Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Science outreach: the forgotten victim of the sequester

A couple of weeks ago, a leaked internal memo from NASA revealed that the agency is suspending its education and public outreach programs in response to the sequester.  The effects of this decision are devastating.  NASA is one of the most publicly recognized science and research agencies in the U.S.  The agency’s astronauts, missions, awe-inspiring images and discoveries have motivated many of us to pursue careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).  NASA was able to accomplish this mainly because of its educational and public outreach programs, which are now in jeopardy.

NASA logo (Wikicommons).
This memo advises the suspension of all “public engagement and outreach events, programs, activities, and products developed and implemented by Headquarters, Mission Directorates, and Centers across the agency.”  That means that the programs that bring astronauts like Joseph Acaba and Sunita Williams to classrooms full of excited kids; or 4-million-year-old pieces of lunar rock to a museum near you will come to a screeching halt.  It also means that the workshops training teachers to help them bring the science of Mars exploration to their classrooms will be left hanging.

NASA’s decision to suspend its education and public outreach programs is questionable.  However, what is most concerning about this move is what it could mean for the future of science in the United States.  What if these cuts become blueprint for future budget cuts?  What if other agencies follow suit?

Education and public outreach programs are vital to the most important partnership in modern American society: the public funding of science.  Thanks to these programs, agencies that receive taxpayer money to fund their research endeavors—such as NASA— can have a conversation with the public, to keep them informed about their latest discoveries, their importance, benefits and possible consequences.  By promoting awareness and understanding of science, education and public outreach programs help the public make informed decisions about health, technology, the environment and public policy. 

The endangerment of science education and public outreach programs by the sequester jeopardizes our nation’s leadership in science, technology and innovation in several ways.  The suspension of education and public outreach activities deprives our future generations of programs that spark their curiosity, encouraging them to innovate and dream big.  The scientists and engineers that could have been, may never get to be, because the programs designed to get them interested in science are under serious threat. 

Our economy will also suffer.  It is projected that by 2050 the job market for careers in science and technology is likely to be in high demand.  Many of these jobs are in the top earning quartile.  How are we supposed to train the scientists and engineers that will sustain the economy, if we don’t have the programs to engage them with science in the first place?

Cuts to America’s education and public outreach programs not only jeopardize the training of future generations of STEM professionals, but the educational success of our youth.  Science education and public outreach programs foster the development of critical thinking, problem solving and math skills.  These skills are crucial for educational and professional success, whether you become a scientist or not. 

Undoubtedly, the suspension of education and public outreach programs will save NASA money: approximately $130 million, less than 1% of the NASA’s $17.8 billion budget.  But… at what cost?

The opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not reflect an official position of the institutions and organizations I am affiliated with.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Mentorship is golden


“A mentor is somebody willing to fight for you the battles nobody else is willing to fight.” – Dr. Erika T. Camacho (who was mentored by THE Jaime Escalante)

It could be said a good mentor is worth his or her weight in gold.  A good mentor counsels, encourages, supports, guides, and listens, among many other things.  Mentors can come in many shapes or forms. They can be family, friends, colleagues, teachers, professors, neighbors and even complete strangers.

Mentorship can be and should be a mutually beneficial relationship for the mentor and the mentee.  It is important for the personal and professional development of both parties.  At some point of our lives, each and every one of us has benefited from having a mentor (and hopefully from being one). However, I can’t think of a career in which mentorship is a key factor of success more than in science.

When it comes to becoming a scientist, mentorship is invaluable.  Being a research scientist is a hands-on learning experience.  There is no book or step-by-step guide on how to become a successful scientist.  One learns how to be a scientist from a mentor (or rather mentors).  How to plan, do and interpret experiments; write papers or grant proposals; choose your next career steps; navigate the academic and professional landscape.  A good mentor can be a role model, a source of experience and insights, and someone to identify with.

Personally, the support and advice from my mentors has helped me achieve my goals; it has kept me focused and balanced.  The best advice I ever got is to have multiple mentors, figure out what they do best and learn how they do it.  I have been fortunate to have many excellent mentors (family, friends, professors, colleagues), and they are a constant source of inspiration.  

Recently, I went to the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) National Conference in Seattle, Washington.  This was my first SACNAS conference and it was GREAT. The scientific quality of the talks and the poster presentations was fantastic (special shout-out to all of the undergrads).  There were scientists from all fields and academic levels.  What I was most impressed with was the great sense of community and culture, and the emphasis placed on the importance of mentorship and networking. 

