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Latina Leadership in STEM Careers

Quality Education Linked to STEM Success

By Christine Bolaños

It is seldom that an individual who has great contributions to make to society does so without a support system. For Latinas in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), that support system comes in many forms: an understanding family, an innovative work environment but perhaps most importantly, a solid foundation for success that links back to their education.

There are a number of American universities who invest resources into STEM education and are especially nurturing of women and Latinas in STEM. There is still potential that is untapped but there are educational institutions ready to hit the ground running with those who have shown talent and promise.

From MIT to Stanford University, the engineers, software developers, to scientists and researchers highlighted in this feature show that career opportunities in STEM-related fields abound. Here are the stories of 10 Latinas in STEM who attribute their success, in part, to their quality education.

Judy Noemi Rodriguez

Massachusetts Institute of Technology,
Cambridge, MA
Education: Bachelor of Science, Nuclear
Science and Engineering
Today: Nuclear Systems Operator at NextEra Energy – Seabrook Station

judy rodriguezThe Salvadoran Civil War of the 1980s not only led Judy Noemi Rodriguez’s parents to flee their home country to the U.S. as refugees but put a stop to their education early on. That was not going to happen to their children.

“It’s very humbling to have gotten this far in my life with the support of my family, particularly my mom,” says Rodriguez, who is a nuclear systems operator at Seabrook Station Power Plant in Seabrook, New Hampshire.

In 2009, Rodriguez was selected as one of the 10 recipients of the Alliance/Merck Ciencia (Science) Hispanic Scholars Program. This program was established to improve Hispanic student access to higher education and degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. With the support of the Alliance program, Rodriguez was able to attend Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). A private university ranked No. 1 by U.S. News & World Report for Best Undergraduate Engineering Programs.

Here, the New Jersey native studied nuclear science and engineering and is one of two in her class to have a Senior Reactor Operating license at the MIT Nuclear Reactor Laboratory. Today, she is on her way to becoming a licensed operator and part of the plant’s supervision.

For Rodriguez, Latina engineers are contributing to a drastically growing field and MIT provided her the tools to excel as an engineer.

“We’re going to need a lot of engineers to keep up with that fast pace,” Rodriguez shares. “Right now I’m in a department of at least 60 men and I’m one of two women. I’m the only Latina. It’s just so important to show younger people it’s a possibility and it’s a reachable goal. We shouldn’t be intimidated.”

“I was lucky enough to be part of a very small department. It was really focused on academic and resident-based advising throughout my four years. I always had someone to look out for me whether a peer or someone from the faculty. Relationships helped me get through the harder times at MIT,” she adds.

Organizations tailored to Latinas and engineering students made all the difference in her career path. The Society of Latino Engineers and Scientists (formerly Mexican American Engineers and Scientists or MAES) and La Union Chicana por Aztlan (LUChA) were key organizations for Rodriguez.

“The fact that MIT was able to support these organizations and help form our own community was very helpful for me,” she says.

Isaura Gaeta

Stanford University
Education: B.S. and M.S. degree in Electrical Engineering
Today: Director of the Product Enabling and Ramp Team Operations in the Platform Engineering Group at Intel

IsauraJoining Intel Corporation in 1984, Isaura Gaeta is the director of product enabling and ramp team operations in the Platform Engineering Group where she is responsible for preparing and leading the silicon teams to predictably deliver compelling products, her team provides program direction and leadership in silicon debug, high-volume manufacturing, platform and feature development and customer enabling across client, server and mobile markets.

Gaeta’s first language was not English. She was drawn to math and science because the fields helped explain the world’s mysteries to her in a universal language.

“At the time though, I only knew that math and science could lead me to a career in medicine or teaching math or science,” recalls Gaeta, “In the 1970s, thanks to a great initiative called Minority Introduction to Engineering (MITE) out of MIT, I was invited to a two-week program on the Stanford campus just before my senior year in high school.”

During this time, Gaeta learned basic computer programming including how to use punch cards and an introduction to each of the engineering disciplines.

“This program changed my life forever. Not only did I see a path where I could apply my interest in math and science into a career, but I also met and stay in contact with some amazingly gifted Latino and African-American scientists and engineers,” Gaeta says.

Considering herself lucky to have attended Stanford University during the initial years of Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan (MEChA) and Society of Chicano Engineers and Scientists, these organizations provided the much needed community or away from home support for a first-generation college student like herself. Her engineering student group sometimes met at what is now the Stanford University El Centro Chicano y Latino community center.

