Dr. Diana Marinez speaks at the Latino Issues Conference

Dr. Diana Marinez speaks at the Latino Issues Conference.

More support needed for Latinas in science, speaker says

“Should we care whether there are Latinas in science?” asked Dr. Diana Marinez in her keynote address at the annual Latino Issues Conference April 16. There are several obvious reasons we should, according to the retired dean of Texas A&M’s Corpus Christi College and longtime advocate for minority women in science.

Ethnic issues aside, there is a national need for more scientists in general, according to Marinez. Science and technology affect all our lives, and an increasing number of jobs require some knowledge of science, math, technology or engineering—the so-called STEM disciplines. In academia, most decisions are made by nonscientists, and those decisions affect colleges of science and medicine, she said. More science majors are needed in general to help mentor students in those disciplines and ensure an adequate supply in the future, she said.

Additionally, more work environments today require working in interdisciplinary teams. “So it behooves us to at least know what science is about and what it can and cannot do,” said Marinez, herself a biochemist.

In a ‘double bind’
A 1973 report commissioned by the American Association for the Advancement of Science on opportunities for minority women in science identified the “twin burdens of racism and sexism,” noting that minority women were the most under-represented group in science. Since this “Double-Bind Study,” progress has been slow, Marinez said, as was demonstrated in another study, in 2002. “We have all these reports but nothing happens,” she said.

In 1976, 45 percent of the Hispanics in science were women; by 2004 that had risen to 59 percent, but “the number of people overall enrolled in science majors has not changed,” she said.

While many start out wanting to be doctors, the majority change their majors. “People are dropping out of the sciences like flies,” she observed.

Of the Latinos in higher education, 63 percent are women. However, a preponderance of those are in two-year colleges and do not go on—it’s a “dead end,” Marinez said. Those Latinas who do have their Ph.D.s tend not to be tenured or tenure-track faculty. “Hispanics are severely under-represented in the sciences and in received research funding,” she added.

This carries over to a lack of role models for young Latinos, which is especially crucial in Hispanic culture. “The role of social networking is absolutely critical in development of minorities in the sciences, but no one tells you that,” she said. Speaking to minority faculty, she said, “You must tell your students what they need to do to succeed. We need to make an all-out effort to inspire students to work to their best ability.” She added that the effort must begin in the lower grades before college.

Internships should be created, and research-based instruction infused into teaching and curriculum so students can see how knowledge is created, she said.

Research of interest to Hispanics is another area to be addressed. It is the Tier 1 research institutions who decide what research is funded, Marinez said. “Ethnic scientists are likely to research a problem of interest to the Hispanic community,” she added.

Even though more graduate students and faculty are coming to the United States from around the world, “international representation does not provide the mentors for minority students,” Marinez said, explaining that even someone from South America, for example, will not have the same minority experience as American Hispanics and cannot truly relate.

Barriers abound
The barriers to Latinas in science are intentional and unintentional, and include outmoded institutional structures, the climate in academia and biases, both conscious and unconscious.

Even for her, “it’s a constant battle not to make decisions based on stereotypes,” Marinez said.

Higher education tends to be resistant to change and does not always see the need for it, she said, adding that sometimes colleges don’t make sense in the way they are organized or in terms of people’s lives. “They are like monastic structures. You must give yourself totally to the academy or you’re not seen as serious,” she said. For women in particular, this can be discouraging, she said, adding, “Policies need to change.”

Moving beyond the status quo
Marinez recommended that more programs be developed to get students into graduate school, that mentoring be encouraged and supported and that all available networks for helping Latinas advance in science be strengthened.

Databases to track the progress of Latinas should be used and actions taken based on that information, she said.

Hiring attitudes should be addressed and the barriers to admission and hiring discussed with administrators “in a safe environment,” Marinez said, explaining that people who are not minorities often are uncomfortable talking about their own feelings and knowledge, and need to feel they can speak freely and find out what they need to know.

April 28, 2008