June 2010

Hispanics and the Future of America

When you consider the fact that approximately 33 percent of the current U.S. population is represented by Blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans, the underrepresentation of these groups in the sciences is unconscionable. Moreover, with significant increases expected in the Hispanic population over the next 25 years, the underrepresentation of minorities, and, in particular, Hispanics, will continue to plague our country and our entire scientific enterprise. Significantly, this issue will remain at all levels of academia— i.e. in populations of students, academic faculty, health professionals, administration officials and, of course, professional scientific societies such as the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

John F. Alderete, professor at Washington State University, gave a talk at the 2009 Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers conference as part of the Advancing Hispanic Excellence in Technology, Engineering, Math and Science Distinguished Lecture Series. In the lecture, Alderete discussed the state of education in the Hispanic community and its effects on the country. This presentation is very relevant to the current and future goals of ASBMB, and, as such, the ASBMB Minority Affairs Committee has reproduced an excerpt from his talk below.

John F. Alderete, professor at Washington State University.

You are part of a new America. The diversity represented in this new global village must learn to work together if our nation and the American dream are to survive. Although we no longer look like the America of a hundred years ago, we need to make it clear that we want to preserve the American dream, making it better, more secure and more accessible to more of our citizens. We must work together to make our nation and world safer for diversity.

Today, Latinos represent 15 percent of the American population. Before 2050, we’ll be 30 percent.

Between 2000 and 2006, the U.S. population grew by 6 percent, Latinos grew by nearly 25 percent.

Today, the median U.S. age is 37 years old. The median age for Latinos is 27 years old.

From 1990 to 2013, the buying power of white Americans will grow 200 percent. Latino buying power will grow 560 percent.

In the next 10 years, we’ll experience a net growth in the labor force of 77 percent. Latinos will be part of the labor work force because we are young and do not belong to the highest Ph.D. levels in university, government or industry science, technology, engineering and mathematics research.

One recent study revealed that Latino children start life at an intellectual level on par with other American children, but, by age 2, they are already behind in linguistic and cognitive skills. We have a large percentage of Latina moms with less formal schooling. This means that their children receive lower quality reading activities, vocabulary, educational games and math, which should begin as early as three months after birth. The language gap between white and Latino students remains unbelievably large, inhibiting full participation in democracy and high level achievement.

MAC Spotlights Minority Researchers in New Web Feature

The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Minority Affairs Committee has added a new feature to its website to highlight the life and work of minorities in the biological sciences.

Launched in April, the site spotlights a different scientist each month. The researchers are given the following nine questions, and the answers are posted on the site:

1. Can you tell us about your current career position.
2. What are the key experiences and decisions you made that have helped you reach your current position?
3. How did you first become interested in science?
4. Were there times when you failed at something you felt was critical to your path?  If so, how did you regroup and get back on track?
5. What advice would you give to young persons from under-represented backgrounds who want to pursue a career in science similar to yours?
6. What are your hobbies?
7. What was the last book you read?
8. Do you have any heroes, heroines, or role models? If so, can you describe how they have influenced you?
9. What is it that keeps you working hard and studying science everyday?

John F. Alderete, whose talk at the 2009 Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers conference was featured in the main article in this column, was the highlighted scientist for April.

Marion Sewer, associate professor in the Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of California, San Diego, was the MAC featured scientist for May

I recently learned that the national retention rate for underrepresented minority engineering students is approximately 35 percent. The corresponding rate of nonminority engineering students is approximately 70 percent. This means that one of three white students won’t graduate, whereas two in three underrepresented minority students won’t graduate, and, if they do, it won’t be in a science field.

With respect to the educational apartheid, we should be righteously indignant and unapologetic in our anger. The question is, what role will you play in America’s future? In education? In solving the most urgent national and global problems that only engineers, chemists, physicists and science can address?

Your bachelor’s degree isn’t an end but a beginning. If the issue is being poor, then stay poor and continue your graduate education, which will provide more financial security. If you must get a job, get one that assures continued education toward a Ph.D., the highest degree conferred upon a human being.

In order to be a competitive Hispanic STEM student, you must be focused, completely absorbed in your coursework. The word “competitive” means that you will have what it takes to become someone special. Someone special gets accepted into graduate school. Someone special sets himself or herself apart by virtue of graduating in four years with a better than 3.0 GPA. Someone special has gained research experience in a laboratory. Someone special does not compromise his or her grades by becoming overextended in minority student-run organizations. If you want to be a competitive leader, get good grades. Go above and beyond required courses, taking additional and tougher courses. Go to departmental seminars. If a National Academy inductee or Nobel laureate is the invited speaker, you need to attend, even if he or she doesn’t look like you, and you don’t understand the subject.

I am one of the few Chicano/Latino scientists in our country, and I have a privileged life. Imagine a life where you can make a discovery that improves the health of people. Imagine being invited to give talks at universities all over the world and giving a talk in the same lecture room once used by Albert Einstein. All this, and much, much more was possible for this poor Mexican American because I was anchored to my culture— a refuge to which I could always return. It is a culture that valued education.

You too can experience all of this. Higher education opens many doors. Each of us has to do something— just some small ripple— to help one another, our families, our community and our nation. When it comes to you and education at the highest levels, “Si, se puede.” 

Thomas Landefeld (tlandefeld@csudh.edu) is a biology professor at California State University Dominguez Hills.

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