Now, I am currently writing my doctoral dissertation, which can be tedious at times, so the SACNAS Conference represented a welcomed break.  But, being at SACNAS was more than that. It was inspiring, re-energizing and enlightened.  As a scientist, nothing compares to the thrill of discovery and of contributing to the advancement of knowledge.  However, one of the greatest opportunities that being a scientist has provided me is the opportunity to be a mentor.  It is simple.  Someone did it for me once (actually multiple someones and more than once), so now it’s my turn to pay it forward.
Mentorship in action!

Coming in, I knew that mentoring is at the core of SACNAS activities.  However, I was in for a treat.  I was able to see old friends and colleagues that I rarely get to see.  I was also able to represent my country (Puerto Rico), my alma mater (¡Vaqueros, ahí!), my current school (Go Crimson!) and Ciencia Puerto Rico (the coolest thing I’ve ever been a part of).  At SACNAS there were a LOT of mentors. It didn’t matter if they were a first-generation college student, a SACNAS Board Member, a future astronaut or a potential Nobel Prize winner. They were all equally passionate about science, education and mentorship.  They were willing to talk to you, and more importantly, they were willing to listen to you and share their insights.  
Someone I was really inspired by is Octavio Pierre Romero, who won the 2012 Distinguished Community College Mentor Award.  Half Mexican and half Cherokee, when Octavio got on stage, he thanked his ancestors and those who had carved the path he was walking before him.  He was emotional (and so was I. I’ll admit it I got teary-eyed, but then again I am a bit of a crier). Above all he was THANKFUL. Not only for the recognition, but also for the people that had helped him get where he is right now.  

Mr. Romero’s speech embodied the spirit of the conference.  Mentors are trailblazers.  They know how it is and what it takes to develop into and perform successfully as a scientist.  They have faced and conquered the challenges. By way of their success and experience, they have great insight into ideas and opportunities; they can be connectors and influencers. 

One of the biggest hurdles faced by underrepresented minorities in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) is the lack of role models and/or mentors they can identify with.

This lack of mentors and role models with a shared background reinforces the biases and stereotypes against minorities in these fields.  Mentorship is key to preventing the high attrition levels of minorities in the scientific training pipeline. Mentors can lead the way to help make STEM fields more diverse and representative. After all, the scientific enterprise is enriched by the variety of thoughts, experiences and ideas contributed by diversity.

As I am sitting on my desk, taking a little break from thesis writing (yes, I take them somewhat often, for the sake of sanity) to write this, I set my eyes on a thank you note I received from one of my mentees after the SACNAS Conference.  “You have contributed to my development as a scientist and a person.  You are living proof that you don’t have to see or have someone close (she is in Puerto Rico, I am in Boston) to be able to call them a mentor.”  Now THAT is worth gold.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

"Mírame, soy fuerte"

No es mi costumbre colgar escritos personales en este foro, pero el día de hoy lo amerita. Mis sobrinos Johnerik e Iliana son las luces de mis ojos. Ellos me motivan, me inspiran y me hacen mejor persona.

¡Feliz cumpleaños, Johnerik! Gracias por dejarme ser tu tía y tu amiga. Siempre adelante, que si te caes pa’ atrás, aquí voy a estar yo. ¡Te amo! Esta mañana me inspiré, y te dedico esto.

"Titi, mírame, soy fuerte"
“Titi, mírame, soy fuerte.” Tenías más o menos dos años y lo tuyo era la pelota. La gorra, el bate, la bola. “Voy a ser pelotero, titi.”

Las cosas han cambiado. El amor por la pelota se convirtió en amor por la patineta (el verdadero amor de tu vida). El sueño de ser pelotero se convirtió en la realidad de ser ejkeiter. Cada vez que veo tus videos y tus fotos se me llena el alma de orgullo. Hoy en día tu patineta te lleva alto y le pone ruedas a tus sueños.

Hoy, que cumples tus 21 años, se me llena la cabeza de recuerdos y reflexiono. Pienso en que hoy en día eres un hombre que vive, que ama, que sueña. También pienso en lo vieja que me haces sentir, aunque para ser justos, me hiciste una tía joven. Sobre todo, pienso en lo que significa para mí la alegría de que seas mi sobrino. La alegría de verte luchar por lo que quieres. De conocer tu corazón de oro. La certeza de saber que a pesar de que las cosas a veces no son fáciles y que has cometido errores (¿y quién no?), has sabido manejar las curvas que te ha tira’o la vida. (Discúlpame la metáfora pelotera, es que de patinetas no me sé ninguna). Hoy mientras celebro tus 21 años de vida en la distancia, recuerdo aquel episodio hace más o menos 19 años atrás y me digo que tenías razón. Johnerik, eres fuerte.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Engaging Underrepresented Communities with Science Using Social Networking Platforms

By Mónica I. Feliú-Mójer

Although Hispanics 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 Hispanics in science is problematic on several levels. The attrition of Hispanics 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 Hispanics.

