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Science scholarships help Hispanic students overcome barriers

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Many Hispanic students lack the financial resources and role models essential to pursuing a degree in science, technology, engineering and math.

Not only is science cool, but we’re going to give you money to study it.

That was the message sent to a group of students awarded scholarships from the Alliance/Merck Cienca (Science) Hispanic Scholars Program last month. The program, supported by a $4 million grant from the Merck Company Foundation, aims to improve access for Hispanic students to higher education in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Among the pursuits of the first recipients: mechanical engineering, a Pluto space mission, biomedical engineering, coastal ecology and neuroscience.

Last week I talked to Dr. Carlo Parravano, the long-time executive director of the Merck Institute for Science Education, which runs the program with the National Alliance for Hispanic Health and the  Health Foundation for the Americas.

What are some of the barriers faced today by Hispanic students interested in STEM?

The major barrier is a financial one. A number of surveys show higher education is very highly prized and respected among Hispanic parents. There’s no question that Hispanic parents and students really do want to apply and go to college.

Another barrier is that a number of Hispanic students come from schools that do not have very strong math and science programs, and they are not encouraged to pursue math and science tracks. So in college, they find themselves not prepared well in terms of having had the basic science and math courses.

Finally, there is a lack of role models for Hispanic students, as well as students of other ethnicities. If they had more role models, they’d appreciate and value the diversity of choices they have.

How will programs like this one help the U.S. become more competitive globally?

I’m hopeful that students will discover that science is a very powerful vehicle through which we can improve our own lives and other people’s lives. Science is fundamental in treatment of disease, development of technologies to purify and distribute water, building of bigger and better computers. We need not only scientists but policy makers, journalists and so on who understand science.

Students are naturally drawn to some areas of science more than others. What are the hot areas now?

From what I’ve seen, students are drawn to areas of science that seem to have the greatest impact on them. They are also very socially conscious. So those areas are life sciences and the environment. Today, there are a lot of student groups looking at how human activity impacts the environment. On the other hand, there’s not as much interest in areas like engineering, physics and chemistry—where a strong background in mathematics is needed.

What makes a good scientist?

They’re persistent. If an experiment doesn’t work, they try it again and again and again. May students today they lack that persistence. Also, a good scientist is curious, has the ability to think critically and ask good questions, and has a healthy skepticism about data--not being willing to accept someone saying, “This is just the way it is.”

What’s the impact of these scholarship on the winners?

The winners have been provided with financial scholarships to apply to their tuition. Some will also have the opportunity every summer in college to do an internship where they can actually practice science in their college or university’s lab. Becoming part of a research community will give them a sense of how exciting and stimulating doing science can be. They will each also have a mentor—a faculty member or a Hispanic doctor or scientist. We really tried to address all the major barriers when we designed the scholarship.

Who/what inspired you when you were a student?

I was born in Italy. My father and grandfather were both chemists. And now I’m a chemist. It’s in my genes. I was so impressed with my father when I was a child. Just about any question I would ask him—how something worked, why the sky was blue—he would be able to answer or he’d work with me to find out the answer. And he just loved his work. It was clear to me that choosing science as a career had the potential to lead to a fulfilling life.

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Melanie D.G. Kaplan

Contributing Editor

Melanie D.G. Kaplan is a Washington, D.C.- based journalist. She is a regular contributor to The Washington Post and National Parks Magazine. Her website is www.melaniedgkaplan.com. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure