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Latinas and Science

by Deborah Aguiar-Velez

October 7,2008

It is tough to be a scientist and a Latina at the same time. People can never correctly guess what I do for a living. If I tell them I have my own business, they assume I run a restaurant. The truth is that I can’t cook, but I own and have run an engineering applications firm since the early 80’s.

I constantly battle people’s preconceived notions about what a successful Latina does or looks like. Many people think Latina and they think of Jennifer Lopez. Sorry, I don’t look or sing like her. Early in life, my mother told me, “Honey, study math.” You see, I could not sing, but I was excellent in math and sciences. So I followed her advice.

I started college when I was 16 years old, on a full scholarship, and graduated with honors with a B.S. in Chemical Engineering from the University of Puerto Rico. The biggest challenge I faced was being a young woman in a predominantly male field. Mind you, only 10% of our class was female. Several professors were downright hostile about having women in their classes. One of them was known for saying, “Women belong at home, and should be kept barefoot and pregnant.” That was 1972. However, I did not let their prejudice stop me from pursuing my studies. Instead, I became president of the school’s chapter of the Society of Women Engineers, and created programs to highlight the positive roles of women in engineering.

I also took advantage of having so many males in my class – I met my husband Germán, another chemical engineering student, the first day of college and we have been together ever since.

When I go around speaking to younger women and they ask me if I am happy with my career choices, I tell them the following:

• An engineering degree opens up many career options. With my degree in hand, my first assignment was doing computer simulations for the then-largest company in the world, Exxon Corporation. Several years later, my engineering degree caught the attention of the Governor of New Jersey, Thomas Kean, and he personally interviewed me for the position of Director of the NJ Division of Small Business in the late 80’s. I became the highest Hispanic in his administration.

• In a recent Charlotte Observer article titled “A bidding war for engineers,” the columnist wrote that “Even though the economy is cooling, engineers are in high demand, and the competition to hire them has grown fierce. …But with graduation rates down 20 percent over the past two decades, there aren't enough to go around.” Because of the limited supply, engineers will be needed in droves for years to come.

• An engineering education taught me best how to learn on my own. Among other subjects, I have taught myself finance and investment strategies – thus staying competitive in business.

I also explain to young women why people can never guess my profession: There are very few of us! The census data indicates that 4% of all the science and technology professionals in the country are Hispanic, and that number includes both men and women. In 2003, according to the National Science Foundation, Latinas represented only 1% of all employed scientists and engineers.

But we need more. Everywhere I go, I praise the values of a career in science, technology, math and engineering. And I can see the results of this preaching in our daughters. My oldest graduated with honors from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) with a Mechanical Engineering degree and now works at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). She speaks four languages, has travelled extensively and has won robotics competitions in the U.S. and Europe. My youngest is studying Chemistry and Forensic Sciences at the University of the Sciences (USP) in Philadelphia. She was one of the top 20 students in her high school class and is also an accomplished pianist and artist.

They both serve as a reminder that any woman with the right support, role models, and opportunities can shatter stereotypes, make an impact, and transform the world of science as we know it today.

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