Over the years, I’ve learned that the journey towards and through a Science and Engineering Career can have many twists and turns, and is typically not the simple path that you envisioned when you were younger. However, it can be far richer and more fulfilling than you ever imagined if: (1) you work hard; (2) are persistent; (3) courageously and judiciously explore seemingly risky opportunities; (4) make enabling sacrifices; (5) accept that many of your decisions will be imperfect and possibly even wrong; and (6) learn from and move on from your failures and disappointments. In retrospect, I realize that my professional success has been enabled by many other supporting influences around me, starting with my parents. We also have an obligation to pay it forward to others when we have the opportunity.
My maternal grandmother never had the opportunity to pursue a primary or secondary education because of the turmoil of the 1910 Mexican Revolution which forced her immigration to the USA. Nonetheless, she valued the importance of education and often reminded me of our family’s Aztec heritage. Her stories about her Nahuatl-speaking grandmother and how Astronomy influenced the Aztec world view combined with more modern American science fiction influences, and were influential in my early interest in a STEM career. My parents were not college graduates, and neither were engaged in STEM Careers. Although they did not understand what a STEM Career could provide compared to other more familiar careers (i.e., business, law or medicine), they could offer love and support my decision to pursue my STEM career interest.
I originally wanted to be an astrophysicist and a professor, and that led my early education choices. In High School, I had to find courage to ignore other uninformed voices around me that tried to dissuade me from a Physics career as being “too hard”, or unmarketable. With my family’s support, I earned my Physics bachelor’s degree from the University of Dallas. Afterwards, my parents did not pressure me to get a “real job” rather than pursue a graduate education. This faith and encouragement helped me pursue the lengthy and arduous path through graduate school. Since I grew up in San Antonio, I focused my graduate school search within Texas. Unfortunately, after various visits, none of the programs seemed like a good fit for me, and it was too late to apply elsewhere. Uncertain about where to go to graduate school, I was fortunate to find a civil service physicist job at Kelly AFB in San Antonio to buy me more time to investigate graduate school options. My KAFB co-workers were friendly and I quickly learned how to do my job evaluating jet engines. Within a few months, I became bored with the position, and learned that the more interesting Physics jobs were elsewhere, and required much more education. Thus, I continued my search for a Physics Graduate School outside of Texas that seemed like a better fit.
I learned about the recent decision to place the Hubble Space Telescope Science Institute (STSI) at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and that looked like an incredible opportunity worth pursuing despite the distance from my family and culture. With my parents’ nervous blessing, I took a risk and went to Physics and Astronomy graduate school at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, far my family and cultural surroundings. My KAFB co-workers were supportive of my decision, but also thought I was crazy to resign from a secure career civil service job with steady promotion opportunities. In hind sight, it turned out that the position was not secure – KAFB closed due to a BRAC Commission decision within 10 years (now Port San Antonio).
The change of surroundings during my first year was much more difficult than I expected, and I was surprised how quickly “out of shape” I became from university study habits in my “gap year” between undergraduate and graduate school. I also did not save as much money as I thought I would despite staying at home for that gap year. There is a risk in taking a gap year between undergraduate and graduate school, and I was almost a victim. I seriously thought about quitting graduate school that first year, but I somehow worked hard and persisted. The memory of the lack of career challenge from my previous KAFB job was a key motivator. Fortunately, after that first tough year at Hopkins, things became more comfortable and exciting. Despite an interesting STSI summer intern experience after my first year at Hopkins, I realized that I was more interested in the state-of-the-art instrumentation contained in the Hubble Space Telescope. I learned that Condensed Matter and Materials Physics were an even greater passion, so I took a risk and shifted gears away from Astrophysics.
My Hopkins dissertation project focused on fundamental issues related to surface and interface magnetism, partially motivated by the chance to be advised by a very bright, dynamic and supportive Physics Professor: Cal Walker. After Hopkins, I still wanted to be a Professor, and I was advised that a challenging postdoctoral research experience was crucial. With Cal’s help, I was fortunate to successfully apply for an National Research Council Postdoctoral Research Associateship at the Naval Research Lab in nearby Washington DC. My choice was motivated by the chance to work with another dynamic researcher (and Hopkins alumnus), Gary Prinz. Coincidentally, Gary Prinz would later found NRL’s Nanoscience Institute. Besides my engagement in exciting research at the dawn of the age of spintronics, I also had the chance to learn how Gary motivated a team of researchers towards a coordinated goal, and the importance of research in support of US National Security.
