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Program to develop Latino scientists
builds on role models, mentors
April 13, 1998

Manuel Marquez has been a researcher in chemistry for more than 10 years. This experience has brought him to dozens of labs, classrooms and conferences. Yet he has noticed a consistent omission: only a small percentage of the people working, studying, or presenting are Latinos..

For Marquez, a research associate in the chemistry department, the dearth of scientists with Hispanic origins is indicative of widespread problems of perception and expectations.

"What do young Latinos have for role models?" he says. "Actors, athletes, and musicians. No scientists. And the perception that's sold by Hollywood is even worse. According to the movies, which are so influential to young people, we are all criminals and drug dealers. That has an effect on perceptions that reaches well beyond the Latino community."

Marquez knew this wasn't a problem he could solve on his own. But he and some colleagues wanted to do something to bring more Latinos into graduate studies in the sciences and position them as mentors and role models for other Latinos. Their desire has blossomed into a fellowship program called Ciencia & Hispanidad. This nonprofit organization is designed to fund and place Latino graduate students in research fellowships at major American universities.

Since its founding in 1991, the program has grown from offering just one fellowship to this year's total of 35. American universities hosting these students include UConn, Carnegie-Mellon, Stamford, Yale, Rice, the Universities of Houston, California-Riverside and Nebraska, and Florida-Atlantic University. As part of the arrangement, the students involved become mentors to other prospective Latino scientists.

"It has become something that is very dynamic," Marquez says. "We are really proud of what we have created, and we are looking now for ways to expand it even more."

Focus on Research
Marquez says the idea for Ciencia & Hispanidad grew out of conversations he had with fellow researchers Gustavo Larsen and Carlos Gonsalez. Larsen, now a faculty member at the University of Nebraska, was in Yale's doctoral program at the same time as Marquez. Gonsalez, who now works at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), was a researcher at Carnegie Mellon University's Pittsburgh Super Computer Center. Their hope was to create a one-year fellowship to sponsor Latino students from around the world. The fellowship would focus purely on research and learning, while eschewing the teaching assistant duties that traditionally accompany graduate study.

"Finding funding for this idea was extremely difficult," Marquez says. "Many of the funding agencies we approached said it was a good idea, but they did not want to give us money for it."

Believing they had hit a wall with traditional funding outlets, Marquez and his colleagues instead appealed directly to the governments of the prospective students. The appeal worked and, in 1991, the first student in the fellowship enrolled at Carnegie-Mellon. Since then the program has expanded dramatically..

"For me, it has been wonderful that something like this exists," says Javier Garces, a graduate student in chemistry from Colombia who is one of three fellows in the program currently studying at UConn. Four others from past one-year fellowships are still enrolled as graduate students here.

"This is an outstanding university," Garces adds. "I am getting involved with high-level research. I could not have received this kind of training in my country."

Garces and another fellow from Colombia, Beatriz Himcapie, are working with Marquez on a joint project with Yale researcher Mark Reed, exploring how to integrate nanotechnology. Their hope is to create molecular circuits that can carry electrical currents in the same manner as metal wires. They are also involved in a separate study involving Carbon 60.

Marquez says that creating positive role models in science has always been important. However, it is becoming an increasingly urgent need among Latinos. He cites a recent study published in the journal Hispanic Engineer stating that Hispanics now constitute 10 percent of the U.S. population and that, by 2002, 20 percent of the students in American schools will be Hispanic.

"And yet the current dropout rate for Hispanics is 35 percent, the highest among all ethnic groups," he says. "We need to show Hispanic youths what is possible, that they can be scientists or physicians or anything they want. This program is one step toward doing that."

David Pesci