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Making STEM Accessible for Underrepresented Scientists

Updated: Feb 26, 2021

This week we have TWO special guests for Grad Chat by PhD Balance, co-founders of Científico Latino - Robert W. Fernandez, PhD and Olivia Goldman!

Robert's Introduction

Hello, my name is Robert W. Fernandez, PhD (he/him). I am a proud Latinx scientist and a former undocumented immigrant from Lima, Peru who grew up in New Jersey. Today, I am a postdoctoral scientist at Columbia University and co-founder of Científico Latino.

My path to science was not a traditional one as I started my education at community college where I received an Associate of Arts Degree in Business Administration. During my last year at community college, I took a biology course where I met my first mentor who fueled my passion in the biological sciences. I decided to pursue a career in the sciences, while I did not know what exactly I was going to do in STEM, I told myself that I will figure this out along the way. Finding a 4-year college that accepted undocumented students and was financially affordable was difficult at first, but I was lucky to find that York College, City University of New York was welcoming for us. At York College was where everything changed for the better, no more uncertainty in what I can do with a STEM degree along with mentors that will prepare me for a career in STEM.

It was through chance that a research career opened up as my biology lab instructor, Dr. Anne F. Simon, asked me if I thought about doing research. My first research experience studying the social behavior of fruit flies in the lab of Dr. Simon opened so many doors to me. I learned the impact of a good mentor as I became an independent scientist, went on to do a summer research program at Princeton University, present at research conferences, have my research published, and be proud of speaking about my undocumented story.

I received my Bachelor of Science Degree in Biotechnology at York College and went on to do a PhD in Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry at Yale University. My thesis research was on mapping neurotransmitter GPCRs in the C. elegans egg-laying circuit in the lab of Dr. Michael R. Koelle. My time at Yale transformed me into a scientist who is passionate about mentoring undergraduate students to become independent scientists. Furthermore, I worked with my co-founder, Olivia Goldman and amazing scientists to help underrepresented and disadvantaged scientists reach higher education in STEM through Científico Latino.

Olivia's Introduction

My name is Olivia Goldman (she/her/hers). I’m a fourth-year graduate student at Rockefeller University where I study sensory perception of mosquitoes in Dr. Leslie Vosshall's lab. I’m co-founder of Científico Latino, an organization committed to providing open-access resources to underrepresented groups in the STEM disciplines.

I became a scientist out of a love for problem-solving and diving into deeper explanations of how things work. I became fascinated by sensory perception and the interface between our internal and external world. The divide between the internal and external world also represents one of my earliest obstacles as a scientist – internally, I felt like a scientist, but externally other people never seemed to see or treat me that way.

People in science too often judge young people or question their intelligence – in my case, for presenting as too feminine. This was really anxiety-inducing for me as an early scientist and caused me to struggle a lot with my self-image when I became more serious about my scientific career. There is a high tax of not presenting traditional external cues or (learned) behavioral signifiers of “intelligence” in science, where perception of your “intelligence” is synonymous to your value. I felt constantly demoralized by being underestimated and having to prove myself in order to overcome people’s expectations of me. Even when I felt happy with who I was, I felt the pressure from the scientific community to hide elements of the way I behaved or felt most comfortable presenting myself. This, of course, extends to anyone who doesn’t conform to stereotypes of what a scientist “should be”, “should look like” or who didn’t have the benefit of having mentors teach them the (complex) culture of language and behaviors that scientists look for when evaluating young scientists.

Science is the pursuit of finding answers no one has ever found before – and anyone, particularly people from unconventional and diverse perspectives, should not only be allowed to try in the pursuit of scientific questions – they should be celebrated for it. At Científico Latino, we strive to make STEM careers and the culture of science more approachable, manageable and welcoming to people from underrepresented backgrounds.


Dr Robert Fernandez and Olivia Goldman will be our Grad Chat special guests tomorrow to talk about Making STEM Accessible for Underrepresented Scientists. You can join the Youtube Livestream on Saturday (01/23) using this link or catch up on the NEW Grad Chat podcast published each Tuesday here!

To find out more about Cientifico Latino, visit their website or Twitter!


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