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From the Lab Bench to Capitol Hill
Elizabeth Padilla-Crespo
STEM Fellow for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute (CHCI)
NASA Student Ambassador-NSF GRF
2012 National Science Foundation (NSF) Summer Scholar
Doctoral Candidate, Microbiology

Strikingly, though they represent over 30 percent of the general population, underrepresented minorities’ comprise of only 17.7 percent of the overall college enrollment, are awarded just 14.6 percent of the total science and engineering degrees, and a minuscule 5.4 percent of the science and engineering doctorates (NSF, 2010). The increased focus on global diversity in our society should translate into increased opportunities for minorities with advanced degrees in the sciences, but women and minorities in the science fields remain underrepresented. As a Puerto Rican woman these facts concern me. I have a double degree in Microbiology and Biotechnology and I am pursuing a Ph.D. in Environmental Microbiology at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville but I would not be in this fortunate situation if I were not given various opportunities and life changing experiences early in my career.

As an undergraduate, I participated in various undergraduate summer internships at top institutions (the Department of Energy Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, the Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison, Harvard Medical School and Georgia Tech). Those experiences ignited in me a genuine interest in conducting research and apply to graduate school. Furthermore, the support offered through scholarships/fellowships by agencies like NSF and NASA, and organizations like the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU) opened doors to networking and professional development activities. Overall these opportunities and governmental initiatives broadened my vision, influenced my interest in science and were pivotal in my career-path decision.

In my second year of graduate school, I was selected to participate in the International Ocean Drilling Program (IODP) Science Steering and Evaluation Panel in Germany where I had the opportunity to gain insights into the review process and effort that goes into the development of world-class science programs. I also noticed a living reality: of the approximately 60 international panel members, none were black, less than 10 percent were woman, and only two were Hispanic. For the first time I experienced the statistics that I have seen on paper: women and minorities are underrepresented in the science and technology (STEM) fields. I was outnumbered; I was an outlier. Nonetheless, I felt very proud that I could participate in this international forum and make the voice of a female minority student heard.

I wanted to change the current statistics, and put my science into practice, and I knew that I needed to do that outside of the laboratory. That’s how I became interested in policy and serving as a science ambassador. Policy was not my background and to accomplish my career goals I needed additional training and learn the policy-skills that graduate school didn’t teach me. This is how I got to where I am today; I’m the 2013-2014 American Petroleum Institute (API) STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) Graduate Fellow for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute (CHCI). The CHCI Fellowship gives Latino individuals with a graduate degree (Master of Science or Ph.D.) the opportunity to work on Capitol Hill, the White House, Federal agencies, think tanks or nonprofit organizations. Eight individuals are selected nationally representing different fields (Law, Housing, STEM, Higher Education, Secondary Education, Health, and Housing).

For the first half of my fellowship I was placed at the Committee for Science and Space Technology of the U.S. House of Representatives where I witnessed how science-based legislations and budgets are drafted. Currently, I’m working at API, an entity that is engaging in great efforts to increase minorities in STEM and energy-related jobs. With CHCI and API’s support, I’m becoming a better communicator and advocate for scientific matters.

In the future I would like to be in a position where I can aid in the creation of science programs and policies to safeguard the environment. I am a strong advocate for developing more federally funded programs that provide mentoring, networking and hands-on research opportunities to K-12 and undergraduate students. I urge all students to be proactive and extensively search for such opportunities, and to communicate with senior students, professors, counselors and peers who might direct them in their journey. You are in the driver’s seat, responsible for chasing down these opportunities, be perseverant and apply. Never believe you cannot reach your destination. If there’s something I have learned through my journey is that passion, dedication and excitement can overcome all existing barriers. We can change the current statistics… Be Brave, Go Forth and Conquer.

For more information on students opportunities offered by CHCI check out: http://www.chci.org/education_center/page/for-students
Elizabeth in the lab with her mentor and Ph.D. advisor Dr. Frank E. Loeffler.
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