Hispanic Heritage Month

Johnson Space Center Director Ellen Ochoa. Photo Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett. Licensed under CC by-NC 2.0, via Flickr.

September 15–October 15 has been designated Hispanic Heritage Month, a period dedicated to celebrating the contributions, culture, and history of people whose ancestors came from Mexico, Spain, Latin America, South America, and the Caribbean. To mark the occasion, here are short biographies of four Latinos currently working at the top of their STEM fields:

  • Ellen Ochoa: Ellen Ochoa, a Mexican-American born in California, studied physics and electrical engineering in school and then went on to work at the Sandia National Laboratories. In 1993, she became the first Latina in space when she served aboard the space shuttle Discovery. Ochoa completed three more missions, including two that docked with the International Space Station, logging nearly 1,000 hours in space. She holds patents on three optical devices that she helped invent and is the former Chief of the Intelligent Systems Technology Branch at NASA's Ames Research Center. Since 2013, she has served as Director of the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.
  • Luis Von Ahn: Luis Von Ahn grew up in Guatemala City and came to the United States to study mathematics and computer science 20 years ago. Currently the A. Nico Habermann Associate Professor of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University, Von Ahn is a pioneer of human computation and crowdsourcing, using both humans and computers to solve complex problems neither can easily solve alone. A former MacArthur Fellow, he has helped develop a number of programs you've probably seen: CAPTCHA and its successors are the text and picture-recognition programs regularly used by websites in order to prove users are humans. reCAPTCHA is a similar program, which is also being used to decipher text and images in maps, books, and other digital files. His current project is Duolingo, a gaming app that helps users learn a foreign language.
  • Luis Jorge Rivera Herrera: Luis Jorge Rivera Herrera, who grew up in Puerto Rico, studied environmental science and environmental planning and went to work for the Environmental Protection Agency. Learning that megaresorts were planned for the Northeast Ecological Corridor, a 3,000-acre area of pristine oceanfront land along the north coast of Puerto Rico home to more than 50 rare species, including the leatherback turtle, he helped lead the campaign to protect the area from development. With the passage of bills in 2012 and 2013 that designate the area a protected nature reserve, Rivera Herrera has turned his attention to securing funding to help the government purchase the private lands in the corridor and to helping promote the area as an ecotourism destination. He received the 2016 Goldman Environmental Prize for his work.
  • Sabrina Gonzalez Pasterski: A first-generation Cuban-American from Chicago, Sabrina Gonzalez Pasterski is just 23 years old. A graduate of MIT, she is currently studying quantum gravity, black holes, string theory, and spacetime at Harvard University while pursuing her Ph.D. She has been named one of 30 scientists under 30 by both Scientific American and Forbes, was declared a Rising Star by OZY, holds current fellowships from both the National Science Foundation and the Hertz Foundation, and has a standing job offer from Amazon's Jeff Bezos. An avid motorcyclist and aviator, Gonzalez Pasterski built and flew solor her first plane at the age of 14. She has published many papers, including three cited by Stephen Hawking, is a referee for the open-source journal Journal of High Energy Physics, and is highly sought after as a speaker.
If you want to learn more about work Hispanic scientists have done, check out this blog post on The History of Science in Latin America and the Caribbean (HOSLAC) project.

The Northeast Ecological Corridor is not far from El Yunque, America's only tropical forest. Check out this Spotlight on Science Writers post from Susan L. Roth and Cindy Trumbore, who wrote the award-winning picture book Parrots Over Puerto Rico.

The Images of Science lesson helps students understand the diversity of science, both in terms of the work and the people engaged in the work.

In the Immigration lesson, students will explore some of the effects that immigration in the United States, including from Mexico to Texas, has had on immigrants and American society as a whole.

In the Problem-Solving Lizard episode of Science Update, listen to Manuel Leal, a behavioral ecologist at Duke University, talk about anole lizards native to Puerto Rico.

In the Cactus Water Filter episode of Science Update, listen to Norma Alcantar, a chemist at the University of South Florida, talk about prickly pear cactus pulp.

If you want to learn more about the accomplishments of Chicano/Latino and Native American scientists, check out the SACNAS (Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science) Biography Project.


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