You are not lucky. You earned it!
If you followed me to work every day, you would think that my job is to be a face. Here are the glowing reviews: a NASA Goddard space science consultant, an astrobiologist, a lobbyist on behalf of exploration science, a science communicator, a diversity and inclusion “battering ram,” “firework,” and my personal favorite, “champion” (yes, I have actually been awkwardly named all of this in front of my colleagues. Thanks, I guess?). But that’s not all! I have also been called the knight in shining armor striding from the ivory tower on horseback to save the communities where a police officer is lucky to even show up to the scene of a shooting before it ends, and where schools are at the bottom of the investment priority list; to collect all the brown and black kids and help create some pretty convincing diversity photos as you might see in university ads. And, oh goodness! The way everyone’s heads turn to me when we talk about diversity and inclusion.
The catch is that I am still a senior in my undergraduate degree.
My colleagues love the story of my Matilda-esque life. I remember reading every book and renting every VHS about space and the planets from the library, right from the time I could start remembering things at all. Over time, finances dwindled, my support systems were hospitalized, tragedies struck, and all the arguing and relationship-ending ensued in front of me. And through it all, I always found comfort in the stars.
The first time I remember quitting, I was around nine years old sitting in a school counsellor’s office. And I can still hear her saying, “Latinas just don’t do science.” But I still had friends egging me on, telling me that I would one day pursue science. And so somehow, a small flame stayed lit. Science was cool, and we all knew it. Ultimately, however, I did quit. I started to force myself to dislike science. Maybe I could pursue it in other ways. What was the point?
It didn’t help that my parents didn’t quite want me pursuing science either: “There’s no real point in doing research. You won’t be making any big discoveries, and you won’t be making money. Don’t be naïve.” I was around age 14 when I heard this. If I didn’t quit hard enough before, I definitely quit harder this time around. I guess that’s what science was all about then - ground-breaking discoveries. And I certainly wasn’t “ground-breaking research” material. My counsellor was right. I didn’t see a lot of Latin scientists in general; much less those that came from homes like mine i.e. those that were broken, those that were in so much debt, and those whose conservative minority parents readily assimilated a culture that doesn’t welcome change easily.
I kept my head down, but came home to those old solar system books every day. I paid no mind to my science classes, but still had the stars to look up to every night. Something still tugged at me every day, and I eventually became annoyed with it. I coursed my way through middle and high school and met my match with math. I held my own, but never fully understood it. This was, seemingly, the final door that had to be closed. I hated math, plain and simple. I didn’t understand it. Therefore, I didn’t fit the bill of “scientist,” especially space scientist. When I came home with a D in physics, my parents argued that they never should have let me take that class in the first place. I just wasn’t “good enough.” And by this point, I believed that wholeheartedly.
Graduating high school came as a surprise to me. Getting accepted into the United States Air Force Academy was an even bigger surprise. Having to turn it down was probably the biggest surprise of them all. And following this, my first-gen self, armed with a couple of good friends and a strong ability to use Google, applied for college. I ended up choosing the University of North Texas. My brother had finished the back half of his degree there, and my sister had gone to college as well. But we were so non-traditional, that attending college during roughly the same time-frame and back-to-back left each sibling just as confused as the other regarding the whole process. On top of all of that, my parents could not financially support me.
Fortunately, thanks to my dad’s military service and the Hazelwood Act, plus my scholarships, I had a full ride. Then it came time to declare my major. At this point, with my love for the stars, I was so used to existential crises that I didn’t mind having these tough conversations with myself, such as, “What are you going to do for the rest of your life?” I was used to these conversations, these hard questions, with being uncomfortable, and also with wondering “What if?” But I just couldn’t do this.