“I don’t think I would have survived at Stanford without the support of this community. I know I was not fully prepared for the transition from my public high school to a prestigious university, but the mutual support of fellow students helped me feel that we were all in this together, that it was possible to push forward,” Gaeta explains.

As she developed her confidence, Gaeta stepped into student leadership roles and by her senior year, was the first Latina president of the Stanford Society of Chicano/Latino Engineers and Scientists.

“This leadership training was the foundation in helping me to tackle leadership roles in the workplace a few years later,” Gaeta says.

Gaeta is the co-chair of the Intel Hispanic Leadership Council, sits on the Board of Directors of Women in Engineering Proactive Networks (WEPAN), and the Guiding Concilio for El Centro Chicano at Stanford University.

She uses her work on the Centrino project at Intel to illustrate engineers are more than just geeks working alone in cubicles. “It is through that innovation, that today we are able to wirelessly connect to the internet,” she says. “This is just one example of how engineers make people’s lives easier.”

Sonia Fajardo

Georgia Institute of Technology
Degree: Bachelor of Science in Computer Science
Today: Software Development Engineer at Yahoo, BrightRoll (Acquired by Yahoo)

Sonia_FajardoSonia Fajardo began studying industrial engineering back in Colombia but her yearning for one of the best programs in the discipline led her to the U.S. That program was offered at Georgia Institute of Technology.
“Georgia Tech gave me a solid foundation of computer science principles that has allowed me to succeed in the workforce. Most classes involved working on complex projects, which was instrumental in helping me succeed in the projects I work nowadays,” says the BrightRoll software engineer.

Georgia Tech’s College of Computing offers a number of resources and support.

“One of the best resources for me was the career fair that is held twice a year, where all the top technology companies go to recruit students at the campus. As a matter of fact, I got both my summer internships and my full-time position initial interviews during these career fairs,” Fajardo says.

Another resource Fajardo enjoyed having was Women@CC, an organization where women of the College of Computing are welcomed and supported through academic, professional and social events.

While at Georgia Tech, Fajardo had a Software Development internship at Microsoft during the summer of her sophomore year of college.

The summer of her junior year, Fajardo joined Google as a software engineering intern.

“I was in the Picasa Team, writing code for the web albums product where users can edit and store photos online. Other than learning new web technologies, I learned how to have cross-functional team communication in order to develop a product successfully,” Fajardo adds. “I also learned to work in an open environment.”

After college she went on to work at Cisco. Later on she joined the small startup Radius Intelligence in San Francisco. After three years at Radius she decided to join BrightRoll, which has the biggest video advertising exchange on the internet. Fajardo’s role as a Software Engineer is focusing in back-end development in order to build APIs and other services critical to BrightRoll’s video ad-serving infrastructure.

“Even though [Latina software engineers] are so few, I see this as an opportunity for us in the field to promote Computer Science in our communities, and be advocates of diversity in the technology field, which is much needed,” she shares. “Technology is building the future, and I would love for Latinas and other minorities to be part of these exciting times!”

Laura V. Fuentes-Dominguez

University of Texas – Austin
Education: Bachelor of Science – Biomedical Engineering
Today: Senior Infrastructure Analyst at Accenture

Laura Fuentes-DominguezDuring the 1999 earthquake in Armenia, Colombia, Laura Fuentes-Dominguez’s family lost everything. They still had each other though.

“My family was involved in volunteering and citywide recovery efforts – not just during the novelty of the tragedy, but also during the years of reconstruction after many people had forgotten the earthquake. Seeing both the good and evil of people in response to such a heartbreaking situation motivated me to seek avenues to volunteer in the same way that others had helped me,” Fuentes-Dominguez says. “It also guided my career choice. I decided to become an engineer because I wanted to be innovative while doing something that could benefit others.”

Once in Texas, she was introduced to the American dream, culture, food and English language. On the downside, she attended a middle school and high school where violence, drugs and teen pregnancy were prevalent, and the dropout rate was high.

“I heard of the cutting-edge field of biomedical engineering at the University of Texas-Austin. I felt like it was the right college major for me,” shares the Senior Infrastructure Analyst at Accenture.

She attended the university with help from numerous scholarships and grants, including the Houston Endowment Scholarship, SMART and Academic Competitive grant. She also qualified for the Longhorn Scholars Honors Program at UT-Austin, a program which “serves top students” from select Texas high schools whose graduates have historically been underrepresented.

“Longhorn provided me with strategic academic advising, mentoring, leadership development and more,” she states. The university also offered extensive tutoring opportunities and college fairs that hosted hundreds of recruiters.

