To accompany this month’s SoNYC conversation, on Of Schemes and Memes we have been exploring the world of the minority scientist. Our first installment from Jeanne Garbarino, a Postdoc at Rockefeller University, considered some of the underrepresented groups within science. In our next post, we will be hearing from Mónica I. Feliú-Mójer, the vice-director of Ciencia Puerto Rico, a non-profit, grassroots organization that promotes science, research and scientific literacy in Puerto Rico.
Mónica I. Feliú-Mójer is a Ph.D. candidate in Neuroscience at the Department of Molecular Biology at the Massachusetts General Hospital and the Program in Neuroscience at Harvard Medical School. She is the vice-director of Ciencia Puerto Rico. CienciaPR is a volunteer-based organization, and the activities described here are spearheaded by a dedicated team of Latino scientists that donate their time and effort to CienciaPR and its initiatives.
Although Latinos comprise 16% of the total population in the United States, they remain largely underrepresented in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) degrees and careers.
This underrepresentation of Latinos in science is problematic on several levels. The attrition of Latinos among the ranks of scientists limits our ability as a society to benefit from the full range of talent and minds. The scientific enterprise is enriched by the variety of thoughts, experiences and ideas contributed by diversity. A lack of diversity among the research workforce is detrimental for innovation and can also have the effect of decreasing the diversity of research topics, particularly those that pertain to Latinos.
Many barriers have been found to contribute to the disproportionately low numbers of Latinos in science, including educational gaps, financial pressures, family and cultural dynamics, and insufficient guidance and mentoring.
The lack of mentors that can advice Latino students about the pathways towards STEM degrees and careers is a key contributing factor to the attrition of Latino students in the scientific training pipeline. A good mentor and role model is an invaluable source of experience and insights, someone to identify with, who knows how it is and what it takes to develop into and perform successfully as a scientist or engineer. Often, Latino youth have limited access to role models in their communities to engage, mentor and empower them to go into science.
Today, social networking platforms have emerged as powerful tools to address the lack of mentors among Latino students, because they enable the far-reaching personalized mentoring relationships needed to succeed in the scientific enterprise.
Social networking websites can help democratize access to knowledge and provide new opportunities for fellowship and mentorship by linking groups from resource-limited geographical regions with others in resource-rich centers. Science is a global activity and, with the Latino scientific community dispersed over a wide geographic area, a virtual space that brings individuals of that scientific diaspora together represents a powerful and innovative way to address the challenges faced by Latinos in science and technology.
This is precisely the type of community the non-profit grassroots organization Ciencia Puerto Rico has established. Our volunteer-run website, CienciaPR.org, brings together the geographically dispersed Puerto Rican scientific community under a virtual collaborative space, and uses their collective knowledge-wealth and expertise to engage the public in science; to serve as role models and mentors for the next generations of scientists; and to promote the development of science endeavors in the Puerto Rican archipelago.
By encouraging user participation and the exchange of knowledge and ideas, social networks foster a sense of community and facilitate the creation of user-driven initiatives. For instance, CienciaPR.org provides people with common interests – science, research and Puerto Rico – with the tools, information and resources to help them forge collaborations and mentoring relationships. The ideas and shared interests of the members of Ciencia Puerto Rico’s online community have fueled our organization’s most successful initiatives.
In an effort to increase scientific literacy among lay audiences, members of Ciencia Puerto Rico write and publish scientific articles in El Nuevo Día, the Spanish-language newspaper with the highest circulation in Puerto Rico and the United States. Our users also create science podcasts in Spanish, available on iTunes and transmitted in radio stations in Puerto Rico. The publication of the book ¡Ciencia Boricua!, a collection of essays written by members of Ciencia Puerto Rico’s community in simple everyday language, provides culturally relevant and accessible examples of science to inspire young Puerto Ricans.
While the issues faced by Latinos in science and technology need to be addressed at the government, private, community and individual levels, social networking platforms, such as CienciaPR.org, are powerful instruments to help establish creative strategies to effectively tackle the issues of scientific literacy, cultural relevance and access for minority populations.