Nicole E. Cabrera Salazar discusses diversity in STEM fields

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Aug 28, 2017

One of my passions as a science communicator is to elevate the voices of women in STEM fields, which is why I’m so excited to introduce the Fangrrls audience to Nicole E. Cabrera Salazar. Nicole has a Ph.D. in Astronomy, but her current work isn't centered on science research. Instead, she's decided to focus on inequality within the scientific establishment in terms of demographics.

Navigating a STEM path can be fraught under the best of circumstances. When there are no mentors who can speak to your experience in regard to gender, skin color, socioeconomic status and more, it can become even more challenging. It is a real barrier to people from diverse backgrounds pursuing STEM for the long term, and it’s one that Nicole is tackling as hard as she can.

You can find Nicole on Twitter at @jazztronomy, on Instagram at @scientificamericat, or on her website.

Tell me about your professional life. What do you do? Do you juggle multiple roles?

After recently obtaining my Ph.D. in Astronomy, I’m transitioning away from research and combining my background in STEM with my passion for social justice. As a Latina and First Generation college student, it was difficult to navigate the scientific path without many visible role models -- I want to ensure that students like me have fewer barriers to their STEM careers.

Right now that means carving new paths for myself. For instance, I recently developed and facilitated a series of empowerment workshops for black and brown astronomy students at the Banneker and Aztlán Institutes at Harvard. I’m also currently investigating the demographic makeup of the Origin of Life field. This field employs multidisciplinary approaches to learn how life on Earth began, yet is behind other STEM fields in terms of diversity and inclusion of marginalized groups. At the Georgia State University Multicultural Center, I am developing a program to support homeless, displaced, and food insecure students.

Can you tell me about how you got to where you are professionally? What was your path to becoming a scientist?

I became interested in science after visiting the Kennedy Space Center in the 6th grade. My parents got me a small telescope that year, but it sat in a closet collecting dust because I didn’t have someone to show me how to use it. It wasn’t until after completing a research internship in Hawaii in my junior year of college that I decided to pursue astronomy as a career. Many of my peers knew exactly what they wanted to do from a very young age, but I did not have access to the same people or exposure to science outside of school. I’m very fortunate that I had good mentors along the way to guide me down the path to science.

Can you speak specifically about your journey as a woman in the sciences? What obstacles have you faced? Have you had help from other women?

Many of the obstacles I’ve faced in science, especially as a woman of color, have been very subtle. Because the negative experiences are hard to put your finger on, it’s difficult to recognize it when it happens. Just being the only woman in a physics classroom sends a powerful message: that you don’t belong there. After many years, it starts to creep its way into the part of your brain that contains your identity: you start to think you’re an imposter. You don’t see other black or brown women around you succeeding, so you figure it must be true. If your consciousness never awakens to the fact that this is a social phenomenon -- not your personal fault -- you eventually give up.

Of course, there are other more egregious experiences as well. At my first research conference, my advisor’s research colleague asked me to come back to his hotel room. This was after he displayed interest in my research, so of course, I thought my work must never have been that great. In graduate school, I was told that I was more passionate about baking than I was about research, which was very discouraging. When I was about to defend my dissertation, a faculty member questioned me about planning a celebratory reception: “You’re doing all that just for your defense?” It made me feel like what I had accomplished was trivial, unworthy of being celebrated.

Luckily, my best friend Sarah was enrolled in a different Ph.D. program at the same time. She is a few years older, so every time I went through something difficult she was able to give me her perspective from the other side. She validated my feelings and helped me see that my experiences were common. You’d think that would be sort of depressing (and it is), but there was also comfort in knowing that there wasn’t some inherent flaw or incapacity of mine to blame. Sadly, I didn’t meet another woman of color in astronomy until my 5th year of grad school; that was when my support network really expanded. If I had had access to people like that in my field early on, I would definitely still be pursuing research.

Talk to me a little about your current projects.

My passion project right now is mentoring and creating content for early career scientists of color. I recently attended a workshop called Radical Self-Care in Academia by Dr. Gholnecsar Muhammad, Dr. Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz, and Dr. Arash Daneshzadeh, and it helped me reframe my journey through STEM as a continuation of the legacy my ancestors left behind. This is in stark contrast to the way marginalized people are usually taught to view their place in STEM: as an anomaly, a magnanimous opportunity we should be grateful for. Science can be so much more rewarding when you are grounded in your own identity when the hidden contributions and intellect and success of your people are revealed to you.

I’m in the process of building a consulting business that evaluates workplace climates in the STEM sector. This includes STEM departments within universities, research labs, and even tech startups and companies, which are some of the least inclusive and diverse workplaces in STEM. I think that aside from empowering minoritized people, it’s important to lay the groundwork for success in their fields, with their future bosses and co-workers. Analyzing and evaluating the culture of a company or department, providing recommendations, and offering training services would allow me to use my research skills to create positive social impact.

What’s your favorite part of your job?

The best part is being able to connect with students and provide support that I didn’t have at that stage. I get to be the person I most needed back then, and it’s definitely cathartic for me. It also gives me so much hope to work with young scientists. They are brilliant and so much more socially conscious than I was, which shows me they will go really far in life. They are not just succeeding by themselves, they are building communities and lifting others as they climb. It is easy to get discouraged in these times, and my students are the ultimate antidote to that.

Do you have any advice for young women — or even women who are looking at a second career — about becoming a scientist?

I want young women, especially those on multiple axes of oppression, to understand that social injustices present in the world will be replicated in scientific fields because we the purveyors of research are all flawed human beings. At the same time, it’s important to understand that the path to science does not have to be draining or discouraging. There are ways to navigate the system and not just survive but thrive. Seeking community within and outside of your field, creating a support network of mentors, peers, and mentees, self-care, and staying connected to your values can make this process exciting and purposeful.