Determined to be a Professor at a place where I could make a difference and move closer to family, I next accepted a position at Texas State University. Like graduate school, the first year was the hardest. I wondered if I made the right decision. After working hard and surviving the first year, it was exhilarating working towards building a new Materials Physics research and curriculum program that impacted the careers of many future students. I began offering mentoring that began to pay forward the help that I received. I had great satisfaction helping a group of ambitious Texas State students initiate a new “Science Extravaganza” outreach program that was eventually recognized and expanded throughout the National Society of Mexican American Engineers and Scientists organization. I was pleased that I significantly contributed towards Texas State University becoming a Hispanic Serving Institution, and lead the way to a new interdisciplinary Materials Science Doctoral program.
After 13 years at Texas State University, another opportunity for change and growth appeared – I was offered a chance to lead an R&D Department with outstanding nanomaterials science/engineering experts at Sandia National Laboratories (NM). This opportunity was the result of my expanding research collaborations putting me on the radar of Sandia National Labs. Many of my Texas State University colleagues saw great risk in the opportunity, especially since I would be leaving a tenured Professor position. Additionally, many of them thought that since the Sandia position was not a Professorship, it was not a “real” science position. I disagreed. Sandia’s offer was a risky opportunity, taking me out of Texas again and landing me in a new environment and culture. Again, the first year was the hardest and I wondered if I made the right decision to come to Sandia. Again, persistence, adaptability and networking helped me make the transition. It has been a tremendous and satisfying learning experience at Sandia, leading to recognition by HENAAC and Fellowship in the American Physical Society. In my present role, I continue to look for ways to keep paying it forward. I don’t know what opportunity lays in waiting in the future, but I hope that I will recognize it and have the courage to pursue it. I hope that my example helps you recognize and courageously pursue your path.
Updated April 3,2018
Alfonso Ortega, PhD
I was born and raised in El Paso, Texas. My parents migrated to the United States for better job opportunities so as to provide for their eleven children. My parents are from ranchitos (small ranches) outside of Durango, Mexico. My father was a teacher in Mexico; but when he migrated to the U.S. he became a bricklayer, a trade he soon mastered. He loved his job and felt passionate about being a master bricklayer. My brother and I would often work for him. I owe a great deal of my love for building things to my father. He helped me understand and appreciate the value of a good structure, as well as the beauty contained within it.I went to Bel Air High School in El Paso. During high school I worked hard, and eventually I won a scholarship to Rice University, a university of high reputation. However, when I told my parents about my opportunity, they weren’t very enthusiastic about it. Though they didn’t stop me from attending Rice, they never gave me the approval I felt was necessary. I decided instead to go to the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). I have never regretted this decision, for I believe I received an excellent education. At that time the school catered to undergraduates, and I learned the essentials I would need to become a successful engineer. One professor I had at UTEP, Professor Jack Dowdy, introduced me to the engineering problems surrounding heat exchange, and set me on a course that continues to this very day. It is amazing the impact that a few small comments can have on a student. I received my B.S. degree with honors in mechanical engineering from UTEP in 1976.
In January 1977, I started work at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, participating in the One Year On Campus (OYOC) program, which is meant to help minorities and women get higher degrees. I consider myself to be a case study in how the system works for getting minorities and women into advanced degrees through national laboratories. I saw people with advanced degrees doing the things I wanted to do, and that having a graduate degree in engineering was the key to success.
In August 1977, I left Sandia and headed to Stanford University. I was enrolled in an intensive one-year master’s degree program. That first quarter at Stanford was the toughest that I had ever experienced. At UTEP I was used to being the top student, and things just seemed to come to me naturally. However, the higher the educational level, the more dedicated the students are. For the first time in my career I was not easily the top student in my classes. I earned my master’s degree and then returned to Sandia where I continued to work. Seeing the need for even higher education, after two and a half years I returned to Stanford to pursue my Ph.D. under the Sandia Laboratories advanced degree program. At Stanford I worked as a research assistant with Professor Bob Moffat on heat exchange problems in engineering. After five years I obtained my Ph.D., and then returned again to Sandia. On the side I worked as an adjunct professor at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, where I learned that I enjoyed university teaching. I wasn’t looking for a position when I received a request from the University of Arizona (UA) to interview for a tenure track professorship. I had been recommended by my advisor at Stanford as a possible candidate for the position. I decided to interview, and I was offered and accepted the position in 1988. I am currently an Associate Professor, and the Director of the Experimental and Computational Heat Transfer Group, at UA.
