I distinctly remember being told by a non-Puerto Rican college professor that I shouldn’t continue with my graduate studies because I “was wasting the federal government’s money.” It stung me emotionally but I had the resolve to not let this discrimination affect me. Instead, experiences like this one and others that left me feeling as if I was caught between two worlds have made me even more determined to succeed in my career as a female physicist.
I was born in Bethesda, Maryland and moved to Puerto Rico with my parents and twin brother when I was five. My parents were both Puerto Rican and chemists, so growing up in the world of science became like second nature to me. You may think it odd to have a mom who is a chemist, but in Puerto Rico it’s very common for women to pursue academics and careers in the sciences such as biology, chemistry, and engineering.
Growing up and attending high school and the University of Puerto Rico was a positive experience because of the similar cultural background I shared with others on the island. However, returning to the U.S. in my 20s during the early 1980s proved to be a challenge. Even though Puerto Rico is considered a commonwealth of the United States (we are born with American citizenship), discrimination still prevailed twenty years ago. Having taken the lead from my parents, I fought hard against this discrimination, particularly while working on my Ph.D. at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.).
I can’t imagine an environment more different from the tropical island of Puerto Rico than New England. Not only were there few minorities at M.I.T., but also very few women. There were 68 students in my entering class for the Ph.D. physics program and only eight females. Out of the eight, six of us graduated with our doctorate in physics. Although I was born an “American,” as a female minority student I always had the feeling that my male professors were doubtful of my abilities. There never seemed to be any question that my male classmates could do the work. However, given the stereotype that Puerto Ricans are “lazy,” I felt that I had to prove myself all over again. This was terribly frustrating because I had already proven that I could do the work back home!
One of the reasons I decided to obtain my Ph.D. on the mainland was because the University of Puerto Rico did not offer a Ph.D. in physics nor the research opportunities in my field of liquid crystals. It was also important for me to have a career position in which I could make my own decisions. I couldn’t see myself always working under someone else who already had a Ph.D. Thus, I knew obtaining a doctorate degree was essential for me.
In addition to my work as a researcher in the Department of Materials, Science, and Engineering at the University of Maryland, College Park, I teach undergraduate and graduate level students as well as graduate level students who are working on research projects. I consider myself fortunate to be at this university because of its high level of diversity and a better-than-usual female student representation in the areas of science and engineering. The field of physics is wide open, and I encourage students to explore the many opportunities available in industrial companies, educational institution, medical centers, and government laboratories.
Currently, I’m also involved with a program in College Park that encourages K-12 students to explore areas of science and engineering. I believe that by being a minority woman, I am providing a role model for the students I’ve encountered, especially the girls. Teenage girls have the misconception that being a female scientist will prevent them from having a social life. This isn’t true! I also try to get across to students I meet, no matter whether secondary or college level, the importance of “balance” in one’s life. For example, I’ve spent most of my life playing the piano. In fact, I received my bachelor’s degree in music while at the University of Puerto Rico (and almost completed a second degree in chemistry). I know for me, having another interest was nice because it got my head out of just doing science-related studies. I don’t believe that one’s life can always be about work!