In celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month, we want to honor and remind young, intelligent girls like you that everything is possible with perseverance, dedication, and confidence!
We have gathered five biographies of women in science: a pediatrician, an astronaut, an inventor, a surgeon general, and a marine biologist. Before these scientists started running the STEM world, they faced many obstacles and discrimination that, unfortunately, is way too familiar to us. However, the women you are about to read overcame every negative force that were thrown at them, and they are now history-makers – just like one day you may be!
So, grab your labcoat, put on your goggles, and prepare your big, beautiful brains to soak in some incredible inspiration and knowledge. Here are five Latinas rocking the science world!
Dr. Helen Rodriguez-Trias
Born in New York to Puerto Rican parents, Dr. Helen Rodriguez-Trias (1929 – 2001), was an award-winning pediatrician, educator, and women’s rights activist who became the first Latina president of the American Public Health Association.
A victim of racism during her childhood, Dr. Rodriguez-Trias used her experience as a motivation to excel in academics, particularly in the area of science. After her high school graduation, she studied medicine in her parents’ native land at the University of Puerto Rico where she ruled the campus as a student activist.
Following a medical degree she obtained in 1960, Dr. Rodriguez-Trias opened Puerto Rico’s first health center for newborn babies. Within three years, the center helped the death rate for newborns decreased by 50%, and had established Dr. Rodriguez-Trias a recognition in the medical community.
Ten years later, Dr. Rodriguez-Trias headed back to New York where she became involved in the Women’s Health movement. Along with being an advocate speaker for reproductive rights, Dr. Rodriguez-Trias opposed sterilization abuse, a discriminating trend in the 1970’s where clinics would purposely trick women of color into signing papers regarding permission for the doctors to eliminate their ability to conceive; therefore, the women are permanently infertile and can no longer reproduce (have kids). The issue led Dr. Rodriguez to create the Campaign to End Sterilization Abuse (CESA) and strict federal sterilization guidelines.
Dr. Rodriguez-Trias’ activism and medical doings elaborated into the 80’s and 90’s when she served as a medical director for the New York State Department of Health Aids. Along with her primary focus on women with HIV, she also nursed and treated children who were victims of abuse. Dr. Rodriguez-Trias’ commitment and dedication to women, children, and underprivileged citizens’ health won her a presidential position in the American Public Health Association, making her the first Latina president for the program! Almost a year before her death in December 2001, Dr. Rodriguez-Trias received the Presidential Citizens Medal, and she continues to be an inspiration in spirit for many Latinas. Maybe she will even inspire YOU to help people!
Dr. Ellen Ochoa
A second generation Mexican born in Los Angeles, California, Dr. Ellen Ochoa owns the title as being the first Hispanic woman to fly in space. Today, she serves as the director for NASA’s Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center.
Dr. Ochoa was always fond of science. She dreamed of exploring space since she was a schoolgirl. She graduated at the top of her high school class with the role of valedictorian, and was even offered a scholarship to Stanford University; however, she decided to attend San Diego State University, a school closer to her home, to help provide for her family.
A gifted flute player, Dr. Ochoa considered majoring in music, but chose to pursue her love of science by majoring in engineering instead. She was taunted by her peers because engineering was “no place for a woman,” and she switched her major to physics. Dr. Ochoa was finally able to attend Stanford for graduate school where she received a fellowship for her original major in engineering, and eventually earned a doctorate in electrical engineering.
Dr. Ochoa never allowed rejection to discourage her from her dreams; she applied and was denied three times to participate in the NASA Training Program. It wasn’t until 1991 she was accepted, and after two years of training, she was assigned as a mission specialist aboard the Discovery shuttle, and left Earth to become the first Hispanic woman to travel in space! In total, Dr. Ochoa logged in more than 950 hours in space throughout her four space flights. Her responsibilities during these gravity-less hours included collecting data during a study of the sun’s energy, deploying a new satellite, and developing flight software and computer hardware.
The passion for science lives on for Dr. Ochoa. She is currently the director for the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center which is operated by NASA. The second woman and the first Hispanic to achieve that position, Dr. Ochoa has definitely broken boundaries by making history and establishing her name as an important figure in astronomy. Here at Latinitas, we salute a warm gracias to Dr. Ochoa for opening so much opportunities for our space-loving, starry-eyed amigas!
Olga D. González-Sanabria
Although being an astronaut is definitely a unique and rewarding job, working on the ground can also be “out of this world.” Olga D. González-Sanabria is the highest rank Hispanic at NASA’s John H. Glenn Research Center. She also holds a creative mind which was used to invent a special variety type of battery that helps contribute power to international space stations.