In my laboratory we study heat transfer. A project we are working on in my laboratory is cooling down computers as they work harder to keep up with the ever increasing speed of operations. We use the human brain as a model. The brain is cooled by bringing liquids (blood) into contact with it. We are trying to use this idea by bringing cool liquid, air and water, into close contact with the processor, which heats up as it does more work. The heat is transferred to the liquid, which is then carried off and cooled by circulation. The process repeats, keeping the computer’s processor cool enough to function properly, much like the human brain.
I love my job. I work on problems in engineering that are important and interesting. With the knowledge that I gain from studying these problems, I get to teach and inspire students at all levels, from high school, to my university classes, to professional engineers in industry. I feel privileged being an academic at the University of Arizona.
Emir Jose Macari, PhD
Coincidence? My Parents met in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, as students at Louisiana State University. My father was from Mexico and came to the United States to study Chemical Engineering, and my mother, a Cuban-American, was studying Nutrition. This duality in cultures is mirrored in my own life experiences. After my parents married and my sister was born in Baton Rouge, they moved to Mexico City, where I was born. From then on I lived half of my life in the US and the other half in Mexico. I completed high school in Mexico City and then came back to the US for college and eventually graduate school. After holding positions in Puerto Rico and Georgia, I have returned to live and work at the place where my parents met, LSU! What a coincidence.
I am currently the Chairman of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the Bingham C. Stewart Endowed Distinguished Professor of Engineering (my position is funded by a $2,000,000 endowment). My research activities are paid from the interest that the endowment earns each year. With this money I am able to support undergraduates, graduate students and postdoctoral students who work with me on many different research projects (computational mechanics, earthquake engineering, sustainable technologies and the use of virtual reality in engineering education).
Ever since I was a young boy, my wish was to be a civil engineer, just like my maternal grandfather. My grandpa was an unusual person. After I finished high school, I enrolled at Virginia Tech, and my grandfather enrolled there at the same time! While I earned my Bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, he earned two more degrees, completing them at the age of 72.
After completing my Bachelor of Science degree, I attended the University of Colorado, where I earned a Master’s degree. I worked as a consultant for four years and traveled all over the world. Nevertheless, I felt that something was missing in my life, so I went back to the University of Colorado and earned a Ph.D. in civil engineering in 1989. The work that I did for my doctoral dissertation resulted in experiments that went up on two Space Shuttle flights, STS-79 in September 1996 and STS-89 in February 1998.
My wife and I wanted to have our children experience growing up in a Latino culture, so I accepted a position at the University of Puerto Rico, where I remained for four years. In 1991, I was awarded a Presidential Faculty Fellowship, a program that was created by President Bush. This award consisted of a $500,000 research grant, given out over a five-year period.
My dedication to reach my educational goals didn’t just happen. Children are directly influenced by the family’s attitudes, by the values that are expressed in the activities that families undertake, and by the many teachers that students encounter during their studies. I already mentioned my grandfather, who provided me with a role model of an engineer. My parents were leaders in the Parent Teachers’ Association, showing me that you have to take an active role in the educational process. I remember my father telling me that the most valuable inheritance he would leave me was a very good education. I also had caring teachers and mentors. I recall very vividly Mr. Flores, one of my high school teachers in Mexico City. Towards the end of my senior year in high school I was suspended for two weeks for unruly behavior. The principal arranged for me to return on the day that the calculus final was to be given. I would not have been able to graduate had I failed this course. However, Mr. Flores called me every day at home and tutored me over the phone to make sure that I was keeping up with the material. Everyone was surprised, especially the principal, to learn that I earned a 98% on the calculus final.
