National Hispanic Heritage Month: Celebrating Hispanic Scientists

history, race, Representation

By Christy Tidwell

National Hispanic Heritage Month spans September 15 to October 15 and is a time to, as the official Library of Congress website says, celebrate “the histories, cultures and contributions of American citizens whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America.” This includes important historical and contemporary contributions to STEM fields, despite the ongoing underrepresentation of Hispanic people within those fields.

Franklin R. Chang-Diaz, a Costa Rican American astronaut, conducting work on the International Space Station (ISS). Photo credit: NASA via Flickr.

Is it Hispanic or Latino or…?

The language used to refer to people “whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America” is complicated. Not all people included in this list would call themselves Hispanic, despite the name given to the month. Some prefer Latinx (or Latino/a or Latine), some prefer Chicano (or Chicana or Chicanx), and some prefer a more specific reference to their families’ nationality (e.g., Mexican American, Cuban American). And none of this addresses the question of indigeneity and the distinctions between histories of Indigenous peoples and colonizers in these regions. Nevertheless, given the lack of a consistent umbrella term and the name of the month, I will use the term Hispanic generally and will use other terms for individuals if they identify themselves in another way. (For more on this issue, see Vanessa Romo’s NPR piece “Yes, We’re Calling It Hispanic Heritage Month And We Know It Makes Some of You Cringe.”)

Running the Numbers

South Dakota Mines’ Hispanic student population has hovered around 5% of the total student population for the last 5 years, meaning that there have been approximately 120-140 Hispanic students enrolled in each of those years. This is not a high proportion of the overall student body, but Hispanic students still represent the largest group of students of color at Mines. (If you are a Hispanic student at Mines or if you’re interested in supporting Hispanic students at Mines, you can check out the Mines chapter of Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE).)

Source: South Dakota Mines Diversity Report, 2020-2021, compiled by Jesse Herrera.

These numbers reflect larger trends in STEM education and professions, too. A recent Pew Research Center report (2021) indicates that – despite some recent growth in Hispanic representation within the STEM workforce – “the gap in STEM workforce representation is especially large for Hispanic adults. Hispanic workers make up 17% of total employment across all occupations, but just 8% of all STEM workers.”

That is a pretty striking difference in representation. The question of why Hispanic workers are so underrepresented in STEM fields and why South Dakota Mines shows such a gap between the Hispanic student population and the average Hispanic population of the US (which is closer to 20% than 5%) is a difficult one. And I will not attempt to answer that broader question here. Instead, I want to highlight a few Hispanic scientists who have made an impact in the past and who are working now since acknowledging the work of those already in STEM fields is one way to encourage more involvement and to redefine what a scientist looks like. Representation matters.

Hispanic Scientists in History

Carlos Juan Finlay (1833-1915) was a Cuban epidemiologist who discovered that mosquitoes transmitted yellow fever. Unfortunately, his research was laughed at initially, and it took twenty years for it to be accepted. During those twenty years, he continued his research, however, and after his death the Cuban government created the Finlay Institute for Investigations in Tropical Medicine in his honor.

Carlos Juan Finlay

Helen Rodríguez Trías (1929-2001) was a Puerto Rican pediatrician who worked to expand access to public health services for women and children around the world. She was the first Latina president of the American Public Health Association (APHA) and was awarded the Presidential Citizen’s Medal by President Bill Clinton for her work on behalf of children, women, people with HIV/AIDS, and the poor. Her work is an excellent example of the importance of considering science alongside society, as she argues here:

We need health, but above all we need to create a grounding for healthy public policy that redresses and salvages the growing inequities. We cannot achieve a healthier us without achieving a healthier, more equitable health care system, and ultimately, a more equitable society.

Helen Rodríguez Trías

Mario Molina (1943-2020) was a Mexican chemist who (along with colleagues) discovered the threat of chlorofluorocarbon gases (CFCs) to the ozone layer. Despite pushback from manufacturers and chemical industry groups, Molina continued to research and publish on this topic, and his work contributed to the passage of laws that protected the ozone layer from the harmful effects of CFCs. In 1995, Molina was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, alongside F. Sherwood Rowland and Paul J. Crutzen. (There is also a lovely children’s book about his work: Mario and the Hole in the Sky: How a Chemist Saved Our Planet by Elizabeth Rusch.)

Mario Molina (left) and F. Sherwood Rowland (right). Photo: University of California Irvine.

Hispanic Scientists Now

Sergio Avila is a Mexican wildlife biologist who has turned his attention more recently to questions of equity in the conservation movement. In this interview with High Country News, Avila argues that recreation and scientific knowledge cannot be the only ways of valuing the natural world, instead arguing for the inclusion of Indigenous values and knowledges. He says,

It’s very difficult to address things like climate change and think that technology or only Western science are going to give us the answers, if we don’t include traditional ecological knowledge of people who have lived in a place for centuries, and know how to locally address some of those challenges. When we don’t include other people and other knowledge, we limit ourselves, especially in the conservation world.

Sergio Avila

Paola Tello Guerrero is a Colombian physicist and founder of Antártida para Valientes (Antarctica for the Brave), an outreach program for kids that encourages them to write letters for her (or, more recently, for a team) to read to penguins in Antarctica about caring for the planet. She also participated in Homeward Bound, a global network of women scientists working on sustainability, and was a member of the largest all-female expedition to the Antarctic.

Paola Tello Guerrero

Nicole Hernandez Hammer is a Guatemalan immigrant of Cuban heritage who studies sea-level rise and climate change and works as an environmental-justice advocate. As climate advocate for the Union of Concerned Scientists and former deputy director of the Florida Center for Environmental Studies, she combines scientific expertise with political action and public communication to highlight the disproportionate effects climate change has (and will continue to have without action to the contrary) on Latino communities as well as on other communities of color.

Nicole Hernandez Hammer

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