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STEM Latinas Preparing the Future

Preparing the Future.

By Christine Bolaños.

Latinas in STEM know their positions hold great responsibility as they work to better their communities and the world they live in. They also carry the torch of the Latina scientists who came before them and for the young Latinas in STEM who seek to follow in their footsteps. Women such as Sara Isbell, who formed her own company determined to research and find cures for neurodegenerative diseases and traumatic brain injuries, Sara del Valle who specializes in understanding the spread of infectious diseases and how to better prepare for possible pandemics, Pilar Manchon, Director of Cognitive Interfaces at Amazon Machine Learning and Dr. Monica DeZulueta, Data Architect and Computer Scientist at Microsoft are the ones carrying the torch.

Sara Isbell
CEO and Co-Founder
Mercaptor Discoveries

Sara Isbell will never forget her first day of college. She was at chemistry orientation, amongst some 300 people, listening to a panel of elites talk about the opportunities that awaited students pursuing STEM. But one panelist’s comment struck her. It seemed he was looking straight her way as he said what would turn into pivotal words: “If you are a woman you have no chance of making it in this field, especially if you have a child.”

Isbell had her child in a stroller sitting next to her at the orientation. Instead of letting his words discourage her she used them to fuel her thirst for greater things.

“I remember thinking I’m going to prove him wrong,” she says.

Today, the one-time single teenage mother is CEO, president and co-founder of a neuroscience-based, breakthrough biopharmaceutical startup called Mercaptor Discoveries.

Together with a team of expert scientists, Isbell works in the laboratory to search for a cure for neurodegenerative diseases and traumatic brain injury. Her goal is to create an oral medication that prevents the effects of brain trauma in people who are most at risk such as athletes and military personal. The medication could also help stop conditions like Alzheimer’s, ALS, epilepsy, alcohol withdrawal and stroke from progressing.

It’s an ambitious goal but working at a company run by scientists with the goal of bettering health over making money could be a recipe for success.

Mercaptor Discoveries CEO, Sara Isabell, researches potential treatments for Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) onsite in her lab

“The mission is to do real science and not have it dictated by Wall Street,” Isbell says. She has worked in numerous biotech companies where research projects got shut down if they didn’t seem to progress enough to make revenue within a year.

Mercaptor Discoveries was a result of 11 scientists who got laid off from their previous positions taking matters into their own hands.

“We wanted to be part of a company that starts a movement to show how science and research is not based on money and selling high-priced drugs,” Isbell shares. “In order to progress in science, you need to be open to what your data will say.”

She is excited about how the science the company is working on is working in animal trials thus far. The company is also seeking funding from alternative sources instead of banker backing.

“I don’t feel accomplished,” she states. “That almost feels like an endpoint. I’m always working and striving to learn more until the day I die.”

Sara del Valle
Principal Investigator
National Institutes of Health grant
Modeling and Infectious Disease Agent Study program
Los Alamos National Laboratory

Raised by missionary parents in Mexico, Sara del Valle was driven to make a positive impact in the world from a young age.

“They’ve always instilled in me the importance of caring about people and making sure that whatever I do is for the good of the world,” she says. Through studying infectious diseases for a living, she feels she is continuing her parent’s legacy.

Today, she is principal investigator for the Modeling of Infectious Disease Agent Study (MIDAS), covered by a National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant. The purpose of her role is to develop, integrate and analyze mathematical models for the spread of infectious diseases such as smallpox, anthrax, malaria, HIV and influenza on a pandemic scale. She also models potential effects of mass casualties on the Healthcare and Public Health Sector. She studies the role of social behavior on disease dynamics by using social media and computational models.

“What I’m doing has an impact on making sure we come up with models and policies that can eventually save lives,” she says, adding she is passionate about increasing the number of underrepresented minorities in STEM, particularly in math fields.

She envisions more women and Latinas taking charge in tackling world problems.

Del Valle moved to Brooklyn, New York, when she was 16 years old.

“I was two years from graduating high school and I knew I wanted to go to college so I had to study very, very hard to make sure I learned English,” she recalls.

Her determination carried her through her bachelor and master’s studies at New Jersey Institute of Technology, and in earning her doctorate in applied mathematics and computational sciences from the University of Iowa.

She was awarded the highly competitive grant in 2010 and has worked as a scientist at Los Alamos for 11 years. Prior to taking on the role of principal investigator, del Valle supported the Department of Homeland Security after the anthrax release in 2001.

She briefed White House science advisors about H1N1 in the mid-2000s and the federal government knows they can depend on del Valle team’s knowledge when it comes to implementing health-related policies.

She was keynote speaker for an Expanding Your Horizons function, gives lectures in northern New Mexico and is adjunct professor at Arizona State University with the aim to increase diversity in the sciences.