A Ph.D. provides you with much more than simply a technical education. It also provides you with training on how to organize your thoughts, how to seek out information, and how to address complex problems. A Ph.D. also provides the opportunity to have a much greater impact than just in your own small circle of colleagues and students. In 1994, I was asked to help draft President Clinton’s science policy document entitled, “Science in the National Interest.” There I was able to work with prominent U.S. scientists to formulate the scientific and technological direction this country would follow for the next decade. What a pleasure and an honor it was for me to be among these people! However, the one thing that I didn’t like was the lack of people of color among this group.
The Mayas, Aztecs, and Incas had amazing scientific and engineering accomplishments. It is up to you, our future scientists and engineers, to continue in the tradition of our ancestors.
J.V. Martinez, PhD
To this day, living in Northern Arizona makes it difficult to ignore the manifestation of natural phenomena and not contemplate how such wonders come to be. I am one who has always been curious. However, my curiosity about nature did not blind me to the status of the Mexican American population at the time. Growing up in the Southwest in the mid-1900s I became aware that a colonial mentality existed, left over from the U. S.-Mexican war of the 1840s, a war that resulted in a loss of half of Mexico’s land to the U.S. Although my parents immigrated to the U.S. after that war, even the Mexicans that had resided in the Southwest and their descendants were treated as a conquered people, viewed as second-class citizens. Use of the Spanish language was an easy marker for discrimination. I experienced numerous instances of discrimination. My elementary school was segregated, reserved only for children of Mexicans like myself. Though we spoke Spanish at home, I easily mastered English. In elementary school I found myself attracted to mathematics, music and spelling. These subjects have a strong analytic content requiring less mastery of English and may have been the reason I gravitated toward them.
High school was difficult because I had to socialize into the main stream. This resulted in being subjected to overt discrimination. An extreme case was the principal, who told me that I had to settle for second place after I called to his attention discrimination tactics used by a teacher. On another occasion he told me, ”Mexicans don’t do science.” Eventually I was able to reconcile Anglo community values with those of my Mexican upbringing. Engaging in competitive sports presented a relief throughout high school. I was one of possibly two Mexican Americans that did well in science and mathematics, as well as in English in high school. I was editor of the newspaper during my senior year, won the school’s American Legion oratory contest two years in a row and took second prize in a national art poster contest. My high school transcripts show two tracks of study, one that prepared me for semi-skilled labor and the other for college. Mexican American students were not viewed as destined for a college education.
Upon high school graduation, I enrolled at Northern Arizona University in 1950. A scholarship paid tuition and staying at home minimized my expenses. Expenses were critical, much as it is today among too many Hispanics. I was the only Mexican American in mathematics and science college classes. Nevertheless, I was able to complete my bachelor’s degree in 1954 and then began my graduate studies with support of a teaching assistantship in graduate school.
As a graduate student at Oregon State University and a post doctorate at Cornell University, I merged my lifelong interests in chemistry and physics and continued to build a competency in mathematics, which underpins all of science. Calculus and differential equations are fundamental for the precise formulation of physics and chemistry. Mastering mathematics is a continuing process. Entrance and success in college begins with the study of algebra, geometry and trigonometry in high school and continues without end. The last formal courses in mathematics I had were in graduate school, vector spaces that help describe molecular structure and differential equations that describe the motion of waves. In physics, this mathematics explains motion and energy exchange; in chemistry, how chemical bonds are formed to accommodate structure, molecular stability and energy content.
I found research a pleasant challenge particularly since it required making original contributions. For my master’s degree, I found how the unrestricted motion of a particular molecule in the gas phase is modified when incorporated into a crystal. Such results are fundamental to new discoveries, such as predicting outcomes of chemical reactions and syntheses of chemicals. For the doctorate, my original contribution was to show that light passing through a carefully designed ultrasonic field in a gas can be used to measure exchange of energy when molecules collide.
After a successful period in the corporate world and a decade as a professor of physics, I became a program manager with the Atomic Energy Commission in 1974. This Commission was superceded by the Department of Energy. As a result of an agency-wide competition, I was awarded a 12 month resident Sloan Fellowship in 1977 that allowed me to earn a Masters in Management Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. As a program manager for atomic, molecular and optical physics, I supervised and managed the disbursement of as much as 10 million dollars a year to U.S. scientists. This duty involved receipt of proposals, managing their evaluation and funding the more meritorious ones. Monitoring these projects provided me a vicarious living since the scientists invariably reported their new findings to me before they were submitted for publication. I found this role an exciting one. After 25 years of program management, I became a science advisor.