Many barriers have been found to contribute to the disproportionately low numbers of Hispanics in science, including insufficient guidance and mentoring, lack of culturally-relevant science information and lack of access to education and professional resources.  Today, social networking platforms have emerged as powerful tools to help knock down some of these barriers.

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 Hispanics in science and technology. 

This is precisely the type of space the non-profit grassroots organization Ciencia Puerto Rico has established.  Our volunteer-run networking platform, 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.  In just six years the website’s membership has increased to over 6,100 members underscoring the strong interest and need for such an endeavor.

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.

Over the years, by engaging its membership and leveraging its breadth and reach, CienciaPR has been able to implement a number of formal and informal science education initiatives that have contributed to the teaching and learning of science in Puerto Rico and the support of scientists at various stages of their training and career. Some of these efforts include increasing content about Puerto Rican scientists or research performed in Puerto Rico in local print, radio, and online news media; publishing a book of essays relating scientific stories contextualized and culturally-relevant manner; offering workshops to K-12 teachers to complement their classes with contextualized activities; and piloting a program to increase students’ interest in and awareness of science and scientific careers. In addition to these initiatives, CienciaPR uses social media networking platforms (i.e. Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn) to disseminate original science articles and podcasts, as well as other relevant news and science-related information.

The lack of mentors that can advice Latino students about the pathways towards STEM degrees and careers is a key contributing factor to their attrition 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. 

To showcase role models in the Puerto Rican scientific community, roughly each month, Ciencia Puerto Rico features a story profiling the life and work of Puerto Rican scientists: their trajectory in science, the relevance of their work and their personal journey through science.  In addition to showcasing their work, these stories speak of the challenges faced by these Puerto Rican scientists, their drive to succeed and their will to give back to their communities and be an example for future generations.

Online networking platforms like CienciaPR.org are uniquely poised to help overcome the lack of mentors among Latino students, because they enable the far-reaching personalized mentoring relationships needed to succeed in the scientific enterprise.  Our recently revamped platform provides a number of social networking tools such as a private and secure messaging system; a message board where members can "meet" and communicate with each other; maps of users; personal blogs; and links to members with similar interests. Besides encouraging the establishment of mentoring and collaborative relationships through our social networking tools, Ciencia Puerto Rico organizes social events at national scientific conferences.  These social events give attendees the opportunity to share information about their research and careers in Puerto Rico or abroad, and get to know fellow Puerto Rican scientists.

Although our initiatives have focused primarily on Puerto Rico, we believe that the principles of community participation and collaboration that guide CienciaPR can fuel the creation of initiatives that can benefit all Hispanics.  We hope our platform can serve as a model to help establish creative strategies that effectively tackle the issues of scientific literacy, cultural relevance and access to mentors and resources for minority populations.

The topics discussed here were the subject of a professional development workshop organized by Ciencia Puerto Rico and presented on Oct. 11, 2012 at the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) National Conference. The panel included Dr. Yaihara Fortis-Santiago, AAAS Science & Technology Fellow and member of the CienciaPR team; Dr. Frances Colón-Hastings, Deputy Science and Technology Advisor for the Secretary of State Hilary Clinton; Dr. Wilson González-Espada, Associate Professor of Physics and Science Education at Morehead State University and part of the CienciaPR team; and Mónica Feliú-Mójer, Ph.D. candidate in Neuroscience at Harvard Medical School and vice-director of CienciaPR.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Simple ideas, hard thinking and curiosity have led to the greatest of scientific discoveries. We all have these qualities in us. What are you waiting for?
Another great TED talk!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Advancing society with science

(Note: This is Ciencia Puerto Rico's home page for the month of March. I thought I would share here as well)

The answer to many of the environmental, health, social and economic challenges faced by modern society lay in the advancement of science, engineering and innovation. Thus, scientists and engineers must play a role in making science accessible to the public they aim to help with their discoveries.

Organizations such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) aim to increase communication between the scientists and the public to “advance science and serve society.”

