Recognizing Latinx and Hispanic Excellence at Scripps

In celebration of Latinx Heritage Month, we interviewed several members of the Latinx community at Scripps, including faculty, students, staff, and researchers
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In honor of Latinx Heritage Month, Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego is reflecting on the importance of our Latinx and Hispanic faculty, students, staff, and researchers. We are also celebrating the great diversity of the Hispanic-Latinx community and the tremendous contributions of Afro-Latinx, Indigenous, and Asian-Latinx communities.

Latinx Heritage Month is observed in the United States from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15 to celebrate the histories, cultures, and contributions of Americans whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, and the Spanish-speaking nations of Central America, South America, and the Caribbean. The observation began in 1968 as National Hispanic Heritage Week, and in 1988 was expanded to cover a 30-day-period known as National Hispanic Heritage Month, also known as Latinx Heritage Month.

UC San Diego is making progress toward becoming a Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI), and with nearly 22% full-time Latinx undergraduate student enrollment as of Fall 2020, is considered an Emerging HSI. The university’s goal is at least 25% full-time Latinx undergraduate enrollment, making the university eligible for HSI designation by the U.S. Department of Education.

In addition to supporting the university’s goals for increasing the number of Latinx undergraduate students, Scripps Oceanography is working to increase Latinx representation among graduate students, faculty, and staff. This is part of a larger and continuous effort to augment equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) at Scripps through expanded EDI programming, initiatives, and outreach. These programs are led by Scripps Director of Diversity Initiatives Keiara Auzenne with support from the Community Engagement Graduate Fellows Program, which welcomed eight new fellows in 2020.

We caught up with several members of the Latinx community at Scripps for a discussion about the significance of Latinx Heritage Month, Latinx representation in science, advice for the next generation, and more.

 

Michelle Amor, Master of Advanced Studies Student

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A woman with long orange hair leans against a tree
Scripps MAS student Michelle Amor.


What is your role at Scripps?

I am a graduate student at Scripps doing my master’s in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation. I've also been a musician for twenty years. I study the relationship between music and the sounds of the ocean and in nature, as they hold great stories and assessments for future conservation methods. I started studying at Scripps about one year ago and I am looking forward to working with John Hildebrand who works in the Scripps Whale Acoustics Lab. I love what I study because it merges both my love for music and the ocean.
 

What does Latinx Heritage Month mean to you?

To me Latinx Heritage Month is the celebration and acknowledgment of the successes and struggles within Latin community. I am thankful as I am a first-generation graduate student, so it is a perfect time for me to reflect and be grateful for the sacrifices my family has made for me to pursue a graduate degree.
 

Do you have any mentors or role models who have helped shape your life or career path?

I have many teachers within my life, too many to count, but some of my best mentors would have to be my parents and family. As far as professors, I would say Dr. Bronwyn Hayward who is a professor in the Department of Political Science and International Relations and director of The Sustainable Citizenship and Civic Imagination Research group at the University of Canterbury. Her research focuses on the intersection of sustainable development, youth, climate change, and citizenship. I was able to take her environmental politics class in my undergrad and did research with her in Kaikoura, New Zealand where we studied community awareness of local deep sea oil drilling and natural disasters. It was such an enlightening experience because Kaikoura has such diverse marine ecosystems and it was wonderful to experience that first-hand in class. Her class was definitely a key turning point for me coming to Scripps!
 

How do you feel about the current representation of Latinx scientists in your field?

The awareness towards the representation of Latinx scientists is definitely growing. As a Latinx woman and researcher I am thankful to be a part of the STEM program here at Scripps and at UC San Diego. Although we are headed in the right direction, I do feel there are great strides we still need to take but overall I am very excited where we are headed! 
 

What advice do you have for the next generation of Latinx scientists?

Stay true to yourself and don’t hide or be ashamed of who you are. Don’t be afraid of sharing your perspective. I find that Scripps is a safe space for all students and researchers, from various backgrounds, to share knowledge and to grow both personally and professionally.
 