Realizing that so few minorities were following scientific careers, I helped found SACNAS in 1973 and served as one of its presidents. I sincerely hope that those days of blatant discrimination are far behind us. Nevertheless, even when others think less of us, our own inner strengths along with our education and organizations like SACNAS aid us to conquer adversities.
J.D. Garcia, PhD
I was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and I grew up in Alcalde, New Mexico. Alcalde is a very small village in northern New Mexico, which was started by Spanish speaking people hundreds of years ago. It is somewhat isolated from the rest of the world, and has a culture that is very rich in tradition and folklore. The people in the village value education.When it came time for me to go to high school, I had to make a decision. The nearest high school was about fifteen miles away. My parents wanted me to go to Santa Fe (about thirty miles away) to Saint Michael’s, a boarding school, because it was supposed to be very good. I told them that I did not want to go because I did not have any friends in Santa Fe. In the end I went to Saint Michael’s, and it turned out to be a great experience. I learned a lot, made many new friends, and was still able to keep the old ones. St. Michael’s had excellent mathematics and science teachers. It was amazing how much fun it was to learn mathematics and science. My parents were really supportive, and it was their belief in a good education that helped me to appreciate the importance and fun of learning new things.
When I was growing up in northern New Mexico, nobody had a lot of money and everybody had to work hard. I would not have been able to go to college, except that by attending the high school that I did, I was able to get a cooperative student scholarship to New Mexico State University. This type of scholarship meant that I went to school six months out of the year and worked the other six months in a technical job. This turned out to be a good combination. I learned a lot in my classes at the university, and I was able to use what I had learned in my job. Similarly, the new skills I learned in my job helped me appreciate what I was learning in my classes. I worked hard and competed for the opportunity to study further. I was able to go to Germany for a year as a Fulbright scholar and study at the University of Göttingen, where some of the physicists I had read about taught and did research. I received my Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in 1966. Of the many different types of physicists, I am called a ”theoretical physicist.” I use mathematics to describe the atom and how it works.
Imagine trying to figure out a jigsaw puzzle given only a few of the pieces to begin with. What picture will finally emerge? This is what I do in studying atoms. Atoms are everywhere, but they are too small to be seen individually. In fact, there are more than a billion atoms on the period at the end of this sentence. Imagine trying to study just one atom on that period. This is the challenge that I am interested in. Because physicists cannot see the atoms, sometimes the only information we have about them is the pieces that come out when we smash two atoms together. I try to predict what will happen, and then use that information to understand how the atoms were put together to begin with. Because I only have pieces of the puzzle, it can be very difficult. I don’t even know if I have all the pieces.
Physics is the study of how nature works. What are the forces that make atoms move and form molecules? What keeps an atom together? What are the rules for our universe? How do stars form? These are the kinds of questions that I work on. I try to understand nature by using equations to calculate what happens when atoms collide. Sometimes it takes very large computers to figure out a problem. Other times we can do the calculation without a computer, just using logical thinking and carefully talking out an idea. I also help people design how they will do their experiments so that their measurements will yield the most information for us to use.
I work at a university, so I teach undergraduate and graduate students about physics as well. I also help high school teachers sponsor a high school physics competition every year. One of the neat things that our physics department does every year is put on a physics phun night where the public comes to watch demonstrations of experiments. We draw a large crowd of people who want to see someone’s hair stand on end, or wonder how holding a spinning bicycle wheel can make a person turn around. The best part of my work is helping students and others learn about the world we live in.
Ramon E. Lopez, PhD
My parents were from Puerto Rico. My father was an army officer surgeon and my mother was an elementary school teacher, and they always encouraged learning. My parents bought me a telescope for my tenth birthday. When the astronauts landed on the moon, I remember running back and forth between the television set and my telescope trying to see if I could catch a glimpse of the men on the moon. When I was in sixth grade my father left the military, and my family moved to Freeport, Illinois, where my father went in to private practice. It was then that I decided I wanted to be a physicist, sparked mainly by reading and the Apollo moon landings. I wanted to know how the universe worked. In ninth grade we moved outside of town, where I had to start a new school, Pearl City High School (PCHS), without any of my previous friends. At PCHS I had a wonderful science teacher, Jerry Heinrich, who loved science and loved to teach it to others. In 1974, Mr. Heinrich taught me to do a small amount of programming on an early computer he had. For me, science was always a large and important part of my life.
