Neurotoxicologist Alexandra Colón-Rodríguez is helping to promote and support Latinas in STEM from her native Puerto Rico and globally.
Latinas in STEM: The Stats
It’s no secret that women and racial minorities are still underrepresented in the STEM field. While the numbers have improved in recent years, women and minority groups still lag behind other demographics.
According to The State of U.S. Science and Engineering (2020), only 29% of the science and engineering workforce was women despite making up roughly 52% of the national population. Latino and Hispanics were also underrepresented. The data showed that while Latino and Hispanic people make up 16% of the United States’ population, but only 8.6% of the STEM workforce identify as Hispanic/Latino.
Additionally, due to this inadequate representation in STEM, only 2.3% of all STEM degrees awarded in 2016 went to Hispanic and Latinx women.
Alexandra Colón-Rodríguez’s story
One Latina who is doing her part to increase the visibility of Latinas in STEM is neurotoxicologist, Alexandra Colón-Rodríguez who is currently a postdoctoral scientist at the University of California, Davis. Born and raised in Santurce, Puerto Rico, she obtained her B.S. in microbiology at Universidad Ana G. Méndez_Recinto de Carolina (former Universidad del Este_Carolina).
Growing up, Alexandra never thought of becoming a scientist.
“I was born and raised in Santurce, Puerto Rico, specifically in the area with the most low-income population of the capital, San Juan, I come from a low-income family,” she said. “I didn’t get exposure to a scientist in real life.”However, during her junior year in college her father, who had recently been diagnosed with a brain disorder, died. This experience fueled her passion for discovering how the brain works and changes in diseases, and especially how environmental stressors can lead to brain changes that result in disease.
Currently, her studies have been focused on the effects of an environmental toxin called methylmercury (MeHg) on the human nervous system.
Her research into the effects of mercury poisoning has become vital because as gold prices have continued to rise, so has the amount of artisanal (small-scale) and illegal gold mining using mercury, which has led to increased mercury emissions to the environment. This contamination has been rising particularly across the Global South and is mostly due to human-driven uses and sources.
“Anthropogenic sources include the burning of fossil fuels and mercury use for artisanal gold mining,” said Colón-Rodríguez. She added that once mercury gets to water sources, it is methylated (changed to an organic form, MeHg) by bacteria, and starts to accumulate in the bodies of fish.
“Then, populations consuming the contaminated fish will be exposed to MeHg and poisoning effects include visual, sensory, and motor dysfunction,” she said.
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Supporting Women in STEM
In addition to her research work, Alexandra is a passionate advocate for science communication and outreach. As the first in her family to pursue a PhD and after experiencing first hand the limitations in research and neuroscience education in Puerto Rico, she now seeks out opportunities to help increase exposure of STEM to minority groups like herself.
“I am very passionate about science communication and outreach. I believe that we can create a more understanding and supportive society when we (scientists) share the importance of science and the impact it has in our world. Also, as an underrepresented minority scientist I feel the responsibility of encouraging the next generation of scientists like myself by sharing my experience while teaching them about areas that I am very passionate about, Neuroscience and Toxicology.”
As part of her mission to support women in STEM, Alexandra founded STEAM100x35.
“STEAM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math, and 100×35 represents our connection to Puerto Rico which is 100×35 miles. STEAM100x35 mission is to promote and amplify the voices of Puerto Rican women in STEAM around the world,” she said.
The initiative showcases profiles from Latinas in STEAM which are collected using a form and shared across all STEAM100x35’s social media platforms.
“As a Puerto Rican, the lack of visibility of Puerto Rican women in science and the little exposure to science I experienced growing up motivated me to become very active in science communication/outreach,” she said.
Through her work as a scientist, mentor, teacher, and communicator, Alexandra hopes to continue to inspire other minorities, especially Latinas, to pursue careers in STEM.