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Faculty and Students Represent UH at Inaugural Alliance of Hispanic Serving Research Universities Conference

Event Addressed Importance of Increasing Latinas in STEM Disciplines

July 18, 2023

By Mike Emery, 713-743-7197

Careers in STEM are steadily on the rise, but one of the fastest-growing populations in the U.S. remains noticeably absent from this professional discipline.

A recent study from the Pew Research Center reported that Latinos represented just 17% of the STEM workforce. For Hispanic women, that number is even lower with only 8% holding jobs related to science, technology, engineering or mathematics.

As a member of the Alliance of Hispanic Serving Research Universities, the University of Houston is focused on reversing this trend and supporting opportunities for aspiring Latina scientists and engineers. Among the Cougars committed to this goal  are UH doctoral students Genesis Herrera, Jaqueline Soares, and Ezekiel Cullen Professor of Environmental Engineering Debora F. Rodrigues.

All three recently participated in the inaugural Alliance of Hispanic Serving Research Universities (HSRU) Conference on Supporting Hispanic Women in Physical Sciences and Engineering hosted by the University of California, Santa Cruz. More than 100 faculty and students from across the nation attended this event on June 26 – 29 which focused on bolstering the number of Latina students in STEM disciplines.

“The female Latinx community tends to be overlooked and largely undervalued in the academic environment, which translates to the reduced interest of Latinx students pursuing academic careers,” said Rodrigues. “They don’t see themselves as belonging to the academic world or as being able to succeed if they decide to pursue this career path. By hearing the students’ voices in this conference, we realized that we need more minority faculty members to serve as role models to inspire our students to pursue higher education and make them feel included and supported.”

At the event, Rodrigues was part of the panel “Academic Careers and Pathways” and offered insights on her journey in higher education. Like many students, she was inspired by undergraduate research opportunities and supported by strong role models.

During the panel, she shared her story of venturing into an impoverished community in Sao Paulo, Brazil as an undergraduate student to collect water samples from drinking water wells. Children in that region were suffering from high mortality rates due to water contamination from septic systems near the drinking water wells, and Rodrigues recognized how she (and other STEM students) could make a difference in the lives of others.

“I realized that something needed to be done and I wanted to be part of the solution,” she said. “I finished my undergraduate studies and then decided to pursue master’s and doctoral degrees to be able to teach but also to conduct research and help communities in need. Over the years, as a faculty member and researcher, I continued my dream to help develop affordable technologies for underserved communities. The experience I had at a very young age shaped my future to pursue a career in STEM.”

Such stories no doubt served as inspiration for student attendees. Likewise, insights from Rodrigues and other panelists motivated audience members to mentor rising STEM stars.

Herrera, a Ph.D. candidate in cell and molecular biology, acknowledged the need to provide guidance and advice to both peers and undergraduate students. At the conference, she was able to do just that.

“The event provided opportunities to network, discuss potential collaborations and ideas, and share personal experiences with other attendees at various career stages,” said Herrera, who also serves as a graduate research assistant in UH’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering in Rodrigues’ research group. “I was left with the courage to seek out and make connections. I was also able to meet with the people whom I aspire to be, connect with my peers who are also close to finishing their Ph.D. program, and mentor those who are just starting.”

Other panels and activities included sessions on federal funding opportunities, grant writing and leveraging the role of the Alliance of Hispanic Serving Research Universities to support inclusivity in STEM. Keynote speakers included Anne-Marie Núñez, executive director of the Diana Natalicio Institute at the University of Texas, El Paso; Cecilia Aragon, director of the Human-Centered Data Science Lab at the University of Washington; and the University of California System Regent Jose Hernandez.

Beyond its content, the event allowed attendees to engage with Hispanic scholars from different disciplines and further broaden their professional and personal scope.

“Attending this conference fostered a strong sense of community among the participants,” said Soares, a Ph.D. candidate in civil and environmental engineering, also mentored by Rodrigues. “The conference offered valuable exposure to diverse perspectives, backgrounds and experiences, providing me with a broader understanding of the world and the people within it.”

The University of Houston is Texas’ very first Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI) and in 2022, it became a member of the Alliance of Hispanic Serving Research Universities, a consortium of 21 R1 universities—those categorized as having highly intensive research activities —committed to expanding higher education opportunities for students from underserved communities. Launched in 2022, the Alliance’s primary goals are doubling the number of Hispanic doctoral students enrolled at our universities and increasing the Hispanic professoriate in member universities by 20% by 2030.

“As the state’s premiere HSI, UH remains a destination university for Hispanic scholars from within our city … our state … and around the globe,” said Jason Smith, UH vice president for government and community relations. “And, as a member of the Alliance of Hispanic Serving Research Universities, we strive to provide an environment that is rich in research opportunities for our entire campus community. We look forward to participating in future events sponsored by the alliance to gain further insights on how we can further leverage our role in supporting success for both students and faculty.”

The recent conference—supported by the Henry Luce Foundation—is among its many initiatives helping accomplish these objectives, but faculty and students comprising the alliance’s member institutions will ultimately serve as its most effective resources.

“I have never been in a space with so many Latina engineers and scientists at various career paths,” Herrera said. “A common theme of the conference was, ‘If not me, then who?’ If I do not occupy the space of being a mentor, educator and investigator, then the number of Latinas in these STEM academic fields will continue to lag.”