What still needs to be done to make the STEM field more inclusive?

I believe we must continue to celebrate what makes our STEM community diverse and beautiful! The more diverse our community is, the stronger we will be and the more perspectives we will be able to put on the table for future research.

 

Minerva Nelson, Financial Officer

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Two women stand together and smile for the camera
Scripps staff member Minerva Nelson (left) and her mentor Jennifer Davis.


How long have you been at Scripps/UC San Diego? What do you enjoy about your work? 

I have worked at UC San Diego since 1987 and Scripps since 1991. I started as a senior typist clerk in Risk Management in 1987 until I accepted an administrative assistant position split between the California Institute of Space (CalSpace) and the Climate Research Division (now part of Scripps’ CASPO Department) in 1991. One of the best parts of being in CalSpace at that time was Dr. Sally Ride was our director. I had the unexpected honor to meet and work with her on the CalSpace mini-grants. I can still remember being in awe of her NASA memorabilia.

I eventually was hired by Jennifer Davis to work for the Center for Coastal Studies’ Marine Life Research Group at Scripps in 1992. We eventually were merged with the Marine Biology Research Division/Center for Marine Biotechnology and Biomedicine and also took on part of the Marine Research Division. We were the very first “section” at Scripps. I was thrilled to be at Scripps, working with the faculty and researchers and feeling like I was helping contribute to a better planet. I worked my way up to be a principal analyst and served on many campus-wide committees to help improve our various financial and procurement systems. I led the FinancialLink Committee for several decades, working with campus IT and other central offices to improve FinancialLink for the end user.

The experiences I’ve had working at Scripps have made me a better person and I truly love working here. I could not have asked for a better location or group of coworkers. When I worked at UC Davis (1986) and saw the "Welcome to UC" video, they featured all nine campuses, but when they featured Scripps and the Research Platform FLIP,  I knew then—that is where I wanted to work. I was fortunate enough to get hired at UC San Diego and work my way down to Scripps. I feel UC San Diego/Scripps strives for diversity and inclusion of which I am very thankful.
 

What does Latinx Heritage Month mean to you?

It is a time to celebrate my culture and thank those that sacrificed so much so that I could be where I am today.
 

Do you have any mentors or role models who have helped shape your life or career path?

Yes, I have to say, my previous Management Services Officer Jennifer Davis was a huge role model and mentor during my many years working at Scripps. She was so knowledgeable, supportive, and kind and helped me grown into the person I became.
 

What still needs to be done to make the STEM field more inclusive?

I feel that K-12 schools are really trying their best to be more inclusive, but often people do not have the means (computers, internet, etc.) to learn, especially during this remote learning period. I know my daughters' high school has been providing laptops to students and I’m sure gestures like this will help everyone succeed.

 

Kate Nesbit, PhD Candidate

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Scripps PhD student Kate Nesbit.


What is your role at Scripps?

I am a PhD candidate in my fifth year in marine biology. I am part of the Hamdoun Lab, and I use the sea urchin embryo as a model to understand how chemical pollutants in the ocean/environment impact the developing immune systems of marine organisms. I am very fortunate to be supported in my work right now through an NIH Diversity award, and was recently awarded a scholarship from the AWIS San Diego chapter for my research. In addition to my academic pursuits, I have been a coordinator for the Scripps Community Outreach for Public Education (SCOPE) program since I started at Scripps in 2016. Through SCOPE, I help to provide tours of research facilities, guest lectures, and other STEM outreach activities to the community.
 

What does Latinx Heritage Month mean to you?