“Now that I am part of the workforce, UT Austin has given me a great network through its alumni program. Some of my best friends and colleagues share the same passion I do for UT Austin, and we are heavily involved in campus recruiting,” she adds.

Her current project with Accenture involves Software Asset Management for a major Oil & Gas Company. She works on the planning and monitoring of deployments, integration testing, management of technical resources and alignment/reporting of various functions. “I’m helping maintain compliance and pursue cost-saving opportunities,” she explains.

As part of her role, Fuentes has temporarily relocated to Asia for a few months to work with the operational team.

Dr. Claudia Sanmiguel

University of California, Los Angeles
Education: Internal Medicine and Gastroenterology
Today: Director of Ingestive Behavior and Obesity Program, UCLA Center for the Neurobiology of the Stress; Division of Digestive Diseases at the University of California Los Angeles

CSanmiguelDr. Claudia Sanmiguel passionately researches the role of the brain in the regulation of appetite and eating disorders, both in the healthy and obese, and how this knowledge can help in the successful treatment of obesity.
She’s always had knack for research but limited resources in Colombia led her to Canada.

“I found a group of biomedical engineers, physicians and students that were doing similar research to mine but with more resources and with plans to translate that into new treatments (a type of artificial pacemaker/electrical stimulator to stimulate emptying of the stomach and bowels),” Dr. Sanmiguel says.

The opportunity opened the doors for her to continue her studies at University of California-Los Angeles, where she eventually became part of the faculty.

“The UCLA environment and support has been invaluable to me and I have felt supported throughout my training and in my career. My mentor, Dr. Emeran Mayer, has launched the career of many female scientists, and Dr. Lin Chang, have been key in developing my research career,” she adds. “I am a recipient of one of the Iris Cantor-UCLA Women’s Health Center-CTSI research grants that actually launched my career as investigator here at UCLA when I was still in training. These grants are designed to support especially women doing research on women’s health issues.”

More programs have surfaced at UCLA recently aimed to promote diversity and women in science and research.

“I am an example of the plans of the School of Medicine to diversity faculty,” Dr. Sanmiguel adds.

She is passionate about the treatment of obesity because of her own personal struggles as a teenager.

“When I started to do research on obesity and talked to many patients that underwent weight loss surgery (bariatric surgery, especially gastric bypass and sleeve gastrectomy) and they told me that their desire to eat was less than before surgery, that some of their food cravings dissipated or were satisfied with less than before surgery. That led to one of my current research on how your brain controls your appetite and food choices and how bariatric surgery actually changes those patterns of behavior to help you lose weight,” Dr. Sanmiguel shares. “We are using state of art brain imaging to explore brain functioning in obese women and brain activity changes after weight loss surgery. The goal is to be able in the future to create new therapies that replicate those changes in brain activity and weight loss obtained after surgery without surgery.”

Sylvana Azana

Stevens Institute of Technology
Education: Masters and Bachelors of Engineering, Civil Engineering
Today: Project Manager, Environmental Services Company, ExxonMobil Corporation

sylvana azanaSylvana Azana comes from a family with high aspirations. Her grandfather was in construction despite not having a formal education. “Both my mom and dad were unable to finish college, however they always aspired to be engineers,” states Sylvana Azana who grew up to become an engineer and is project manager for the environmental services group at ExxonMobil. “With that in mind, they always made sure that I had all the tools I need to excel in school.”

Born in Lima, Peru, Azana and her mom immigrated to New York when she was 8 years old. After graduating high school in 2009, she attended Stevens Institute of Technology to study Civil Engineering.

“Stevens has a program called Stevens Technical Enrichment Program (STEP) designed for minorities that are looking to go into STEM fields,” she says. “I was admitted into Stevens through this STEP program. Each year about 50 students are accepted.”

Though her GPA was stellar, the language barrier made an impact on her SAT scores.

“Stevens provides a full summer to coach you and introduce you to what your first semester at Stevens will be like as a student,” Azana shares. “Probably 80 percent of us were Hispanic.”

Azana also took advantage of a co-op program that allowed her to intern at different companies. By the time college came to an end, she had completed four internships which equated to about two years of experience.

“I was able to attain my first internship with Granite Construction. I think it opened a window of opportunity. It makes a world of difference once out on a construction site. You instantly learn if you really like your field or not,” Azana adds. “Through the internship program I was part of the expansion of Penn Station and visited the World Trade Center project. I relocated to L.A. to do an internship with ExxonMobil. I strongly believe that through the Co-op program and my previous internships, I was able to become a really good candidate for the ExxonMobil opportunities.”