Technically, I never graduated from high school. Stemming mainly from my “outgrowing” PCHS, I decided to go to college early. In the fall of 1976, I entered the University of Illinois (UI) as a physics major. It was quite a step going from a high school of 200 students to a major university with 35,000 students. At first I did very poorly, as I felt significantly under-prepared for the challenges of college. In my first semester I earned under a C average. During the second semester I remember a particular calculus test. I had worked through many of the difficult problems at the end of the book, and I felt very prepared for the exam. I received a D, which was an eye-opening experience to me. I knew I wasn’t stupid; I had just studied stupidly. During that semester I finally learned to study wisely. I mastered the concepts rather than very specific problems, and I aced the next calculus test. Also during my first year, I studied very hard to fill in the gaps that were apparent from my lack of preparation. During my third semester at UI, I received straight A’s.
Though I was indisputably a physics major, I had other interests as well. In fact, if I wasn’t a physicist, I think I’d be a historian. During school I worked in the physics department setting up lecture demonstrations, which was a great job for a student. I could study, and I came into contact with many of the professors I wouldn’t have known otherwise. I also wrote articles about physics for the school newspaper as an undergraduate, which helped me immensely later in life. Though it doesn’t seem like it, scientists actually write for a living; so the experience of writing for the newspaper was invaluable. I was even encouraged to go to school and receive a Master’s in journalism. But I’d wanted a Ph.D. in physics since middle school, so I pursued that dream instead.
I received a National Science Foundation minority graduate fellowship to attend graduate school, where I knew I would study space science. I decided to attend Rice University in Houston for graduate school partly because I was tired of the cold winters in Illinois. At Rice, things were different than at UI. The graduate students in space science were a close knit group as opposed to the large department I’d come from. It was very difficult in graduate school, and all of us in the program had to become more serious and focused. I even thought about dropping out after the first year due to isolation from the other things that I loved, such as literature, history, art and philosophy, which I was used to being a part of at UI. However, I persevered; and in 1986 I received my Ph.D. in Space Physics.
Fresh out of graduate school, I began doing pure research in space physics at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab (APL). I left APL because I wanted to put more effort into educational projects, which I did at the University of Maryland at College Park (UMCP). When I was 34, I became the Director of Education for the American Physical Society (APS); and for five years I ran all of the education programs for APS while still working half time at UMCP. However, after five years doing both jobs, I’d had enough. I wanted a faculty position. In 1999, I obtained a position at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). I was appointed C. Sharp Cook Distinguished Professor of Physics and Chair of the Department of Physics at UTEP.
Luz Miranda-Martinez, PhD
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!
Vicente Llamas, PhD
I was born and raised in Boyle Heights, a barrio in East Los Angeles. Although my Mexican-born parents had very little schooling, they instilled in my two sisters and me the importance of education. I attended Catholic schools throughout my elementary, secondary, and university education. In high school, I did very well in the sciences and mathematics. However, I didn’t do well in high school physics, which was surprising to me because I loved building things and always thought I’d become an electrician or some other kind of mechanical technician. My love of building started when I was a kid. I was always fixing things like radios and television sets. I even built my own stereo with the help of my dad.
My high school teachers recommended that I take the “college track” courses rather than the strictly technical courses I planned on taking in order to become an electrician. I had no idea I was capable enough or even eligible to go to college, but I was accepted to Loyola Marymount University of Los Angeles, which was exciting and scary at the same time, since my family, not wealthy by any means, had to come up with the high cost of college. At the time, we didn’t know that there were federal aid and loan programs to help offset the costs of higher education, so along with my mother and father, I worked constantly for four years. By the time I graduated from Loyola, my education had been completely paid for.
I entered college still interested in being an electrician, so I majored in electrical engineering, not knowing how vastly different the two fields are. One of the required courses was engineering physics taught by a professor named Father Cooney, who became a mentor to me. Father Cooney was absolutely fantastic— he always challenged us to do better and he did it in a tough, yet caring way. I loved the work and I loved the excitement of physics, so I decided at the end of my first year to pursue physics as my major. Everyone thought I was crazy given that I hadn’t done so well in my high school physics class. I wasn’t a stellar student, but I did finish my physics degree in four years and received a full scholarship to attend graduate school at the University of Missouri.
