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Hispanic Women Scientists from U.S.
Speak at Meeting in Panama City
Of the almost three million scientists and engineers in the United States, only one percent are Hispanic women. Of those, fewer than 25 percent are engineers or physicists, making Haydee Salmun and Lourdes Maurice extremely rare in the predominantly male world of science.
"I realized a long time ago that I was going to have to be twice as good as the competition to get ahead," said Maurice, 41, who holds advanced degrees in both mechanical and chemical engineering and is the Science and Technology Advisor for Environment to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in Washington, D.C. "I have spent most of my career trying to blend in, but over the last ten months, I have come to realize that, as a rare minoritya Latina engineer, I have an important part to play. I'm a role model to women and minorities, and an example to my subordinates, peers and superiors."
Maurice and Salmun, a physicist and earth scientist who is a professor at Hunter College in New York City, will soon have a chance to tell their stories as part of an international effort to raise the profile of women scientists, and increase the number of Hispanic women in the sciences. AAAS has chosen Maurice, Salmun and seven other women to present their career experiences at prestigious scientific meetings in Central and South America. Salmun and Maurice have joined biologist Gabriela Chavarria in Panama on November 20-26 to speak at Panama's National Science and Technology Congress, organized by the Panamanian Association for the Advancement of Science (APANAC). The other scientists in the program were asked to speak at meetings in Costa Rica and Brazil.
"We hope to draw attention to the work of these topnotch scientists, while encouraging women in Latin America to participate in the scientific enterprise," said Marina Ratchford, project director for the AAAS Latin American and the Caribbean project. "The world is a competitive place in the 21st century, and in order to maintain economic growth in the United States and abroad, we need to make sure that we bring down the barriers that prevent women of all races from taking part in our science and technology workforce."
Some of the scientists participating in the AAAS program, which is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), are natives of the United States; others were born in Mexico, Argentina and Ecuador. They realized when they were very young that the way they looked at the world would challenge them to overcome traditional expectations of women, and make them seek mentors and money that would help earn them the PhDs they would need to become full-fledged researchers.
"We have selected these women for their outstanding work as scientists and engineers, and for their compelling personal stories about the challenges they faced in the pursuit of a scientific career," said Alan I. Leshner, CEO of AAAS. "We hope that the experiences of these distinguished scientists will inspire young women to become scientists and engineers, and provide them with a strategy for getting there."
The following are thumbnail sketches of the three scientists who will travel to Panama City on November 20.
Lourdes Q. Maurice, 41, was raised by a socialite mother, who became proficient in the nascent field of computers after losing everything in her flight from Fidel Castro's Cuba. "She instilled in us a keen appreciation for knowledge and education, for these are assets that others cannot take away," Maurice says. Maurice, who lives in Alexandria, VA, graduated with degrees in chemical and aerospace engineering, and, finally, with a PhD in mechanical engineering from the prestigious University of London's Imperial College. She fought her way up through the U.S. Air Force's research and development laboratories, where she focused on state-of-the-art aviation fuels and propulsion systems. "Unfortunately, it was clear that as a woman, my opportunities were limited," Maurice says. She describes, for example, having "to flip viewgraphs" for a male co-worker, as he presented her work, and coming back to work the day after a miscarriage, out of concern her desire to become a mother would interfere with an upcoming promotion.
Eventually Maurice encountered a female chief scientist, who became a mentor and inspiration, and led Maurice to push forward despite her professional setbacks. "For the first time, I could truly envision myself as a leader, and the glass ceiling in my mind shattered."
Haydee Salmun, 53, left her home in Argentina after graduating from college with a degree in physics. She went on to study physics at the University of Missouri in St. Louis, eventually earned a doctorate in oceanography from The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and continued her post-doctoral work at Oxford University in England. "My work is embedded in that subset of the world of science that includes engineering and applied mathematics, and has been and still is less open to women and minorities."
Salmun encountered many barriers in her pathmale scientists who either undermined her ideas or presented them as their own, and sexual references and images that made her work life uncomfortable. She also received "invaluable support from outstanding scientistsmale and female, who encouraged me to persevere." Now on a tenure track at Hunter College in New York City, Salmun is working with climate models to help determine the impact of heterogeneities in the land surface on the Earth's climate and its variability, as well as to study human-related problems such as urbanization and deforestation.
"It takes an enormous determination and an unwavering passion for one's subject of work to persist in research in the face of the many challenges one encounters," says Salmun. "Outside the classroom, mentoring women and minorities has become a major drive in my continuation in academia, as well as one of the most rewarding activities in my professional life."
Gabriela Chavarria, 36, is a biologist who was born in Mexico City and came to the United States by way of Harvard University, where she studied for a doctorate in evolutionary biology. "When I finished high school and decided to become a biologist, my parents were shocked," says Chavarria. "'What are you going to do with that degree?' they asked. 'Study something you can use when you marry.'" Her family presented her with her greatest obstacle, but when her parents attended her graduation ceremony for her doctorate at Harvard, "they finally understood," Chavarria says. She is now the Director of Policy for Wildlife Management at the National Wildlife Federation in Reston, VA.Of the six other scientists selected for the AAAS program, three will speak in July 2003 at the meeting of the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science (SBPC). A first group of three took part in a meeting in Costa Rica in August, organized by AAAS and Interciencia, a federation of associations for the advancement of science in the Americas.
18 November 2002