At the end of her Exxon internship, Azana made a presentation in Houston where she showed her accomplishments and was selected to have a full-time job at Exxon upon graduation.

“My very first day of (senior) classes, I already had my job.”

Dr. Mirkeya Capellán

Pace University
Education: Doctorate of Professional Studies in Computing
Master’s degree in Information Systems
– Pace University
Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science
– City University of New York-Hunter College
Associate’s degree in Liberal Arts – Hostos Community College of The City University of New York
Today: IT Training, Resource Management, and Strategic Project Specialist/Quality Assurance, Mercedes-Benz USA

MCapellanGrowing up in the Dominican Republic, Mirkeya Capellán dreamed of a better life for her family and herself.

“When I immigrated to New York, I knew that I had a tremendous opportunity in my hands, and that it was up to me to make it happen,” she says.

Capellán learned English language basics at Hostos Community College.

“When I graduated in 1990, I was an insecure, soft-spoken young lady who still didn’t speak English very well. I had to continue my education if I wanted to become successful and support my mother back in the Dominican Republic,” she shares.

She fulfilled her dream by enrolling at Hunter College and attaining a bachelor’s degree in computer science. She earned her master’s, doctorate and eventually became adjunct professor at Pace University.

“As for my doctoral degree, this was a dream that seemed out of reach as I could not afford to pay for the program. With the support of my company’s tuition, I was able to finish my Doctoral of Professional Studies in Computing (DPS) at Pace University,” Capellán says. “Through this program, I received several scholarships to attend conferences where I met other women in the field. The experience was very rewarding and definitely had an impact in my professional life on many levels. I learned that I wasn’t alone, that there were other women like me going through similar hurdles.”

Capellán’s Latina roots have helped her fight for what she wants.

“Who I am today I owe in part to my humble beginning. I was taught to believe in myself, to be honest, disciplined, hardworking, passionate, modest, appreciative and value the little things in life,” she shares.

Capellán teaches undergraduate courses in computing and serves on the committee for Under-represented Women in Computing group and Career track at Grace Hoppe Celebration of Women in Computing conference. She also serves as a mentor at the College of Mount Saint Vincent.

She is active in a number of organizations and is responsible for IT training, resource management and strategic projects at Mercedes-Benz USA Corporate office in New Jersey. She oversees vendor and resource management activities within IT and leads special projects and initiatives by IT management. She also trains/coaches/mentors project managers to address skill gaps and delivers tools to improve performance.

“One of my biggest passions is mentoring,” she states. “I teach my mentees to be more proactive, master time management, networking, make career and academic choices, overcome shyness, dress for success, make conversation with people they don’t know, manage their social network presence, leadership strategies like generating buy-in for an idea and other techniques.”

Maira Garcia

University of Arizona
Education: Bachelor’s degree in Aerospace Engineering
Today: Systems Engineer at Honeywell Aerospace

maira garciaWhat do math and airplanes have to do with each other? That is what Maira Garcia thought when an Embry Riddle Aeronautical University recruiter asked her if she liked math and airplanes during a college fair her junior year of high school.

“Of course I responded with, ‘Yes and yes.’”

A native of Phoenix, Garcia chose to attend the University of Arizona after receiving a full-ride scholarship.

“The University of Arizona provided tutoring for all math classes and in addition to that, the College of Engineering provided regulated study groups where graduate students would come in and tutor the undergraduate students,” the Honeywell Aerospace systems engineer says.

Garcia began working at Honeywell Aerospace in 2014, the year she graduated. Previously, she had been an intern for the past two summers with the Automatic Flight group working on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner project. Garcia worked in the aerodynamics research lab working on wind tunnels and their honey comb structures. “It was a fantastic learning experience and my first time using any sort of tools. This research position led me to getting a summer internship at Honeywell Aerospace the following summer,” she states. The university’s career services offered her mock interviews, resume help and career fairs to seek out internship opportunities.

Garcia currently works for the Automatic Flight team to design, implement, and test requirements for the Automatic Pilot function of several aircraft. Duties include analyzing flight test data, participating in flight tests to support customer deliveries, testing software in the laboratory, and using the high performance language for technical computing: MATLAB to work on several functions of the aircraft. She also holds the Component Test Procedure focal position for the Embraer program.

“Since the College of Engineering is one of the smallest colleges at U of A, it felt like a very personalized experience. I was on a first name basis with the associate dean and with all the staff in the academic affairs office. I would not trade that experience for anything in the world,” Garcia adds.

