Milka Montes

Milka Montes, PHD

As the youngest of ten children of a traditional Mexican couple, I learned to adapt to change and be creative. Growing up in the Sierra Tarahumara, I spent time during the cold winters reading all kinds of books. My favorites were encyclopedias. I remember the first time I thought about chemistry, I was looking at a diagram of an animal cell on one page and a vegetable cell on the other. I could understand that each cell had unique structures – mitochondria and ribosomes – but I asked my mom, “Yes, but how does this make life happen?” Although neither she nor my father finished a formal education, they instilled in me the power that comes with knowledge. This curiosity became the foundation of my love for science.

We moved to Texas when I finished high school so my family could reunite and my mom could receive treatment for her heart condition. As the youngest, I felt a responsibility to stay with her in El Paso. I began to learn English at a community college and was told by my advisor that I should just get an associate’s degree, maybe become a technician. I was disappointed. My ambitions were so much higher than that, and I knew I could do better. A fire sparked in me and I transferred to the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) to major in chemistry.

My years at UTEP fueled my love of science. There was only one woman in the entire faculty, and many professors were older white men, which made it intimidating to approach them about research opportunities. I found great mentors who invited me to be a peer leader with a group that traveled to area elementary and high schools to conduct demonstrations with explosions and science games. When I met a Latino professor in environmental chemistry, I discovered he was from Chihuahua, where I had grown up. His lab became my second home.

Balancing my science with caring for my mom was a challenge for me, but as the youngest in my family, I felt a strong obligation to be there for her. There were many long days in the lab and then I would return home to a list of chores, but I did them with love. The opportunities my mom created for me and her belief in our education gave me the fire I needed to keep going.

A new professor told us in an organic chemistry class about SACNAS and said he wanted to take students to the conference. I presented my research as a poster and oral presentation, won an award, and met the director of the Children’s Nutrition Research Center (CNRC). He was impressed with my work exploring how plants convert toxic metals into non-toxic species. I later joined his group as a summer intern at the CNRC in Houston. What a phenomenal experience! I learned about genetics and plant chemistry.

There were times when pursuing a degree in a male-dominated industry was overwhelming. I was often told I couldn’t succeed, that my research was not “real chemistry” because I worked with plants, or people did not expect me to continue my education. But as I approached the end of my PhD, I met a guru of electron microscopy, Dr. Miguel José-Yacamån, at a SACNAS conference. He was delighted to meet a female Latina scientist with a background in analytical chemistry and microscopy. I began working in his lab and realized that the impact I wanted to have with my science was to teach, and looking back at my experiences, I knew I could make a difference.

I became an assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Texas Permian Basin, where I have mentored 22 students. I’ve supported students in completing their degrees in chemistry and in exploring new pathways. I do my best to advance my students’ science. I write them letters of recommendation, tell them about internships, take them on tours to industry, and we go to SACNAS conferences and ACS meetings. Anything to open their eyes to the wonders of chemistry.

I am nearing the end of my tenure track and recently the Physical Science Department faculty elected me to be chair of the department. I will be the only woman in the department and the chair of the department. I am proving that women can have positions like these.

We all know our science is important, but we should always be open to new opportunities and adventures while also taking care of our people and ourselves. I think back to the little girl I was, voraciously reading those encyclopedias, hungry for knowledge, and a quote from Dr. Vincent Tinto comes to mind, “Access without support is not opportunity.” If I didn’t have mentors around to point me toward the opportunities I had, I might have missed them. We must support the next generation of scientists.