Recently, three Puerto Rican scientists received high honors from AAAS, during the society’s annual meeting, held February 16-20 in Vancouver, Canada. Dr. Mariano García-Blanco, from Duke University, and Dr. Gregory Quirk from the University of Puerto Rico Medical Sciences Campus, were inducted as Fellows of AAAS. Meanwhile, Dr. Daniel Colón-Ramos received the AAAS Early Career Award for Public Engagement with Science.

Unraveling the secrets of RNA

For the last two decades, Dr. Mariano García-Blanco has been studying the biology of RNA, an essential molecule for life. About six years ago, Mariano began a “scientific adventure” and rekindled his interest in flaviviruses—which he studied during his M.D., Ph.D. at Yale University—this time the one that causes dengue fever. “The dengue virus is an RNA virus, so we had the tools to study it,” says Mariano.

Dengue fever affects hundreds of millions of people and leads to tens of thousands of annual deaths. The disease is endemic in Mariano’s native Puerto Rico, so it was no stranger to him. However, it was not until Dr. García-Blanco traveled to Asia that he fully appreciated the economic and social consequences of dengue fever. “At first I wanted to understand dengue, but now curing it has become a mission,” he says with great conviction, “to help millions of people.”

Also, Mariano firmly believes in the social and economic prowess of science. Since 2005, Mariano has been a Trustee for the Puerto Rico Science, Technology and Research Trust, working to build a sustainable knowledge-based economy in the archipelago. He also maintains “an intellectual exchange with the University of Puerto Rico. I teach there and bring students and scientists to train in my lab. It’s important for me to have that connection.”

Mariano was inducted as a Fellow of AAAS in recognition for his contributions to our understanding of RNA biology, as well as his commitment to make social contributions through his science.

Science with purpose

After obtaining his Ph.D. from the State University of New York (SUNY), Dr. Gregory Quirk found himself questioning the point of science. His scientific ‘soul searching’ led him to Honduras, where he combined science and human rights, studying stress disorders in the families of the disappeared in this Latin American country. While still in Honduras, Gregory was awarded a prestigious Fulbright grant to set up the first neuroscience laboratory in the country, where he established a malnutrition model to study how malnourishment affects the brain. “These experiences helped me realize that if science is done in the right context, embraced in the right place, it can really benefit society,” he says.

For 15 years, Gregory and his group (first at the Ponce School of Medicine and currently at the Medical Sciences Campus of the University of Puerto Rico) have studied the mechanisms of how the brain overcomes fear, hoping to better comprehend anxiety disorders (such as phobias) and help define possible treatments.

Like Mariano, Gregory was just inducted as a Fellow of AAAS, for his contributions to understanding the mechanisms of fear conditioning in the brain and his efforts to enhance ethnic diversity in neuroscience. “Science must engage more of the world countries and cultures, if we are going to solve the big mysteries of the brain,” says this adopted Puerto Rican, originally from Connecticut. “I made my career here (in Puerto Rico), from scratch. My laboratory is like a family. I would not trade doing science here for anything in the world.”

The new generation

Dr. Daniel Colón-Ramos, assistant professor at Yale University and director and co-founder of Ciencia Puerto Rico, completes the trio of Puerto Ricans making waves at AAAS. His work with Ciencia Puerto Rico—promoting science, research and scientific education in Puerto Rico— together with his contributions and success as a young researcher in neuroscience, earned Daniel the 2011 AAAS Early Career Award for Public Engagement with Science.

Daniel is an exceptional model for the new generation of scientists and engineers,” said Alan I. Leshner, Chief Executive Officer of AAAS and Executive Publisher of the prestigious journal, Science.

“I am very honored by this award. However, this is truly a recognition of Ciencia Puerto Rico and the dedicated team of volunteers and collaborators that make the organization’s work happen,” says Daniel. Six years ago, Daniel created Ciencia Puerto Rico, longing to stay connected with Puerto Rico and its scientific community in a way that provided meaningful social impact. “Ciencia Puerto Rico helps bridge the gap. It allows scientists like Mariano and Gregory to communicate with the public that will benefit from their research,” he said.

Despite their different backgrounds and research interests, Mariano, Gregory and Daniel are a great example of the impact that scientists can have and should on their communities. Through their work and commitment this trio not only promote help advance our society through their science, but they also demonstrate that there are no limits to Puerto Rican science.

Daniel Colón Ramos with Agnes and Alan Leshner, CEO of AAAS.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Cerebros Corazones

Porque los Cerebros se están yendo.” Magali García Ramis, Cerebros que se van corazón que se queda, 1993

Han pasado casi 20 años desde de que se publicó esta historia. Sin embargo su premisa es tanto o más vigente que en aquel entonces.  (Especial agradecimiento a mi amiga Yara, por desempolvar y compartir la misma).

