Puerto Rican Engineering Student and Her Journey as a Latin Woman in STEM
Written By: Natasha M. Mejias-Ramirez (Guest Writer)
"STEM careers allow you to learn and be a part of amazing things. The road can be, and probably is, more complicated than you may have imagined, but the satisfaction of a woman contributing in such a great way to the world, will be greater." - Leishka D. Crespo Dátiz
Low representation of Latin women in STEM careers is a widely discussed matter. Many suggest that the disparity in STEM fields is a result of negative conducts imparted from teachers to students at school. Many times, young girls are not taught to think of themselves as equally capable and intelligent as their male counterparts, or they’re simply not exposed to the true variety of career opportunities that are available to them. Some professionals propose that the social equity battle that takes place in the work environment for Latinas specifically is the result of self-doubt regarding their capabilities based on cultural, societal and lingual limitations.
In order to promote inclusivity among all women in STEM careers, celebrating and supporting the amazing women who have succeeded in STEM careers, as well as those who are working their way there, is vital. It is important -- especially for the Latino community -- to inspire young girls by showing them what they can accomplish and to assure them that their dreams and goals are valid too.
“Feminist activism, women in politics, the integration of women in sports and careers that imply strength, the idea that the intelligence that women possess can achieve beyond what is seen as a norm, women in science, business women, military forces and many others, are all part of that role model that I wanted, and still want, to follow,” says Leishka D. Crespo Dátiz, a chemical engineering undergraduate student at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez Campus. Dátiz feels that engineering has always been her calling; even as a young girl, she always looked for things to fix around her house. “Some of them were crazy ideas, but most of the time I ended up solving the problem,” she comments.
In high school, Dátiz participated in an engineering workshop sponsored by the Women in Engineering Organization (WIE) at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayaguez Campus. There, she was part of a chemical engineering competition which challenged participants to create a water filter with basic materials found in the home. Dátiz won first place, and her interest in chemical engineering grew. “I think that was the predetermined moment where I said, ‘Engineering is what I want.’. Knowing that chemical engineering seeks to develop better products, making life easier and better for others, made me incline for this career and I do not regret it.” she says.
Last fall semester, Dátiz worked as an intern at NASA-Kennedy Space Center in the analytical laboratories division. There, it was her task to develop a characterization method for lunar regolith, a simulation that was to identify mineral composition of a sample similar to the moon’s soil. Future expeditions will have to be self-sufficient and must be able to use the resources available at the site to support human habitation. The lunar regolith could be used as a building material because of its mineral composition.
Like many girls, Leishka once believed that finding an internship at NASA would have been an unattainable feat. “This opportunity has allowed me to understand that in order to achieve the extraordinary, you have to get out of what we see every day, think out of the box, work extra and explore your own limits in order to reach the discovery of amazing things that many do not know,” she says. When talking about her experience at KSC, she mentioned that she felt grateful that she was able to see so many women represented there. “I was able to meet women who work almost anonymously but with a great role and women who have reached high positions in the agency and who have participated in spectacular work and missions within the KSC. Seeing women achieve such great things in these times fills me with pride”, she concludes. Her experience at NASA also allowed her to see many other projects at KSC, which produced an interest towards other fields of science, like aerospace engineering.
When asked about her path in a STEM career, Leishka acknowledges that she felt privileged to have been able to develop herself as a professional in her career of choice but confessed to have held herself back in the work environment. “I do feel that I have been limiting myself a little in terms of verbal communication because there are words in English that are not in my mind every day, since in my country I am used to [speaking] in my native language, Spanish. It takes me time to think how to communicate my opinion in the best way or if it’s easier not to,” she says. Having been born in Puerto Rico, Leishka was raised as a proud “Boricua” in a Spanish-speaking home, and for many Latinas just like her, this predicament is not uncommon. Language is an intangible barrier for many because of where they come from, but it should not be an obstacle for achieving their goals.
As a Puerto Rican undergraduate student in engineering, Leishka feels it is important to advocate for Latinas and their place in STEM careers. It is inspiring to see other women crushing it in STEM careers, especially Latinas, when it is part of your heritage and culture. “Being a Latin woman in STEM feels powerful. Many times, we Latinas think that acquiring great jobs is a matter of culture and the place where you are born, but no, it is not. We are capable of influencing the world with our strength to do things. Every time, I heard the Latin accent in my work it was inevitable not to look or ask where they were from. We, Latinas, can reach great nations, traveling the world with our intelligence and that “sazón” that we put into things,” she says proudly.
Leishka also thinks young girls should be exposed to opportunities related to STEM careers that might help them decide their futures, like she had when she was in high school, and that they should be confident and fearless about making that decision. When asked to comment on the importance of women in STEM, she simply said, “Women are full of art and creativity, and many projects do not have that. They are based on previous models or modified versions of the competition companies. I guarantee, if companies include more women or make them leads of design teams, research and idea suggestions, it will lead to innovative solutions, different from what the standard presents most of the time… and the world still needs to see that.”
This is just one of the many inspirational stories from the Latin community, and it is our duty and right to promote, support, and celebrate all of them. It is especially important to share the ones about the amazing Latin women, like Leishka, who are currently making big changes in the STEM community. We must put their faces and accomplishments out there so that young girls can see and understand the place we hold in this space, right beside non-Latin women in STEM who are changing the modern world, just the same.