Her involvement in engineering organizations helped her gain the confidence to work independently and with a team.

“I strive to influence my community by staying involved and reaching out to kids who may need a tutor, a mentor, someone to believe in them, or just someone to talk to,” she shares. “I also think that once you are influencing your community, why stop there? Being a positive role model knows no boundaries.”

Claudia Galvan

Drexel University in Sacramento, California
Education: BSc, Computer Science
– Universidad Anáhuac
MSc, Program and Project Management – Golden Gate University
Doctor of Education (Ed.D.), Higher Education/Higher Education Administration
– Drexel University
Today: Senior Director, Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology President, Society of Women Engineers in Silicon Valley Cultural mentor for the TechWomen program, a US Department of State Initiative

Claudia GalvanClaudia Galvan fell in love with software engineering in high school during a career day.

“A software engineer came to my campus and talked about his work. This inspired me to go into computer science. However, I did not have the math background needed and had to convince the dean to let me in. I had to overcome many obstacles on getting up to speed in math and ended up graduating top of my class,” she recalls.

After obtaining her bachelor of science in computer science in Mexico City, Galvan moved to Canada where she developed education software for the Department of Defense Dependent Schools around the world.

“When I first arrived to Canada and later to the USA, I realized that I was not only one of the few women in engineering but also that I was one of the few Latinas,” she shares. “I did not have mentors in the beginning of my career and I believe having a group of trusted mentors would have helped me in my career. Now I feel a sense of responsibility to help other women especially the ones that are starting to share what I have learned.”

Galvan wears many hats including serving as a serial volunteer and as a third year doctoral student at Drexel University in Sacramento, Calif., researching strategies on increasing the pipeline of women in engineering.

Championing women and Latinas is a life’s passion for Galvan, who serves as a board member of Notre Dame High School. Galvan is also a cultural mentor for TechWomen program, a U.S. Dept. of State initiative, to connect tech women from Silicon Valley to those in the Middle East and Africa.

She is technical advisor for Silicon Valley startups and works with CEOs and functional leaders to develop international strategy to develop and launch businesses’ products globally. Most recently she led the overall product internationalization effort of Hightail Web Services. At Microsoft, Galvan spent almost six years, as the Head of the international team in Silicon Valley, leading the international versions of Microsoft Online Services including Hotmail, Bing and MSN in up to 48 languages and 160+ markets, reaching hundreds of millions of people around the world.

Galvan also worked at Adobe Systems and Oracle

Jina Balogh

Texas A&M University-Kingsville
Education: Bachelor of Science, Civil Engineering
Today: Transmission & Distribution Assistant Structural Engineer at Burns & McDonnell

Jina BaloghJina Balogh’s love for physics and chemistry can be linked back to her father, a science teacher. She attended the engineering magnet program in her high school and was selected as an Alliance/Merck Ciencia Scholar during her senior year of high school. This program helped her finance her education, and assisted in providing internship experiences very early on in her college years.

Her sophomore year she made the big decision to transfer from Texas A&M University in College Station to Texas A&M University–Kingsville.

It’s a decision that “continues to be one of the best decisions I have ever made,” says the transmission and distribution assistant structural engineer at Burns & McDonnell. The T&D transmission group is responsible for designing high-voltage transmission lines which make it possible to meet the need for electricity all over the country. This includes designing the structures that support the power lines, selecting an appropriate path, getting the necessary permits and right-of-way.

While in college, Balogh was involved in Tau Beta Pi (the Engineering Honor Society), the American Society for Civil Engineers (ASCE), and the Society for Women Engineers (SWE), where she became the vice president. According to Balogh, At TAMUK, you get the intimacy of a private school for a public school price. This allowed her to develop relationships with her professors and advisors while also allowing her to graduate debt-free.

“When you consider the proportion of women in the engineering field it gave me more exposure to be able to take part in the club, and make changes and be able to attend the national conference multiple times,” she recalls.

The greatest resource the university offered Balogh was the opportunity to build close relationships with her professors.

“It was through my professors that I got nominated for Student Engineer of the Year,” the honors graduate says. “At TAMUK, you get what you put into it.”

Today, Balogh has passed the Fundamental Engineering Exam necessary to become an Engineer-in-Training, and is working toward her professional engineering license. “My goal is to one day become a voice in my industry.”

She was named the Texas Society of Professional Engineers Nueces County 2014 Student Engineer of the Year and the Texas A&M-Kingsville Civil Department’s Outstanding Senior, the highest honor a student can receive from a department.

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