In putting together my thoughts for Hispanic Heritage Month, I called on my old friend Dr. Jose (Joe) V. Martinez. Joe has worked for over three decades at the Department of Energy, first as research program manager in the department’s Office of Science and now as senior science advisor in the same office. Joe hails from Arizona, earned his Ph.D. from Oregon State University, and completed postdoctoral work at Cornell University. As he rose through the U.S. higher-education system, he "couldn’t help noticing how few Hispanics there are in the sciences and engineering." This led to a lifelong commitment to opening up opportunities in those fields for Latinos and other minorities. Among his many notable achievements in this area, Joe was a founder and past president of SACNAS, the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science.
The problems he faced were stark, as revealed by data from the U.S. census that show that only 13 percent of the Hispanic population age twenty-five and older currently hold a bachelor’s degree or higher. Of those degrees, only small percentages--5 to 8--are in science or technical fields. Only 2 percent of U.S. Hispanics work in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics)-related jobs, compared to 5 percent of the total U.S. population.
Underlying these discouraging statistics are multiple disadvantages, ranging from poverty and language problems to poor education and lack of mentors. In truth, this is not just a problem for Hispanic Americans. America’s future competitiveness and innovation will depend on its ability to draw Hispanics, who according to the U.S. Census Bureau, are the fastest-growing and already the largest minority population, into the ranks of scientists and engineers. And, of course, out of this pool will come many of the nation’s future inventors.
Despite these numbers, Joe Martinez remains optimistic. Well-meaning people can make all the difference, he believes. Early on he appreciated that mentors and positive role models were critical to developing a scientific career, and he detects a similar attitude among other Hispanics who have made successful careers in science, technology, and medicine.
Take the case of Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa, today a top neurosurgeon at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. (Read an interview with him in the New York Times.) After his family fell into poverty in the late 1980s, he made his way from his home in Mexicali, Mexico, to the U.S. border and, as he phrased it, "hopped the fence." He struggled as a young illegal immigrant in California, first as a farm laborer and then loading fish and sulfur onto freight cars. After being taken under the wing of a caring speech and debate coach at San Joaquin Delta Community College, however, his life took a dramatic turn. From there it was on to the University of California at Berkeley and Harvard Medical School, which, by the way, he found easy compared to working in the fields.
Astronaut José Hernández also started out as a migrant worker, spending much of his childhood traveling with his family between Mexico and Stockton, California. His inspiration was Franklin Chang-Díaz, raised in Costa Rica and the first Hispanic American to travel in space. "I was always interested in science and engineering," Hernandez recalls, but hearing stories about Chang-Díaz turned his gaze upward. Along the way, he earned degrees in electrical engineering and worked at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where he helped develop a digital mammography imaging system for the early detection of breast cancer. While applying to the astronaut corps, he came before a review board, where he finally met the man who inspired him in the first place, Franklin Chang-Díaz. The chain of command had become a chain of inspiration. Here perhaps is one key to bringing the untapped wealth of Hispanic American talent to the center of American engineering and innovation, where it both belongs and needs to be.
From Prototype, September 2009