My experience in Missouri was a hard one. Not only was it an adjustment going from an urban environment like Los Angeles to a rural one, but the Midwestern culture was so different. There was virtually no ethnic diversity. I had never felt like a minority before because, living in East L.A., we were the majority! Except for another Hispanic student with the surname Romero, all my classmates were white, and there were very few women. I had good friends, but the small community of Rolla is where I had the difficulty. Townspeople didn’t respond to me very comfortably. I think it had as much to do with their ignorance of who I was as with their lack of experience with people from different backgrounds. However, I decided to get involved in the community and my last two years were much easier as the townspeople appreciated my efforts.
After applying to 268 colleges for a teaching position once I received my Ph.D., I landed a job at New Mexico Highlands University in Northern New Mexico and was there for 24 years before retiring in 1994. In addition to my teaching responsibilities, I began to get involved in developing organizations that helped increase minorities in the science fields, both academic and professional. That’s how the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) began— a group of Hispanic and Native American scientists in the early 70s who shared the similar experience of discrimination and isolation in the sciences.
It was a natural progression for me to continue my minority advocacy work after I retired. Currently, I spend a great deal of time working on programs to improve mathematics and science education in southwestern Native American and rural Hispanic communities.
As much as I enjoy traveling the country with my science/mathematics education consulting business, I miss teaching. I really loved the one-on-one interaction I had with students. I was considered a tough but caring professor like that of my mentor Father Cooney. I believe that one of the qualities of an excellent teacher is to accept the fact that he/she doesn’t have all of the answers. For me, this made for an exciting exchange with students whose questions always gave me new information and new insights. Although I no longer teach, I do have the satisfaction of knowing that I’ve come a long way from building radios to helping build future communities of minority scientists throughout the country!
Theresa Maldonado, PhD
Both my parents are Texans, but I was born at Travis Air Force Base, California, and grew up in California, North Dakota, Georgia, and Texas. My parents first language was Spanish, but they chose not to teach us Spanish so that we would never face discrimination due to an accent. I am the oldest of five children, with two brothers and two sisters. I am the first person in my family to attend college. In an unusual turn of events, my decision to attend college motivated my parents to attend college as well. When I was growing up, I was taught that school should come after all of my other responsibilities at home. Because of this I felt guilty for pursuing an education. In traditional Mexican-American culture, girls are often taught to take care of the house and family, whereas men are in charge and do things outside the home. However, being the oldest, I always had to take care of the others, which put me in a leadership role. This experience would help me later in my education. I went to thirteen different schools between kindergarten and twelfth grade. Although military schools are excellent, I did not get a strong science background. Junior high was when the pace of my educational development accelerated. I was placed in advanced classes in English, mathematics, science, and social studies. My trigonometry and calculus teachers were very encouraging. My calculus teacher, in fact, suggested that I consider engineering as my major in college, but I just thought ”What the heck is that?” I was also in the concert band and on the basketball team. I learned some very valuable lessons from basketball in those years. We would have two hours of practice, and the first hour and a half focused only on the fundamentals – running, dribbling, shooting, etc. The last half hour was spent on strategy. I began to realize that by concentrating on fundamentals, whether in athletics or academics, a person will have the abilities needed to excel at other things.After graduating high school, I attended a junior college in Georgia. My goal was to be a high school mathematics teacher. I took one education class, and I ended up changing my mind. I had one very interesting calculus professor at this school. My perception was that he was sexist, and he made a couple of comments in class that substantiated my thoughts. I remember one time he asked one of the two other girls in my calculus class a question, and when she didn’t know the answer, he shouted ”You women belong in the kitchen!” Pretty soon I was the only female left in my calculus class. However, this same teacher told me at the end of the year that I should consider applying to Georgia Institute of Technology after I got my two year degree, and that I should try engineering. Although I was offended by this person at first, he ended up being very encouraging and gave me real motivation to focus on engineering.
