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Scientist Mónica Feliú-Mójer’s Career is Making Science More Equitable, Inclusive

After nearly a decade of volunteering while pursuing her studies in neurobiology, AAAS Member Mónica Feliú-Mójer has turned her passion for bilingual science communication and helping others, into her full-time career.

Mónica Feliú-Mójer. Credit: Fernando Samalot.

Trained as a neurobiologist, Feliú-Mójer now works as an outreach scientist with non-profits, using both her scientific education and her cultural background to inform her work. Her volunteer experience was where it all started.

“All the volunteer work was critical to learning that this [science communication] is a career I can pursue beyond research. You can still use science to help your community,” Feliú-Mójer said.

While working as a research technician and earning her Ph.D., Feliú-Mójer started volunteering at non-profit called Ciencia Puerto Rico. Her first volunteer project at the organization was with El Nuevo Día, the largest newspaper in Puerto Rico. She described El Nuevo Día as the only Puerto Rican newspaper that has a regular Science section, which set it apart for her from other news outlets.

Still, the science section was rarely highlighting the work of scientists in Puerto Rico, and many news articles were translated from English-language newswire or another Latin American country, according to Feliú-Mójer. Thus, her first volunteer project began. Feliú-Mójer helped scientists write for audiences in Spanish at the paper and made science more culturally relevant for Puerto Rican readers.

“All articles were in Spanish, using colloquial language to explain complex scientific concepts,” she said. But to make news writing more culturally sensitive, it was more complex than simply translating, said Feliú-Mójer. “It’s also about giving readers in Puerto Rico a sense of a pride, for example a lot of science we are highlighting are showing how Puerto Ricans are scientists and role models.”

This was something Feliú-Mójer had personally felt the need for. She grew up in a rural, predominantly low-income community, on a farm near/in Vega Alta, Puerto Rico. And, even though she had parents that were very encouraging, Feliú-Mójer didn’t know she could be a scientist until college.

“I didn’t know research was something that was being done in Puerto Rico. All the science I saw, on books and TV, it was coming from somewhere else not in Puerto Rico,” said Feliú-Mójer.

Mónica Feliú-Mójer. Credit: SACNAS.

As a result of her childhood experiences and her perspective as a Latina and scientist, Feliú-Mójer said the primary goal of her volunteer work has been to increase access and information, but also show that science that is being done in Puerto Rico and that science is around everyone.

She has personally seen the impact of her volunteer work, pointing to how El Nuevo Día was able to publish hundreds of articles with Ciencia Puerto Rico on topics of science, technology and health. She also saw results in the reporters she helped; they were able to find scientists doing the work the reporters were writing about. Feliú-Mójer made sure the reporters featured Puerto Rican scientists in the stories themselves.

After more than nine years of volunteering with Ciencia Puerto Rico, Feliú-Mójer became a part of the paid staff in 2015. One opportunity led to another and Feliú-Mójer started work with the non-profit iBiology in 2015 as well, leading science communication trainings and producing the video stories series, “Background to Breakthrough.” The video series explores the identity and research of underrepresented scientists, in their own words. Funding the stories required a grant, as well as a different perspective, according to Feliú-Mójer.

“Often when people talk about scientists of color, they talk about scientists that are underdogs, and that they succeeded in spite of their backgrounds,” Feliú-Mójer said. “Because of my own experiences and so many others, I know so many people who are doing great work which is connected with their personal experiences and their backgrounds. They are succeeding and making contributions because of their background, not despite it.”

These are the voices all scientists can benefit from hearing from, said Feliú-Mójer, especially if they want to use science for social impact themselves. Her advice is for scientists to be humble.

“You might be an expert in your field, but you are also a non-expert in everything else, including in the realities and experiences of marginalized and underrepresented communities,” said Feliú-Mójer. “Listen, because they have scientific experiences they can share with the world and we have to learn how to put communities first.”

Though Feliú-Mójer has turned her volunteering work into a full-time career, she still isn’t done giving her time to help others. She now volunteers with Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) at the national level. She describes her volunteer work with SACNAS as organizing and mentoring, and over the last few years, making sure science communication has a strong presence at the annual conference. Still, her work isn’t done.

“I’ve been challenged, like why is doing outreach important, why do we need diversity and inclusion up front. There are people who don’t always understand the value,” she said. “I try to understand where those people are coming from and why they have those views…[but] sometimes I have to put my foot down and say I’m doing this, and I just feel there is a lot more work that needs to be done so science can include everyone. It can be exhausting, but I’m not backing down.”

Check out one of the videos that Feliú-Mójer produced, part of “Background to Breakthrough”, a collection of short films "highlighting underrepresented scientists and how their backgrounds and perspectives have spurred insights and innovations."

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