I didn’t know who I was anymore. I was scared to ask questions because being wrong was somehow worse than learning anything of value that came with it. I used to crave learning. But sadly, I had accepted that I just wasn’t good enough for the things I knew I loved deep down. I had to turn down a prestigious institution and was left with next to nothing. I wasn’t going to do well, anyway. It was so unfair how I couldn’t get tutoring. It was so unfair how much we fought to stay alive. It was so unfair how my parents worked to the bone to provide for their kids while fighting racism and systematic pressures, and yet had such a narrow worldview that I had accepted for the longest time. It was then, lost in this worldview which I had lived with all my life, that I knew exactly what I had to do. With tears streaming down my face, seated at the old family Mac laptop that ran at the speed of slow, I selected “biology.” As an even greater disappointment to my parents, I chose “political science” as my second major.
I was going to do science, and I was going to tear down every barrier that everyone else like me has to face. At the end of the day, it wasn’t fair to me that I had accepted this world view. It wasn’t fair to the people just like me. What I wanted to do could only advance humanity, even if I didn’t make some “ground-breaking” discovery. Science was for all. Science was for me.
And then came the fun part.
I was lucky to sit in the UNT labs, just as confused about math as I was scared to use a pipette for the first time. I sat in my government classes, and was lucky enough to discover a whole new world that I was living right next to the entire time. A world where people actually did what they wanted. Unfortunately, I didn’t have access to that world.
But, while sitting in my communications classes, I figured out how I could start to get there.
I began telling my story. I became friends with professors. Ultimately, I was lucky enough to be awarded with a spot in an “intern in D.C.” program and went through a semester of intensive and existential leadership training. At this point, I found myself networking with Congressman, toe-to-toe with foreign ministers, dining with Senators and telling more of my story, on camera, with Supreme Court justices.
Sure, I was lucky. But it still wasn’t good enough.
I moved to D.C. and transferred schools, and with $200 to my name I waited tables and walked dogs, until my internship turned into jobs. I was lucky enough to end up at the American Chemical Society. I found myself traveling to New York and coordinating mentor programs with a non-profit organization, for kids just like me. I made sure to tell them my story, and the fire in those students’ eyes lit my path for me as I pushed forward to the White House.
Still lucky. Still not good enough.
Having not yet completed my undergraduate degree, I started at my new school, George Mason University, and promptly wanted to quit again. Running out-of-state tuition set me into loads of debt. I had forgotten that I’d still never quite figured out how I’d pay for college. Turns out, kids like me didn’t really make it that far, and I was stuck. I took time off from full-time classes in order to become domiciled in Virginia, and once I got in-state tuition, I joined an exoplanetary research group at the school, where I was lucky enough to meet with professors who had heard about kids like me and wanted to take the time to hold me by the hand and introduce me to what I was passionate about: astrobiology. I met teammates that didn’t quite understand where I was coming from – admittedly I was the only natural scientist out of all the theoretical, mechanics, and number-savvy people in the group – but they were supportive nonetheless.
I came across students frustrated about science. And I came across extremely condescending educational practices when it came to science in this area. Using my ACS and Congressional experience, I reached out to find solutions, and promptly met the same walls that not everyone can quite see: “You know, at your age, and with your… background, it’s wise to not appear too fiery or too hasty. It’s a stereotype. It’s not what makes a good scientist. You should think about how people like me see people like you.”
And to this I say – Yes, tenured professor, I am well aware of my stereotype. But I still wanted to know why people were dropping certain majors left and right and strictly avoiding the labs, not why Latinas were always portrayed as the firework. Despite this, I still felt that I wasn’t a scientist. I was raised to believe I wasn’t. I sure as hell wasn’t about to conform to tradition now.
I was living off of ramen noodles and the Taco Bell dollar menu diet. I didn’t know what “tenure” or “grant funding” or what a “white paper” was. I took a Master’s-level physics course with no calculus training. And I was met with comments like, “You might want to drop this class, or you’ll have a very hard time. Your training isn’t exactly traditional.”
Also, me being the only woman in the class wasn’t traditional either. And of course, men (both students and professors) who weren’t involved in the class physically marveled at that in ways that no woman ever wants. I kept my mouth shut about all of that. I ended up learning Calc III and getting a B+ in the class. Maybe I had medical issues (and it certainly felt like I did), but the bills were scary enough to avoid any kind of doctor. This little flame was getting bigger and bigger. I was lucky to be alive.
