Carving our paths as Minority Scientists
by Cathy Amaya
As far as I can remember, I’ve been in love with math and art. Math for its decisiveness, either the answer is 129 or it’s not. Art because there could be 129 books on the shelf of a new elementary school, 129 oranges that a retired gardener needs to sell, or 129 recipes a novice baker is working their way through, and they are all stories that deserve to be told. When I discovered chemistry in high school, a discipline that uses math and the laws of physics to understand the tiny molecules that build the beauty of the world and stories happening around us, my heart was set on studying this field.
I am a first-generation Salvadoran American college graduate. Statistically, I should not have made it to where I am, but I was privileged to have had the right teachers throughout my education who acknowledged my fascination with numbers. “You could be an engineer,” said my fourth-grade teacher. I had no idea what an engineer was, but I knew you probably had to go to college to do something that sounded so fancy. My headstrong fourth-grade self decided I would go to college one day if it meant I could keep doing math. It takes a certain stubbornness to have thought I had the right application for being admitted to top colleges, and to attend Amherst College in Massachusetts when I had never set foot on a campus outside of Miami (or in snow), a certain stubbornness to decide to ignore classmates saying, “Oh, you’re Hispanic, that’s why you’re so bad at physics,” and keep studying. A certain stubbornness to be the first in my family to graduate college and decide that scientific research is my passion. The key to this stubbornness, though, is that I have not been fighting alone. The support from my teachers and mentors from elementary to college who said, “You can do this!” was the encouragement I needed to keep pursuing my love of chemistry.
How many talented Latinx students don’t have a friend or mentor to say, “You can do this!”? A lot. Many Latinx students who enroll in even top colleges and universities don’t graduate. This is why I am committed to a career that will help these students, students like me, who are trying to carve their paths. I want to become a professor, but more importantly, I want to be a mentor who encourages these students’ desires to pursue higher education and fuels the talent they have. The best support system we have is each other, other Latinx students who can say, “If I can do it, you can do it.” Having one friendly face that came from a similar background and is achieving the same goals makes a world of a difference because it allows us to pictures ourselves there, too. By sharing our struggles and experiences with each other, I believe we can lift some of these students’ fears, and show that it is necessary to ask for help and that help exists. Helping each other succeed, we will continue building the community of talented, diverse scientists we dream about.
She is currently a second-year graduate student in the Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry Department at Yale University. She works on the morphology of the endoplasmic reticulum. She received her Bachelor’s in Chemistry from Amherst College, where she discovered her interest in the intersection between chemistry and biology. After graduation, she worked as a lab technician at MIT for two years. Cathy is passionate about mentoring future generations of underrepresented scientists and hopeful that we can work together to address the problem of lack of representation of underrepresented minorities in higher education.