I chose electrical engineering rather blindly, but I did know that mathematics was my ticket to engineering. I ended up making straight As my first quarter there. There were not very many women in the electrical engineering department at Georgia Tech. I was usually one of two or three women in a class of 80. That fact alone made me uncomfortable. I was afraid to ask my professors questions. I would spend hours trying to figure out trivial things so that I wouldn’t have to approach the professors. In general, I found engineering and mathematics faculty to be very uncommunicative. I graduated with a 3.8 GPA and was recruited by a company that sent me back to school for my master’s degree in electrical engineering. I finished my Ph.D. in electrical engineering in 1990, and accepted a faculty position at University of Texas, Arlington. Finally, after all these years, I am the teacher I wanted to be.
It is very important that I am a female who is a professor of engineering. Over the years I have had to listen to comments from others who said I was not qualified. I had to convince myself that I was qualified and that I would get my Ph.D. By concentrating on the fundamentals, I have attained a position that I truly enjoy, and that is the most important point.
George Castro, PhD
I grew up in east Los Angeles during the 1940’s and 1950’s, which was a very exciting time. The older generation’s stories of the difficult times they had endured inspired us to hope for something better for our generation. Our family slowly worked its way out of poverty, and by the time I got to high school, our standard of living had improved quite a bit.
School was always relatively easy for me, with the exception of English, which I really didn’t master until college. Whenever I wanted to excel in any subject I could, but usually I was just an average student. My curiosity in the sciences began before high school. As a kid I enjoyed tearing things apart to figure out how they worked. My friends and I even dissected rats in our attempts to identify their physiology. My accidental placement in the college-bound track in high school furthered my interest in science. I actually found chemistry and physics fun!
My fascination with the sciences brought me to study physics at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) as an undergraduate. However, my pursuit of a physics degree did not last long and shortly I switched to chemistry. My college experience made my life very different than the friends I had grown up with in East Los Angeles who were all Chicano and never had any college aspirations until they came back from the military service. In college, my friends were the Jewish and Asian students (mostly Japanese) who carpooled with me to UCLA. Growing up in Los Angeles with Chicano, African-American, American Indian, Asian, and poor white children from Oklahoma gave me a strong awareness and appreciation of diverse cultures and the common struggles that all people have growing up.
I was not a very motivated undergraduate student. I received mostly C grades. It was circumstance and luck that brought me to graduate school. During my undergraduate years there was a draft for military service and I knew that when I finished school I would have to go into the army.
I had never thought about graduate school before, but it sounded a lot better than going into the army. When University of California at Riverside (UCR) invited me to attend their graduate school, with tuition paid for, and a research job, I joyfully accepted. The only provision that the school mandated was that I receive B grades in my final semester at UCLA. For the first time in my life I had an academic goal. I worked hard and obtained A’s. The following semester I began UC Riverside graduate school. The experience of attending graduate school changed my whole world, I lived on campus, I did research, and earned a 4.00 grade point average. I loved graduate school.
My attendance at UCR enabled me the opportunity to be one of the few students in the United States working on an exciting new research project. Specifically, we experimented with organic materials that conduct electricity when you shine light on them. My research helped to create the understanding that the creation of charge carriers occurred very close to the surface of the material and that the oxygen in the air residing at the materials surface was acting like a solid state impurity and causing other complicated effects to occur. By having a very clean surface of an organic materials, such as you have in a high vacuum, the material behaved in a predictable manner. This was a big scientific discovery, at the time, which was 1965.
Due to the success of my research, IBM hired me after I finished some postdoctoral research. The first project I worked on for IBM was an organic photo (light) conductor, a polymer film, which is used by copying machines. Our invention allowed IBM to break into the market dominated by Xerox with a machine that provided consistent high quality copies.
After twenty-seven years in a fulfilling career with IBM, I became an Associate Dean for the College of Science at San Jose State University. I have been here a little over three years. I have a job that I helped to create and now I fund the position with government grants. I spend my days working with schools to help students take more math and science classes, and to be successful in these two disciplines. I help all kids, but in particular I focus on Latino, African-American, and Native American kids.
In my life, I definitely got a few lucky breaks, like attending UC Riverside; but, I now realize that determined students will make their own breaks. If you are motivated, and you really believe you can do something, just push at it. The breaks will come, and you will take advantage of them. The obstacles will come, and you will surmount them. You have to believe that you can succeed. You cannot let anyone else determine what you are capable of doing because nobody knows, and you will never know until you try.