“You don’t know how to code? So why are you here?” At this point I was hearing this from professors and fellow students alike. Well, nobody told me. I didn’t even know what I didn’t know, or how I was supposed to begin learning that. Where was the stuck-up astronomy student’s handbook when I needed it? “This is going to be very difficult, but we have more important projects here while the campus telescope gets updated, so I guess you can try.” Thanks for the blessing, physics student. I’ll go ahead and try.
I learned Python - a coding language - in a week and successfully coded for the largest university telescope on the east coast. I tried. And I succeeded. A fire was raging, and yet students younger than me were dedicating their time to going to conferences and presenting at them; doing published research; getting ex-space shuttle mentors and internships and going to visit big NASA telescopes like it was just another school field trip; and coding complex software like it was just a typing exercise. I didn’t quite have the money for all of that, and with juggling three jobs since the start of college, I didn’t have the time. Still not good enough.
By now, I’d even spoken at young leaders’ conferences and receptions and had told my whole story. I told the story of how the stars lived billions of years. And of how we were alive to understand all of it. How we were made of the same things that made us feel small, and because of that, on our giant speck of dust, we were not small at all. Instead, we were the “universe’s way of understanding itself.” I spoke louder and louder, with more and more detail, to audiences both receptive and non-supportive, until I received the magical offer – NASA wanted me.
I proceeded to face-plant and completely embarrass myself in the world of telemetry, spectroscopy, and all these numbers and figures and -oscopy’s and -emetry’s and too many charts (Seriously, what is it with astronomers and charts? I can’t titrate a chart!). I found myself unable to keep up in science meetings – “I don’t know what that camera does, what that device does, or how light travels through it. I am a kid compared to these guys. Literally, I am the youngest and the least educated.”
I finally made it to the point that I had always dreamed of, but all of these experiences were wearing. I wasn’t just doing big, flashy things. I was weighing myself down with the pressure to succeed. I was putting my own fire out, until one day I shattered. Hard. It was bad enough I was feeling guilt for leaving my family behind, and I was constantly reminded of that in the way that older Latin people are good at reminding you. But it was a whole other story to just feel so abhorrently out of touch, so wildly unqualified and undereducated about what I’d always loved.
I was getting no sleep, no nutrition, killing myself and sacrificing my health just to belong somewhere and follow through with my vision. Hard work should reap great rewards, right? Instead I was the kid from NASA, with no education relative to the guys I was working with, while students younger than me were publishing things and working in labs and getting software into space. I was just another firework loud-mouthed Latina, telling her story and trying to prove… whatever it is she needed to prove. I didn’t know anymore.
Right now the ending to my story wasn’t happy, and I was terrified, meek, and just trying to breathe amongst the giants. My colleagues were shocked that this world existed outside of the ivory tower. I figured that if I wasn’t good enough for the job, if I wasn’t NASA material, I was at least going to spend my time showing my colleagues this world of educational exclusion that they are either directly or indirectly participating in.
“Listen up, NASA,” I thought. “You have no idea what it takes for people like me to get here.”
That scrappy young Latina in her undergrad from South Texas, with the broken Spanish, somehow found herself in a place of the greatest scientific minds of the century, and they were now listening to me. My colleagues checked in on me. My supervisor became a life mentor, and just what I needed to keep telling my story. They were giants, indeed, helping me on their shoulders. My branch chief sat me down after the division holiday party and asked how I got there.
“Well, I’m studying biology and policy, and my supervisor brought me on board.” “No,” she said, “start from day one. What was your road here?”
It wasn’t until then that I realized I have to stop talking about how I “ended up” there and how “lucky” I was. I fought tooth and nail to stand out, to belong, and to be a NASA scientist.
I wasn’t lucky. I earned it.