Born and raised in Puerto Rico, González-Sanabria attended university in her homeland and earned a Bachelor of Science Degree in Chemical Engineering. She furthered her education in Ohio where she attended University of Toledo and obtained a Master’s Degree in the same discipline.
In 1979, González-Sanabria’s NASA career began at the Glenn Research Center as chief for the Plans and Programs Office and executive officer to the center’s director. In this job, she assisted the director and helped plan and organize Glenn’s technical and institutional programs.
González-Sanabria is a holder of a patent, a license of rights to an invention, for the creation of “Alkaline Battery Containing a Separator of a Cross-Linked Polymer of Vinyl Alcohol and Unsaturated Carboxylic Acid.” The name may sound sophisticated and difficult, but it’s in no comparison to the actual creation. This invention is incredibly important; the batteries contributes to the strong, useful power that keeps international space stations in activity.
The author and director of numerous scientific experiments, González-Sanabria has had her share on leadership positions. In 2002, she was promoted to Director of Engineering at the Glenn Center, thus making her the highest rank Hispanic at the center. Since then, she has been granted the Presidential Rank Award, YWCA Women of Achievement Award, the NASA Medal of Outstanding Leadership Award, and the Women of Color in Technology Career Achievement in Award. Way to go, chica!
Dr. Antonia Novello
Another praiseworthy Puerto Rican scientist on our list, Dr. Antonia Novello, a physician, served as the fourteenth Surgeon General of the United States of America, making her the first woman and the first Hispanic to own that title.
Dr. Novello’s inspiration to pursue a life in the curative field was caused by personal medical battles she faced as a child. Although the condition has never been specified, we know it only could’ve been corrected by surgery. She wasn’t able to be qualify for surgery until the age of 20. Dr. Novello’s childhood suffering made her promise herself that she would study hard so she can help people in the same situation.
She graduated and received a Bachelor’s Degree at the University of Puerto Rico, and then went on to receive her M.D at the same institution’s medical school. Dr. Novello earned another degree in Public Health at the John Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health. After years of studying, she insisted on furthering her knowledge by completing a medical training in nephrology, the study of kidneys, at the University of Michigan. There, Dr. Novello was also named Intern of the Year; she was the first woman to earn that title.
In the year 1978, Dr. Novello’s career begun at the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps. She joined the specific division at the National Institution of Arthritis, Metabolism, and Digestive Disorders, and soon became the deputy director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Her main concern was pediatric, or children, AIDS.
More than a decade later, former President George H. W. Bush appointed Dr. Novello as Surgeon General of the United States of America. A Surgeon General is the senior medical military officer, and Dr. Novello was the first woman and the first Hispanic to earn that title. In this position, Dr. Novello focused on issues concerning children, women, and minorities, and spoke out on many occasions about HIV/AIDs, underage drinking, tobacco industries, drug use, and health care. Latinitas definitely rank Dr. Novello high in our hearts for having the courage to speak out about important causes and making her-story!
Mei Len Sanchez
Mei Len Sanchez is a Costa Rican marine biologist and entrepreneur who founded Eco Adventures, an educational program and facility to provide awareness for children about conservation, endangered animals, and the overall protection of wildlife.
Sanchez was first intrigued by marine animals in a bittersweet epiphany during a moonlit evening in her native land Costa Rica. She witnessed a couple of sea turtles gracefully swimming upon the sandy shore to nest; Sanchez never saw an animal so majestic. Little did she know her tío, along with other poachers, were there to snatch the eggs to sell. It was then, at age 8, Sanchez knew she wanted to dedicate her life to the animals of the deep blue.
She studied rigorously, and was able to attend the University of Miami to study right near any aspiring marine biologist’s dream workplace – the ocean! Oddly, Sanchez’s senior thesis was based on lizards; this was most likely because it’s in relation to Sanchez’s fondness of alligators. Nonetheless, she received her Bachelor’s Degree in Marine Biology and Science.
Sanchez’s degree and passion for animals opened many opportunities for her, including working at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, the National Audubon Society, and the Miami Seaquarium. She became such a great speaker and advocate for her admiration for the ocean and the living things residing in it, she eventually convinced her tío to stop poaching! Any animal lover can agree that that’s a huge victory.
When she became a new mother, she took a long-time off work to dedicate her time to parenting. However, this wouldn’t last long. Eco Adventures was opened in the state of Maryland by Sanchez, who also serves as executive director, to inform youth about conservation and wildlife. The facility operates after school programs and summer camps in their replicated underwater and rainforest discovery rooms.
Sanchez earned numerous awards and recognition in the past few years. She has been featured in the Baltimore Times in celebration of Women’s History Month, and Latina Magazine as one of the many inspirational Hispanic women in the science field. And here she is – the last, but certainly not least, scientist on OUR list to inspire you!