Esta semana el periódico estadounidense USA Today publicó—en primera plana, ni más ni menos—una historia sobre la llamada fuga de cerebros que sufre la Isla del Encanto. Cerebro que se fuga: dícese de aquel profesional educado que se va para Allá (Estados Unidos) en búsqueda de mejores oportunidades y mejor calidad de vida de la que encuentra en Puerto Rico (Acá). Según el Perfil del Migrante, publicado por el Instituto de Estadísticas de Puerto Rico en el 2011, la mayoría de los Cerebros que se van son jóvenes (entre 15-34 años). En la última década, casi 300,000 Cerebros se han marchado para Allá.

En Cerebros que se van corazón que se queda, García Ramis contrasta la experiencia del Cerebro que emigró, buscando a better life, con la del Corazón que se quedó en Puerto Rico, comiéndose la piña agria. El Cerebro, seso con patitas, se monta en un avión y se va para Allá buscando trabajo y cinco cifras gorditas; apartamentos sin rejas ni balcones tropicales; o servicios médicos, que “siempre han de ser mejores quelos de Acá.” El Corazón se queda Acá y todas las mañanas se chupa el tapón en el expreso; traga duro ante la rampante criminalidad, la politiquería y el alza en el costo de vida.

Allá, al Cerebro la puertorriqueñidad le aflora: extraña la patria, la salsa y el bembé. Yo soy boricua, pa’ que tu lo sepas. Mientras, “el Corazón tiene muy desarrollados los brazos para abrazar a los Cerebros que tanta faltale hacen, que seguro tuvieron que irse, que están bien Allá, y quizás estaríanmejor Acá, pero que quién sabe.”

Esta historia me toca por que me es muy familiar. Yo soy uno de esos Cerebros que se fugó—a estudiar—Allá. Pero también soy un Corazón, que día a día vive más Acá que Allá. Vivo Acá desde Allá, por que mi corazón (el que hace tucu-tucu) se quedó Acá; por que lo primero que hago por las mañanas es ver el periódico de Acá; por que todo lo que hago Allá, lo hago para el beneficio de Acá, pero—por el momento—desde Allá. Como quien dice, yo soy un Cerebro Corazón. O por lo menos así me siento.

Y entonces me pregunto, ¿cómo pueden los de Allá ayudar a los de Acá y viceversa? ¿Cómo podemos extender puentes y acortar distancias?

Las redes sociales ofrecen una plataforma ideal para lograr este propósito. Como ya había escrito una vez (refiriéndome al caso particular de Ciencia Puerto Rico) las redes sociales proveen una plataforma para que las personas—sin importar su localización geográfica—se comuniquen, intercambien ideas e información y se conecten, de manera fácil y efectiva.

En este escrito en la revista Forbes, Giovanni Rodríguez, director de mercadeo para Deloitte Postdigital Enterprise, propone que las redes sociales podrían permitirle a los Cerebros regresar Acá, virtualmente. Según Giovanni, las redes sociales podrían ayudar a los Cerebros, los Corazones, los Cerebros Corazones, los de Acá y los de Allá a formar una parranda. La Parranda 2.0. Precisamente a final de este mes, junto a Giovanni, estaré participando en un panel organizado por conPRmetidos en la Conferencia de Estudiantes Puertorriqueños en la Universidad de Yale, en el que abundaremos más sobre esta idea. Stay tuned.

La marcada emigración de puertorriqueños ha hecho que la nación borincana se extienda más allá del 100 x 35 (según medidas recientes más bien 112 x 40). Hoy día podríamos decir que Puerto Rico está donde quiera que se encuentre cada uno de nosotros, cuyo corazón pertenece a Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico somos los de Acá, los de Allá, los de Allá cuyas raíces familiares están Acá, y los que han adoptado Acá como su hogar. Nos une el amor patrio. El anhelo de ver a un Puerto Rico mejor, con una economía próspera. El deseo de ver a unos líderes políticos—y no politiqueros—que se enfoquen en trabajar por el beneficio del pueblo y no en las compritas escandalosas del oponente o las donitas de Krispy Kreme. Nos mueve el anhelo de que cada puertorriqueño tenga acceso a una mejor educación y a mejores servicios de salud. El anhelo de que cada boricua cree conciencia y actue sobre la necesidad de cuidar nuestro medio ambiente y recursos naturales. Nos motiva el deseo de ver a Puerto Rico echando pa’lante y viviendo en PAZ.