,” says Rey.

Juggling work and family, Rey spends her days at work and her evenings with her husband and four-year-old son, then works past 9 p.m. if necessary. “You have to organize your time,” she says. “It’s hard, but it’s possible. Having a family and doing physics or mathematics are not mutually exclusive. You can do both.”

Alejandra Casillas, MD, MSHS
Primary Care and Research Physician
Department of Primary Care and Community Medicine
Hopitaux Universitaires de Geneve (Switzerland)

Like many other young Mexican-Americans growing up in L.A.’s South Bay area, Alejandra Casillas, MD, MSHS, had Mexican immigrant parents who toiled in the local hotel and restaurant service industry. The oldest daughter in her family, she also witnessed her younger siblings suffering from health problems and seizures.

A person’s cultural and socioeconomic background, she says, “can really affect their health and determine their life course.” It certainly did for her. Being exposed to this at a young age opened her eyes to the medical world- and she wanted to be a part of it.

Her curiosity led her to a career in medical research with a primary focus on studying health issues faced by Spanish-speaking Latinas in Switzerland. “There’s a large population here from South America- Bolivia, Colombia, Peru. There are a lot of women that come here, like they do in the U.S., and work in domestic jobs as nannies and doing house cleaning. They come here on their own, and are separated from their families and husbands.”

Dr. Casillas spends most of her days meeting with other researchers, developing reserach plans and looking at clinic or community health data.

“In one of our latest projects, we looked at unintended pregnancies among women of immigrant origin and what factors predicted or put women at risk here in Geneva,” says Dr. Casillas. “That’s a really important public health issue because we want them to be able to make those life choices appropriately.”

But her job does come with its challenges. “There are so many questions we’d like to answer,” she says. Sometimes they can’t move forward on a study because of a lack of funding or they need more data.

“The data collection process is a challenge for people in research. In a lot of science careers, you have to have patience with the work that you do. It’s really a labor of love waiting and being OK with that timing.”

Prior to working in Switzerland, Dr. Casillas taught residents in internal medicine in primary care, and studied Latina health issues as a Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholars Program fellow at UCLA. The program is for doctors interested in health services and reforming health systems.

Although she relocated to Geneva so her husband could pursue a physics lab position, she seized the opportunity to gain unique experience. “This is where the research is happening,” says Dr. Casillas.

“My hope is to go back to L.A., and work in community clinics and work with med students and residents, teaching them to master clinical medicine, but also expose them to other issues and social determinants of health, especially in low-income areas,” says Dr. Casillas.

She admits that sometimes you have to allow your spouse to follow their dream, while you wait your turn to continue following yours.

“You can’t do everything at the same time,” says Dr. Casillas. “Life is not a fast track. You’re going to have to make detours along the way. It worked out differently than what I planned on, but I’m going to learn from this regardless.”

It’s a tough compromise, but as long as it works for their young family, that’s what matters most.

Source: This article was originally published in the 20th Anniversary issue of LATINAStyle, Vol. 20, No. 1, 2014.