Pilar Manchon
Director of Cognitive Interfaces
Amazon Machine Learning

As a young woman entrepreneur in a highly competitive industry, Pilar Manchon shares she felt she had to prove herself in ways her male counterparts never did. Her ’emotional stability’ was often thought to be the reason behind her successful business, as if it was the exception for a woman.

“I was frequently the only woman in executive meetings, often patronized, and sometimes my opinions were disregarded,” shares the Seville, Spain native. “As a Latina entrepreneur, it is hard to explain how often and how much disbelief we encountered when pitching our technology and the capabilities of our team, simply because we were Spanish.”

But Manchon’s resilience, outspokenness and self-assuredness continues proving wrong those who underestimated her. Today, she serves as Director of Cognitive Interfaces at Amazon Machine Learning. She is responsible with looking at all services across Amazon’s artificial intelligence and machine learning portfolio

“My role involves exploring new paradigms and architectures for multimodal conversation and intelligence in the development of smart conversational agents,” she says.

According to Manchon, the multimodal conversation is about understanding how different modalities and redundant information can enrich and improve conversation to make it more “intelligent, efficient and useful.”

At its core, she says multidimensional intelligence is about catering for other human cognitive needs, such as social and emotional intelligence, how they impact performance of conversational agents and how users perceive them.

Always equally fascinated by the potential of science and technology as she is passionate about languages and human cognition, Manchon spent time switching between fields until finding a way to combine her professional passion.

“I discovered that deep diving into research and methodologies — which at face value didn’t seem to have much in common — gave me valuable insights and a perspective that helped me grow,” she explains. “A career in STEM gives you the tools to fix, improve and create anything you can imagine. When you understand the challenges, have the tools to fix them, and the drive and stamina to get the job done, there is nothing stopping you.”

Manchon — who is proud of her Spanish heritage and gives back to the community by participating in internal programs at Amazon and collaborating with Latinxs in Tech, LatinoSphere, Latino Founders, Girls in Tech and other organizations — is driven by the nature of her work as well as her colleagues who she considers extremely talented.

“It is our responsibility to offer a helping hand to all those who might need it,” Manchon shares. “I feel very fortunate to now hold a leadership role at a company that values diverse perspectives and encourages employees from all backgrounds to succeed.”

Dr. Monica DeZulueta
Data Architect and Computer Scientist
Microsoft

“My family would always tell us to, ‘Make sure your heart is full of good deeds and your brain is full of good knowledge,'” Dr. Monica DeZulueta says. “If you marry those two things you are safe. I was instilled with that at a young age.” Her Cuban roots taught her that life can take one’s home and business but not one’s education or good deeds.

Today, she is data architect and computer scientist at Microsoft, where she has worked for 18 years. De Zulueta, Ph.D., has over 30 years of computing and scientific research experience. She joined Microsoft in 1999. She has architected AI, IoT, database and middleware solutions for the federal government and large Fortune 500 corporations.

Dr. DeZulueta began working on the commercial side of Microsoft, where she oversaw big accounts in Florida, including Office Depot, Royal Caribbean and Burger King. She completed technology roles in the South and in the East Coast before moving on to the federal chain. She worked on Veterans Affairs in 2006 where she was part of a team that created an application that would make it possible for veterans’ health records to be accessed after Hurricane Katrina hit.

“Whether it’s our veterans or soldiers, I really want to make sure our folks are safe,” she states. “That’s one of the things I’ve been very focused on since I started working with the federal government.”

Microsoft has agreements with the federal government including with the Navy. She is currently chief technology officer for the U.S. Navy where her team provides guidance on Cloud solutions as well as data and analytic solutions.

Solutions can include determining the best harbor pilot to drive a specific kind of ship, orders that come in, how a ship can get to a canal faster, special solutions for river and dam ships, water levels, environmental factors and more.

Dr. DeZulueta presented her latest findings at the National Defense University. Her passion for serving others extends to her humanitarian efforts, including mentoring young girls and underrepresented minorities. She has been involved with Microsoft’s DigiGirlz, CODeLLA, Girls Develop It and with robotics competitions and clubs.

Prior to Microsoft, she served as a project leader at NASA, on the communications systems for Shuttle Launch and Payload Processing. Her internship at NOAA consisted of flying on-board the hurricane reconnaissance aircraft. She was named one of the 100 most green Latinos by Poder360 and profiled in the book, Latinnovating. She has a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering, a Master of Science in Computer Engineering and another Master of Science in Engineering Management. She also has a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering. Her doctoral dissertation was on applying neural networks to security.

“There are so many resources, including scholarships, available to Latinas, from college to the start of their careers to enable them to live out their dreams and not have to worry about being able to pay back student loans,” she says.

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