I’m not going to pretend that it’s easy to “do anything you set your mind to!” Quite frankly, I wish people would stop saying that, because it is vehemently untrue, and a slap in the face for people who are blatantly being ignored by those capable of investing in them, due to the existing system. No amount of hard work and big discoveries and job-juggling can magically disintegrate prejudice. But what is unique about every hidden figure, every Matilda, and every kid believing that they are not good enough, is their own incredibly unique experience and special brand of resilience – the kind that cannot be taken from you. And the kind that science needs.
And science does need you. Maybe even me, too.
This message should have two sides: to those in power, and to those like me.
To those in power, you must understand: Academia is no space to be selfish, and I want all tenured scientists to hear this young, clueless, culture-shocked undergrad Latina tell you that studying science for its own sake is a privilege that you are lucky to have, and many are blocked from this privilege. The kind of mental and emotional task it takes a nine year old to get past a statement like – “people like you don’t do science” – is one that should never be expected of a child. And yet, this is the reality for far too many of us, and we tend to just stop right there.
The advancement of humanity and investment in human intellectual capital does not come with terms and conditions. It’s time to recognize that everyone does not start out at the same point. It’s time to realize that not everyone is even aware of how they can follow their dreams. It’s time to realize that there is a world raging outside of that ivory tower. And that it’s educators putting out any small flame with stereotypes. It’s not knowing where the next meal is coming from, it’s working for hours on end resulting in not being good enough by virtue of a number scale that ends at 4.0; and finally, that it’s people like me that also make up academia. So it’s time we reinvent what we think about academia.
I am academia. The kids from the inner cities are academia. The kids from rural areas are academia. Reckless, messy, scared, poor, curious. Full of mistakes, but full of hope. We can’t keep catering to the “natural-born” scientist; as all humans are naturally curious.
We cannot hold up the “scientifically inclined,” because nine times out of ten, they are just people with the resources to pursue science and stand out among their peers. All humans can attain an affinity for science, and all humans, at whatever level, are inclined to find out “what’s out there.” You must understand that the slightest investment in these kids – in me – catalyzes a reaction that the entire world can only benefit from. But most importantly, you cannot be perfectly content with barriers so carefully and institutionally placed, holding back the people that need to understand this the most.
“I did it by following the book, so there’s no reason others should get a break!”
It is our job as believers in what we are and what we can be, to get real with ourselves, and have the hard conversation: If the end goal of science is the advancement of humanity, are you truly invested in all of human kind?
Our goals as scientists are clear, and walking into any academic conference will establish that. But we need to do better. We need to hold each other accountable. We need to be mentoring, opening up doors and scholarships, being realistic yet optimistic. We need to invest in humans; all humans! Invest in the kids like me that need allies. You cannot give me cringe-worthy titles like “champion” and then do nothing for the other hidden champions not being given the light of day by people like you. We need to open the ivory tower doors, but we need more than that – we need to tear it down completely!
To those like me, remember this: You can overcome this. Not because you are lucky, but because you belong, even if you don’t think that you do. Personally, as a headstrong advocate for the minority in academia, I have no plans of pursuing a degree higher than a bachelor’s – partly because I am not exactly fond of how academia works, but mostly because I’ve never even dreamed of situations where having “Dr.” in front of my name was remotely feasible. And quite frankly, the thought terrifies me. But that’s ok.
I know that I won’t be able to show up sufficiently prepared with my limited science background. And that I’ll be remedial, at best; even with my NASA experience. I know that if PhD poverty gets the best of me, I will just be another example of a person from a disadvantaged minority, thinking I was different, that somehow investment would find me, and that the floodgates of diversity would open and welcome me with open arms.
Although this change has to be gradual, it’s up to us to kick-start it.
Pursuing higher and higher levels of education, and making ground-breaking discoveries worthy of prizes, is not something that you owe anyone, and the path is there for only you. Pursuing the truth in your own way is something that you owe yourself. And owing to your inclination to pursue science, the academic community deserves your voice – one that is unique, unwavering, and battle-hardened. Understand that in this great, big, terrible world, there are people that are ready to hear your story. Find your allies, get your story in order, and share it until you can no longer speak another breath of where you’ve been and where you are going – your truth.
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