|Leading in STEM
By Margie Monin Dombrowski
Latinas in professional fields are on the rise and they’re climbing the ladder to success. By pursuing higher education and careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) in slowly increasing numbers over recent years, Latinas are showing all women that breaking into and influencing predominantly male occupations is possible.
According to the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, Latinas currently represent 60 percent of Latinos in higher education — and the numbers continue to accelerate — which shows opportunity for others to follow similar STEM-related paths. From the laboratory to outer space, Latinas are making their mark. The stories of these pioneers show you that a future in STEM is within reach.
Serena Maria Auñón, M.D., M.P.H.
NASA Johnson Space Center
Many children grow up saying they’re going to be an astronaut someday, but far fewer ever make that dream a reality. Dr. Serena Maria Auñón was one of those children who fantasized about an out-of-this-world future career as she watched shuttles launch, captivated. The only major difference? Dr. Auñón became a NASA astronaut — and a medical doctor. Dr. Auñón’s interest in space began when she attended the NASA Space Academy in 11th grade., sparking her interest in engineering, which she pursued at George Washington University, her father’s Alma Mater.
In fact, the most recent data in a 2011 report by the National Research Council shows that there are only an estimated 61 Astronaut Corps members, and Dr. Auñón was one of nine out of 3,500 applicants selected for the Astronaut Candidacy Program (ASCAN) in 2009. She graduated from ASCAN in 2011 to earn the designation as an official member of the NASA Astronaut Corps, which is her proudest achievement. During her training, Dr. Auñón took classes in space station systems (electrical or environmental control), robotics, Russian language and space walking, although she has yet to launch into orbit. “Regardless of whether you are a physician, scientist, pilot or engineer, you receive the same training,” says Dr. Auñón of the nearly two-and-a-half years of training.
Today, Dr. Auñón is a practicing physician, primarily on weekends and after hours, with clinical privileges at University of Texas Medical Branch and is a volunteer physician at St. Vincent’s House Free Clinic, both in Galveston, Texas. However, she spends a majority of her time at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, where she puts her unique background to task, with her bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and doctor of medicine and master’s of public health.
As the chief of the medical branch in the astronaut office, Dr. Auñón says, “I look at any issue during a mission that affects crew health and safety for international space stations, and also commercial and exploration, which can come from on board space station or vehicles. I am a medical voice for the astronaut office.” Typical duties may include gleaning and sharing input from physicians on what belongs in a medical kit astronauts will be taking on a mission to Mars. She’s also had the opportunity to develop a new and non-invasive way to monitor body temperature that reduces the chance of heat exhaustion or heat stroke while conducting water survival training in Russia’s Black Sea.
The Aerospace Medical Association has recognized her work as she was chosen for their Julian E. Ward Memorial Award for trend-setting contributions to spaceflight participant clinical care. She’s also provided medical support for zero gravity flights, bed rest and centrifuge analogue environments, and space operations at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Russia. She also served as the deputy crew surgeon for NASA’s STS-127 mission.
With Dr. Auñón’s busy schedule, she admits staying focused is challenging, so she recommends mapping out your goals in terms of where you want to be in 10 to 15 years down the road, but to also remember to stay grounded. “You can find yourself working many hours and not taking enough time for yourself. Have a set of friends to take a load off with and make sure you’re taking care of yourself. We’re very busy with space station operations — you can work 24 hours a day if you wanted to, but you really have to find that balance.”
If you’re shooting for a career as an astronaut, Dr. Auñón, who was encouraged as a child by her father to study engineering in order to become an astronaut, recommends getting an education in any STEM area once you decide what subject you enjoy. “I tell people to do what they love and stay focused, and usually things just work out,” she says, “NASA needs scientists, engineers and physicians.”
For more information on NASA careers, visit www.nasajobs.nasa.gov
Dr. Marievee Santana
Procter & Gamble
What makes a household or beauty product’s scent appeal to consumers is brought to you by the research of scientists who conduct countless studies and experiments to find just the right one. Dr. Marievee Santana, Principal Scientist for Procter & Gamble, who specializes in fabric care and beauty product fragrance development, is one of them.
With 12 years of experience at P&G, a master’s degree and Ph.D. in Experimental Psychology, Dr. Santana is also an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at University of Cincinnati. She has numerous awards and journal publications under her belt, and is a standout role model to Latinas aspiring to enter the STEM ranks.
Focusing on consumer perception, Dr. Santana identifies the ideal scent that a consumer may want in a hair or fabric care product. “We take a scientific approach to how we understand how people process information — what is the smell and do they like it?,” Dr. Santana explains. Two of her most recent projects, Downy Unstopables and Tide Pods, are examples of fragrances she helped develop to provide that same familiar scent and experience consumers know and love about those brands.
The challenge is combining the multidisciplinary team’s various perspectives to arrive at a fragrance consumers will enjoy. “It’s a very fun challenge,” Dr. Santana says. “We come from different perspectives. My primary angle is the science of perception. Other people come from a chemical background or a technical background. Others have a creative angle. We’re all working toward the same goal, but take a different approach.”
Dr. Santana has been recognized with many awards in her 12-year career at P&G, but she is most honored by receiving the 2011 “Gente Award” by the Hispanic Leadership Team for her commitment and passion for recruiting, retention and advancement, and the sense of community she helps foster within the organization. “It was a big honor,” says Dr. Santana, who primarily works on recruiting, retention and mentoring new employees. “Whenever we bring in Hispanic employees, I make sure they have someone to eat with on breaks. It’s a lot to take in at 21 or 22... We have seen retention numbers of women go up as a result of investment in training and mentoring.”
These relationships are necessary for success, and sometimes you have to seek them out. “The key advice I give to mentees is to build your network,” Dr. Santana says. “Go to people in different areas, not just directly in your work. Ask questions about how others do their job.” In time, you’ll have built a network you can count on for support when you need it.
Today, Dr. Santana takes new employees under her wings, but when she started out, she tapped many others for advice. “You have to meet the right people,” Dr. Santana says, who had many mentors, both Hispanic and non-Hispanic, to help her navigate her career. That mentoring was important to her then, and now it’s important for her to lend a hand to others entering the same field. “It’s worth investing my time to help others. I’m a big fan of the philosophy of paying it forward. Hopefully, they’ll do it also,” she says of her mentees.
For more information on careers with Procter & Gamble, visit www.pg.com