To me, Latinx Heritage Month is an important recognition of the significant contributions that Latinx people have offered to the global community—through art, politics, science, history, social justice work, and beyond. With people from so many nationalities being part of this period of recognition, to me it feels like a celebration of how diverse the backgrounds of Latinx/Hispanic people are. I come from a multicultural/multiracial background, and as such I have often felt this internal conflict of not being Latina/Hispanic enough because I present white, and having these parts of my identity feel at odds with each other. So, Latinx Heritage Month is important to me because it helps to strengthen my connection with that part of my background and to cherish all the parts of my identity that contribute to who I am as a person.
 

Do you have any mentors or role models who have helped shape your life or career path?

I have SO many important and influential people who have supported me along the way as I build the career and life I want. First and foremost are my family, especially my parents who always encouraged me and helped to instill a strong work ethic. I also am so grateful for my first mentors during my undergraduate studies (Drs. Elaine Seaver and Andrew Christie). They both took a chance on a plucky undergrad and helped me to understand what being a part of a lab/research environment meant, fostered my curiosity, and helped me to prepare for graduate school. I am also grateful for my advisor from my master’s work, Dr. Robert Roer, who struck the perfect balance of instruction and independence for me as I took on graduate research. That experience helped me to really set my mind towards pursuing a career in academics, and helped prepare me for my time here in the doctoral program at Scripps.
 

How do you feel about the current representation of Latinx scientists in your field?

I am keenly aware that there are very few Hispanic, women scientists represented in tenure-track positions in biology. I do think that the younger generations are moving the needle in the right direction towards more equal representation and inclusion of the sharp, creative minds of more diverse research teams. There is definitely still a long way to go, but I am hopeful that the changes in culture we are seeing grow from the ground up will be the catalytic force to get us where we need to be.
 

What advice do you have for the next generation of Latinx scientists?

The biggest piece of advice is to not give up the parts of you that are you. So much of science is training someone to do things a certain way or be a certain way to fit into this box of what people think science should be like, and that stinks. Seek out the mentors that can foster your growth in well-rounded ways—and you may need many mentors to accomplish this. Someone who is a true mentor will not try to change who you are, rather they will see your strengths and help you leverage them, and they will identify areas of improvement and work with you to get them to where YOU want them to be. That, to me, is true mentorship. There is more than one way to be a scientist, and being a scientist shouldn't come with a sacrifice of any part of your identity. I recognize that I have been incredibly privileged to have had phenomenal mentorship all throughout my training, and I sincerely wish the same for everyone who is pursuing STEM.
 

What still needs to be done to make the STEM field more inclusive?

One of the biggest needs that I see in STEM to make it more inclusive is for people to transition from passive and/or performative to more tangible and active forms of support for colleagues from underrepresented groups. It is one thing to "make it" to a particular career phase in STEM, but retention of talent will never happen unless departments build a culture of inclusivity and support for students/faculty/staff from underrepresented groups. This includes setting boundaries and defining what things are unacceptable and following through on consequences for behavior that violates that code of conduct, as well as rewarding people who go above and beyond in their efforts to create a safe and supportive environment for everyone in their department on top of their research accomplishments.

 

Geno Pawlak, Professor

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A man in scuba diving gear sits on the edge of a boat
UC San Diego Professor Geno Pawlak.


What is your role at Scripps?

I am a UC San Diego professor with a joint appointment with the Jacobs School of Engineering in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering (MAE) and at Scripps Oceanography in the Integrative Oceanography Division. I’ve been at UC San Diego since 2012, but I received my PhD at UC San Diego in 1997 in engineering, also working between Scripps and MAE. My research is focused primarily on coastal ocean physical processes including stratified flows, estuaries, and physics in coral reefs. My work is largely field-based which takes me to some interesting places including Hawaii, Palau, Guam, Taiwan, and Seychelles. Most recently, I’ve been fortunate enough to lead a field project in Panama, where I grew up.

What does Latinx Heritage Month mean to you?

Latinx Heritage Month is an opportunity to recognize the efforts of Latinx in many areas, including science, that have made these routes possible for new Latinx scientists. It’s also a call to action, recognizing that we have a long way to go.

