Yale Ciencia: An interview with one of the boricuas who made it happen

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When I learned that Yale University recently launched Yale Ciencia, an initiative with Ciencia Puerto Rico, an online hub for Puerto Rican scientists, I was intrigued. Scratch that. I was actually ecstatic. I was still swimming in indignation over an article that suggested that black and Latina women are sometimes mistaken for janitors. You know, the one that has been circulating the internet for the past few weeks. Hence, when I received the news about this initiative from a real life scientist, a fellow Boricua, about an initiative that will contribute to transform that, I knew Centro had to cover it. This is the kind of news we take pride in: stories that celebrate Puerto Ricans making a difference in the United States. This collaboration does not only provide a bridge between Puerto Rico and the U.S., it will allow many boricuas on the island and stateside to make a real impact in increasing diversity in the sciences in the United States. Giovanna Guererro, executive director of Ciencia Puerto Rico and associate research scientist in the Center for Teaching and Learning, leads the initiative. She kindly indulged our questions about her own Puerto Rican identity, Ciencia Puerto Rico, and the future of Yale Ciencia.

Suset Laboy: Tell us a bit about you. How did you get involved in this project?

Giovanna Guererro: I happened upon CienciaPR by chance in 2006. I had just recently finished my PhD in Molecular and Cell Biology from UC Berkeley and was doing a fellowship in Washington DC at the National Academies on science policy—an area that stresses the importance of science and technology for the development of countries, for the support of a well informed and capable citizenship, and for the establishment of new economic opportunities. I was very interested in how countries can support their science and innovation enterprise and had realized that it required active participation by scientists, to make sure that science education was a priority, to communicate the importance of science to the public and legislators, and to ensure there were opportunities to train the next generation of scientists.

At the same time I had been missing Puerto Rico and feeling a bit conflicted about having been away for so long… at that point, I had been gone nine years, since I had completed my bachelors in Biology at the UPR Rio Piedras. One day, while surfing the Internet, I found CienciaPR.org, and I was blown away by the potential and possibility that the network presented. Here was a website that contained thousands of scientists like me all over the world that had connections to Puerto Rico and were interested in contributing in some way. Even though many of the people that made up CienciaPR were not physically in Puerto Rico, they still were able to contribute to the Puerto Rican public’s understanding of science, they still were able to advice students that were interested in science career, and thus they still were a resource for Puerto Rico.

This was something revolutionary for me. It showed me that the talent and resources that Puerto Rico had at its disposal to grow and improve its science and technology sectors and education was larger than I had previously thought and included people like me who were away but still wanted to contribute. I immediately contacted Daniel Colón Ramos, the founder of the network, to congratulate him and offer my interest in helping out. I started volunteering for CienciaPR and slowly the volunteer team began growing, with other wonderful scientists who also wanted to contribute to Puerto Rico. We started organizing ourselves, and I started taking more and more responsibility in the project.

By 2012, I was basically doing two jobs: I was working full time as the Director of Science Policy at a research non-profit (the Van Andel Research Institute in Grand Rapids, MI), and I was working nights, weekends, and days off for CienciaPR. That year we received funds from the PR Science Technology and Research Trust to redesign our website and from the Banco Popular Foundation we also got some seed funding. Although it meant taking a pretty significant pay cut and leaving a stable position, I decided to quit my job and dedicate myself full time to CienciaPR because that’s the job that fulfilled me the most, both in terms of the mission and in terms of the team.

Giovanna Guerrero Medina

SL: What brought about this connection between Yale Center for Teaching and Learning and Ciencia Puerto Rico?

GG: Our founder, Daniel Colón Ramos, is a professor of cell biology at Yale, and through him we had made a connection with Jo Handelsman, a professor who has been a pioneer in the field of science education as well as in many other fields (metagenomics, microbiology, women in science, and science policy), and also with Jenny Frederick the Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning. At their invitation, in January of 2014, I came to Yale to give a talk about CienciaPR at the Center’s Science Education Seminar Series.

I presented how CienciaPR had applied the talent, stories, and examples of its members to improve science communications in Puerto Rico, to produce science education resources (books, videos) that were culturally responsive, and to give information and advice to students interested in scientific careers. In essence, I presented how this network of scientists with ties to Puerto Rico had helped improve access to science education and careers and how we believe this is a model that can be replicated by other populations or communities that are also underrepresented in science or still developing their capacity in this area.

At that point we had been looking for an organization or institution that could serve as a sponsor to CienciaPR, providing administrative capacity so that we could expand our efforts. The Center thought our network approach to help increase access to science education was innovative. And so we began discussions for how to bring the resource of CienciaPR to the Center as a model that could be studied so that it could serve as a model for other groups or communities. The result was the Yale Ciencia Initiative, which places a higher focus on studying how the CienciaPR network works and what effects it has.

