Puerto Rican neurotoxicologist Alexandra Colón-Rodríguez is promoting Latinas in STEM

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. 


Latinas in STEM

Women, underrepresented minorities, blacks, and Hispanics in S&E and all occupations: 2017 (Graphic source: The State of U.S. Science and Engineering 2020)

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.”  

Latinas in STEM

“I am the 1st and only person in my family with a science degree and a PhD […] and I don’t know other scientists from where I am from” (via @Also_AScientist on twitter)

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.

You might be interested: Latina entrepreneur combats infants’ pneumonia deaths with biotech

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. 


Alexandra Colón-Rodríguez’s words of advice to other women. (via @MillionStem on twitter)

“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.

Latinos in technology

Latinos in technology no shortage of talent, a shortage of vision

We are very grateful to Jose Antonio Tijerino, President and CEO at the Hispanic Heritage Foundation, who is sharing this article with Finding Latinos in technology –and other minorities- should not be as hard as large Silicon Valley companies make it sound –and he can prove it!

(First published on Pulse on July 20, 2016)

Jose Antonio Tijerino, Hispanic Heritage Foundation latinos in technology

Jose Antonio Tijerino, President and CEO Hispanic Heritage Foundation

By Guest contributor Antonio Tijerino, President and CEO at Hispanic Heritage Foundation 

With last year’s big news of the dismal diversity numbers reported by tech giants in the rear-view mirror, there has been no real change in the percentage of Latino and African-American programmers as we head into the second half of 2016. There seems to be a lot of activity but not a lot of results, which means attitudes need to change before results do.

First off, hiring qualified African-Americans or Latinos in technology shouldn’t be thought of as a humanitarian endeavor — it’s a business imperative. An actual competitive advantage. A value proposition not just for tech companies or the Latino community but for our nation’s workforce.

The McKinsey & Company report Diversity Matters found that companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35 percent more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians and 15 percent more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians. Among US companies, for every 10 percent increase in racial and ethnic diversity on the senior-executive team, earnings actually rise.

Are we focusing on the right issues?

Diversity and HR departments also need to focus on successful outcomes and not on tactics, which are safer to measure to somehow claim success. It shouldn’t be. There is only one measurement. How many qualified minority hires were made. Punto.

Not how many diversity-themed meetings or conferences were attended or how many employee resource group activities took place or the appointment of a task force, or even menu changes in cafeterias during Hispanic Heritage Month. Those are all tactics, not outcomes.

It’s not just the companies — nonprofits and advocates also need to be more measurable in their work to diversify the industry. Companies and nonprofits mostly focus on the beginning of the pipeline instead of giving as much attention to the middle and the end, which is why you feed the beginning in the first place. And when there is talent, it needs to be developed, leveraged and put on a fast track.

Latinos in technology abound in numbers but not in jobs

startup business, woman working on laptop computer at modern office

Contrary to excuses, talent exists –as my organization proves it when we host LOFT Coder Summits across the country, attracting hundreds of Latino programmers. Unfortunately the talent that exists has been made to feel like Brown or Black unicorns with laptops. And many of the companies making excuses that there is a dearth of talent aren’t hiring the actual minorities graduating with CS degrees, many of whom are available.

According to a USA TODAY analysis, top universities turn out minority computer science/engineering graduates at twice the rate that tech companies hire them. With the anemic average of two percent African-American and three percent Latino tech workers at seven major Silicon Valley companies which have released their numbers, you would think minority CS grads would be as in demand as young left-handed pitchers with a 100 mph fastballs are to a Major League baseball team. But they aren’t.

I made this point to a member of Congress who had just met with tech giants on the diversity issue. The Representative has been supportive of the Hispanic Heritage Foundation’s work in diversifying the workforce through our innovative programs and vast network of vetted Latino talent not only in tech but also in engineering, finance, science, marketing and other fields.

So he asked why we weren’t working with more tech companies in addressing the issue. I mentioned that I had offered a solution-based effort to tech companies but they were not responsive to taking new approaches to old problems. In other words, innovative companies have not been innovative when it comes to diversity.

And I can prove it!

To prove my point, I asked the member of Congress to personally try to place one of our top Latino talented students with one of the very companies he had just met with about the diversity issue; an internship or mentorship perhaps but mostly to get this young man’s foot in the tech door.

As a first step, we identified Jaime Lopez, an outstanding Latino prospect from our LOFT (Latinos On Fast Track) Network. Jaime is currently studying engineering and computer science at Stanford University, in the backyard of Silicon Valley.

Beyond being brilliant, Jaime is a leader who understands the greater responsibility that goes along with being one of the only Latinos in the room. (I believe that if you’re placing a minority prospect, they need to be at least as qualified as those they would normally hire. Essentially, many recruiters at big companies hear Hispanic or African-American and they think there will be a drop-down in ability, which couldn’t be more false.)

Microsoft's main campus in Redmond, Washington Latinos in technology

Microsoft’s main campus in Redmond, Washington. HOLA (Hispanic Organization of Leaders in Action) has over 1000 employee members -in unspecified positions.

The Congressperson then contacted a decision-maker at a major tech company that was part of the meetings in Silicon Valley. After an encouraging conversation, the company’s contact said he would reach out to Jaime directly and bring him onboard as an intern or in some capacity. But, Jaime’s phone never rang, or vibrated or played the Romeo ringtone.

When the Congressperson followed up, the person at the company said he never called because he couldn’t get any traction internally for bringing Jaime onboard in any capacity.

Why the experiment worked and didn’t work

The experiment to place Jaime with a tech-company both worked and didn’t work. No, the talented Stanford student didn’t get placed at a tech company which, along with other tech companies, had complained about the lack of minority talent in the field. But what did work was being able to make a very strong point that even when a Congressional Member gift-wraps a sparkling Latino prospect who meets all the criteria a recruiter would dream of … there is still no action.

Maybe if we had offered Jaime’s services as a janitor or landscaper he would have been snatched up más rápido. According to a Working Partnerships USA 2014 report taking a deeper look at tech companies’ labor make up, Latino workers represent 69 percent of janitors, and 74 percent of grounds maintenance workers. Unfortunately Jaime’s education, interests and expertise don’t fit the job qualifications tech companies are hiring for … He wants to be a programmer.