Do you have any mentors or role models who have helped shape your life or career path?

I’ve been fortunate throughout my career in receiving great mentoring from my various academic advisors including Larry Armi (Scripps/UC San Diego), Juan Lasheras (MAE/UC San Diego) and Parker MacCready (University of Washington). I’ve also always been tremendously inspired by my Latinx students.

How do you feel about the current representation of Latinx scientists in your field?

While there have been exceptional Latinx researchers in engineering and oceanography, representation is not where it should be.

What advice do you have for the next generation of Latinx scientists?

Seek out good mentors and be a mentor yourself.  

What still needs to be done to make the STEM field more inclusive?

The community as a whole needs to reach out and engage with underrepresented minority students at early stages to show that careers in geosciences and engineering are routes that are important, fulfilling, and are available and welcoming to them.

 

Arturo Ramírez-Valdez, PhD Candidate

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A man in a lab holds a small tube.
Scripps PhD student Arturo Ramírez-Valdez.


What is your role at Scripps?

I am a PhD candidate studying marine biology in Dr. Octavio Aburto’s lab. My research addresses and analyzes how political borders impact our understanding of marine resources, affect management goals, and undervalue conservation efforts. Specifically, I analyze how species and ecosystems shared by the U.S.-Mexico are managed across the border, the ecosystem services they offer, the economy they represent for both countries, and the challenges asymmetric management represents for their sustainability.

In the early stages of my program, I organized the first workshop that brought together kelp forest scientists from both the U.S. and Mexico. In the workshop, we discussed that the kelp forest and the biological communities that it supports would likely react to climatic and non-climatic changes in complex and unexpected ways. We shared resources between nations; the actions taken by one nation invariably affect the other, therefore strong cooperation is needed. This was published in a white paper supported by the UC Office of the President: UC-Mexico Initiative. Later in my program, I built a binational program “Proyecto Mero Gigante” to study, monitor, and map the critically endangered giant sea bass population, and communicate this work across various sectors of society including academia, policy, fisheries, and coastal communities. This transboundary and multidisciplinary approach is helping connect cross-border research, conservation efforts, and policy efforts and will hopefully contribute to improving the management of the giant sea bass.
 

What does Latinx Heritage Month mean to you?

It brings me mixed feelings. It is a sense of hope to see the efforts to recognize the contributions and influence of Hispanics to this great country. However, it is also a reminder that something had the need to be done for our neighbors to recognize Hispanic presence in this land. The U.S. and Mexico have more things in common than differences; we shared families, history, culture, food, language, and of course, species, and ecosystems. Our past is intertwined, and our future may be shared. As a graduate student in UABC Ensenada collaborating with a broad group of American researchers, I was already sensitive to the idea that we share interests and goals. After I moved to the U.S. to start my PhD program at Scripps, and while working to develop a binational collaborative network for my research, I learned how complex these cross-cultural human interactions could be, something is called "cross-cultural insensitivity." Instead of acknowledging, being aware, and accepting others regardless of their culture, we focus too much on differences and apply universal standards. From my perspective, one does not give value to others after knowing how much they contribute to you, either economically or culturally. We must give value to all regardless.
 

Do you have any mentors or role models who have helped shape your life or career path?

I have been fortunate to have excellent mentors throughout my career. I am sure that some of them do not know the influence they have had on me to further my career in science. Although most of my mentors are academics, I also consider my collaborators, fishers, a role model. Both researchers and fishers care about marine resources; they learn from nature's messages and are passionate about their work. In particular, Drs. Ruiz-Campos and Carpizo-Ituarte (UABC Ensenada) have had a significant influence on my career path. I also consider Paul Dayton my hero, and it has been a pleasure and a privilege to meet him and take his class.
 

What advice do you have for the next generation of Latinx scientists?