Right now, I have a position at Yale as Director of Yale Ciencia and leverage the network for research studies. I also continue to run CienciaPR as a nonprofit organization, overseeing the team of volunteers that allows the network continues to do its day to day job of communicating science and disseminating science education and research opportunities.

SL: Why the specific connection with Puerto Rico?

GG: Ciencia Puerto Rico has been incredibly successful at demonstrating the value that scientific networks can have to meet the needs of specific communities. There are other scientist networks out there but few which are organized around the mission of doing outreach to improve science education and careers for its community. In this way what CienciaPR does is novel and worthy of being studied.

SL: What does the Ciencia Puerto Rico model offer? What appealed to Yale University about it?

GG: The model is innovative and offers Yale the opportunity to become a leader in novel ways of promoting inclusion and participation in science.

Until now, most approaches to increase the participation of underrepresented minorities in science and technology have come from the top down and from outside the community. Programs have been established to incentivize the recruitment of minorities into science and technology disciplines. However, despite some improvements representation of Hispanics and African Americans in the scientific workforce remains low. (Only 6% of all science and engineering professionals and less than 4% of all PhDs employed in science and engineering occupations are Hispanic, compared to more than 16% of the population). It isn’t a surprise then that when children are asked to draw a scientist their images are not very diverse.

Over the past eight years, Ciencia Puerto Rico has been using a community approach to increase the visibility of and access to Hispanic scientific role models and advisors. Instead of taking on the daunting challenge of increasing access to science individually, we’ve established a network so that anyone can contribute, from anywhere.

In addition, having access to the CienciaPR platform allows Yale to promote its training programs among a large Hispanic population and to provide avenues to allow the top-notch science and science education that happens at Yale to reach a broader audience.

What specific initiatives do you have planned to support/promote science education and career? Who is the target audience both in Puerto Rico and the United States? Do you intend to bring scholars from the island to Yale and/or vice versa? I guess I'd like to get a clearer sense of the connection.

To summarize, the goals of Yale Ciencia are to develop knowledge, through studies and evaluations of CienciaPR projects, about how science networks can be applied to increase access and participation in science; to leverage increase diversity within Yale and facilitate outreach from Yale to Hispanic populations; In the long term, to promote the translation of the CienciaPR model in collaboration with other countries or communities.

More specifically, through Yale Ciencia we will conduct studies of a variety of programs that use Hispanic/Puerto Rican scientists as role models or experts, to improve various aspects of participation in science. Our goal is to show the value of having these types of scientist networks for minority communities and to learn best practices so that others can replicate these programs. The audiences may be Puerto Ricans in Puerto Rico, Hispanics in the U.S., or both.

This year we will be establishing and studying several programs to do just that: 1. A program to link middle school girls with role models in STEM fields who can inspire them, mentor them, and help them become science advocates and leaders in their communities (this program will be first piloted and studied in PR and we will seek to expand it to New Haven in future years); 2. An online STEM careers portal that allows students to explore various STEM careers through the voice of Latino/a professionals (videos and online descriptions). We will develop an afterschool program that utilizes this resource to familiarize students to the broad range of careers they can aspire to with a good education in science and math. The resource will be accessible in English and Spanish nationally and the afterschool program will be piloted in PR and New Haven; 3. A program to provide mentorship, professional development, networking, and outreach opportunities to Hispanic PhD students in STEM fields. This program will leverage CienciaPR members who will serve as mentors and advisors for graduate students as they look to developing a career after their PhD and science outreach initiatives of CienciaPR (e.g. science communications through newspapers, podcasts, or visits to schools) will allow graduate students to assert themselves as scientists and give back to their communities. This program will have a national audience and impact.

We will also connect Yale programs with universities and educators in Puerto Rico to facilitate the exchange of students and we will promote Yale programs in Puerto Rico to help increase diversity at the university. At the same time, New Haven and Connecticut are home to large Hispanic populations, including many English language learners and bilingual students. We will work with educators in the area to connect schools with role models and educational resource freely available through the CienciaPR network that can help make science more culturally relevant for many students.

Because we are invested in spreading this model, we will work with scientists from other countries to replicate our model and to promote awareness of how science networks can be used to enhance science communication, education, outreach, training, science policy, innovation, amongst other things.

SL: What do you want to leave our Centro Voices audience with? Is there anything else you’d like to share about the project?

GG: The talent and commitment of the scientists, students, and educators that are members of CienciaPR—no matter where they live or reside—has helped us engage the Puerto Rican community in science and show new generations of students the excitement of science and how it can provide interesting and productive futures. Yale has recognized the value of this approach, and so it is in great part thanks to these thousands of members that we now can help expand this model to other communities in the U.S. and hopefully worldwide.

© Centro Voices. Published on 25 February 2015.

Centro Voices (ISSN: 2379-3864).
The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of Centro Voices, the Center for Puerto Rican Studies or Hunter College, CUNY.