Minorities brighten up the future of science and technology

Story and photo by SAYAKA KOCHI

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) is a key field for innovations. As demand increases for researchers and engineers in Utah, the underrepresented minorities, especially those with roots in Latin America, are needed to be scientific innovators.

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Katherine Kireiev, STEM communication manager at the Utah STEM Action Center.

“It doesn’t matter what the color of skin is. STEM is helping to improve human lives, and maybe, the technologies are based on our abilities to keep up with them,” Katherine Kireiev said. She is an underrepresented first-generation American born to Russian parents. She works at the Utah STEM Action Center as a STEM communication manager, supporting Utah citizens including Latinxs to engage in sciences.

Latinx people are less likely to pursue higher education or their careers in the STEM fields, compared to other ethnic groups. According to a 2018 Pew Research Center report, Hispanics are significantly underrepresented in most STEM occupations; only 7 percent of all STEM workers in the U.S. are Hispanics, while 69 percent are Caucasians.

“The Latino culture of filial piety can be one of those things where they are expected to go into similar lines of work. Or maybe not given the right messaging to drive them toward college or science at home,” Kireiev said.

“Latinos are very family oriented and tend to work more in hands-on jobs rather than go and pursue higher education, because culturally, over generations, they don’t think that’s a pathway,” she said.

“What we do here in this agency is to try to make equity across all of the population,” Kireiev explained about what the center, located at 60 E. South Temple in Salt Lake City, is doing. The Utah STEM Action Center creates children’s “wow” and “why” moments by organizing STEM-related events, showing how science works around them.

“We try to equip students with opportunities that they wouldn’t dream of,” Kireiev said.

“With our very large Latino population in the state of Utah, we target public schools and charter schools. … We’re really trying to get teachers to recognize that [we need to] start them young and get them young and just show them that it can be really fun,” Kireiev said. For example, students are given a little toy that can be programmed to follow different color patterns. “It’s really cool and they say, ‘Oh, my gosh. I made it do that?’ Once students make these physical connections and see in actuality that hands-on piece, then it really lights them up,” she said. 

SACNAS (Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science) is also an organization supporting college students in the minority groups to build up their community in the STEM fields.

“SACNAS offers a lot of career development, a lot of workshops to help with applying for grad schools, med schools,” said Reuben Ryan Cano in a phone interview. He was born and raised in Utah, and his parents are both from Mexico. He became the president of SACNAS University of Utah chapter while studying as a pre-med biology student at the University of Utah.

“There is a lot of networking that goes on. There is a chance to present their research, learning how to present, and also see other presentations, sharing science as well as sharing those professional skills,” Cano said. “SACNAS can engage minorities in STEM by building a community, providing support necessarily, and professionally encouraging skill development.”

The connection is vital when motivating underrepresented students to be exposed to scientific fields. Lace Padilla, the former vice president of SACNAS University of Utah chapter who currently works as a post-doctoral fellow at Northeastern University, has discovered the importance of connection through an unexpected meeting.

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Lace Padilla has a Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience. Photo courtesy of Padilla.

Padilla was born to a Mexican-Native American mother and a Caucasian father. She grew up in a small mountain town in Colorado. Her first career was not in science but in an artistic field.

“Where I grew up, people didn’t become a scientist. I never knew any scientists, and I didn’t think someone who looked like me could be a scientist,” Padilla said. Her art career started when she got to know an artist in her hometown. Inspired by the artist who trained Padilla, she became a graphic designer.

“But I always loved science. I graduated first in my class, but for whatever reasons, I never met a college counselor. Just nobody encouraged me to pursue science. So I just didn’t think it was an option,” Padilla said.

After she came to Utah to complete her master’s degree in arts at the University of Utah, she happened to meet a woman who was studying visual perception.

“Visual perception is a really interesting field because it is a science of how our visual system understands the world around us. It was so cool because that was always what I wanted to study in arts,” Padilla explained. Thanks to this meeting, Padilla was encouraged to get into the science field, a decision that changed her life.

Padilla became a graduate research assistant in the visual perception and spatial cognition research lab under the professor’s mentorship and finished her doctoral program in cognitive neuroscience at the U. Since 2018, she has been working as a National Science Foundation (NSF) postdoctoral research fellow at Northeastern University in Boston.

“I wouldn’t have gotten to science if it wasn’t for just randomly meeting this woman who believed in me,” Padilla said.

“Sometimes minority groups get passed over for science because they don’t know someone that can show the way they should have,” Padilla said. “One of the biggest applying factors that makes a minoritized person successful in STEM is having a mentor. If you don’t have a mentor, it’s hard to find a path.”

The current STEM fields are not diversified enough. This inequity is resulting from a lack of real person-to-person connections, inspirations, and encouragements. Underrepresented people hold unlimited potential in science.

“Studying science changed my life,” Padilla said. “I’ve never imagined someone like me could be a scientist. Because I learned a possibility, it changed everything for me. I feel like I’ve been successful because I realized what a privilege it is to study science.”