First, prepare yourself with the mentality of running a marathon, it will be a long and challenging path, but if you feel passionate about it, you will enjoy it. While moving in the right direction, pay no attention to noise and distractions (i.e., discouragement, playdown, overlook), keep going with a steady step. A must-read, especially if you are interested in the biology field, is "Letters to a Young Scientist" by E. O. Wilson. Look to join a lab that you feel attracted to the research being developed but also the work style and the atmosphere. Finally, commit yourself to develop hard skills and soft skills; you are going to need both.
 

What still needs to be done to make the STEM field more inclusive?

We must offer support to underrepresented groups, but even more, we must change the system. Nothing will change if more students from the underrepresented background are supported, but then spaces in graduate school won't be open. Same, we cannot expect something to change if more faculty positions are not being offered to minorities.

 

Angelica Rodriguez, Postdoctoral Scholar

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Scripps postdoc and alumna Angelica Rodriguez.


What is your role at Scripps?

I am a postdoctoral scholar with the Center for Climate Change Impacts and Adaptation researching coastal physical processes. I started doing research at Scripps as an undergraduate in the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program, and was fortunate enough to be able to continue working on my project during the academic year because I was a UC San Diego student. After graduation, I entered the Scripps physical oceanography graduate program, which I completed in 2019. So, in total, I’ve been doing research at Scripps for nine years.  Throughout this time I’ve had the privilege of working with and learning from many different postdocs, researcher scientists, and faculty members. One of my favorite things about my job is that I am constantly learning new things, and therefore, it is never boring.
 

What does Latinx Heritage Month mean to you?

For me personally, I don’t need to designate a month to hold reverence for my heritage, embrace my culture, or amplify the voices of my community, because this is something that I try to do all of the time. However, I do see it as a valuable time and space to learn something new, and for others to recognize the contributions of Latinx people to our society. It’s also a time to reflect on how far we’ve come, and yet how far we still have to go for true equity in our nation.  For example, the wage gap between men and women is largest for women of color, which imposes long-term disadvantages onto these women and their families.
 

Do you have any mentors or role models who have helped shape your life or career path?

Yes, I have several different mentors who all have been critical in shaping my path. All of my career mentors came from a very different background than me, which can be a good thing, as they are able to provide me with insight into alternative perspectives. I am able to distill for myself what I agree with and how I can use the information they’ve shared with me to form my own opinions and actions.
 

How do you feel about the current representation of Latinx scientists in your field?

My field is primarily made up of scientists who came from physics and engineering backgrounds and transitioned into oceanographic research. We are making strong progress in reaching gender parity, but women of color are still sorely underrepresented. Latinx males are also underrepresented. For example, in a recent exchange with colleagues, we were unable to identify an early career Latinx faculty member from a U.S. institution to invite to give a seminar.  This is highly problematic and presents both a barrier for students who are looking for mentors from similar cultural backgrounds as well as a deficit in the research. We still have a lot of work to do.
 

What advice do you have for the next generation of Latinx scientists?

Know that you can do it. Find different mentors for different roles and lean on them in times of uncertainty or self-doubt. Remember that the path doesn’t have to be, and likely won’t be, linear. Be willing to push the envelope, and question why things are the way they are, as well as ask yourself and others if things really have to be that way. We must be the leaders we want to see.
 

What still needs to be done to make the STEM field more inclusive?

Short of systemic changes, I think a greater acceptance of different values and perspectives, which often arise from cultural backgrounds and experiences, would go a long way. We should also be willing to speak up when our colleagues’, students’, and mentees’ voices are not being taken seriously or are being drowned out. This has served me personally many times and I am so grateful for the people who did that for me. There are tangible actions being taken right now to improve things such as assessing the make-up of speakers at conferences and weighing faculty search candidates’ contributions to equity, diversity, and inclusion. These are steps in the right direction, and should be continued. We also need to support and acknowledge the work that people are doing to further these goals as a contribution to both the science and the community. 

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