Pursuing science as a young Latina in the South Bronx is taboo. Here’s why I refuse to give up.
by Emmie Lopez
Every morning, I start my day with the love and support of my mother. Her gentle whisper of the bendiciones –“Que dios me la bendiga” — is empowering encouragement against the chaotic noise of the day.
My mother is a strong and independent woman, who has dedicated her life to helping me pursue my aspirations of becoming a doctor. Working as a medical assistant, she had a natural curiosity about the intricacy of the human body. Her natural abilities to solve analytical abstract problems would put Dr. Gregory House to shame. She would have been a great doctor or even a great lawyer — either of these two professions she would have passionately used to help people. When my mother had both my sisters and me, it would prove difficult to go back to school and get her a medical degree. As a result, she instead used her talents and commitment at work to give us the opportunity and education she was unable to complete.
But pursuing studies in the sciences as a young Latina in the South Bronx isn’t always an easy task. I’ve had to deal with challenges both in school and outside of school and overcome obstacles of stereotypes, limited resources and support.
Let’s start with my enjoyment of problem solving and curiosity about the way our world works. In my middle school most students are not really into the sciences; it’s considered taboo and you run the risk of becoming marginalized or mocked. School administrators know the culture that exists in my school, and usually they try their best to either create an anti-bullying campaign or ignore it. Although, I give complete credit to my middle school for doing something about the bullying rampant in my school. I feel more needs to be done to help talented kids succeed. Teachers will assign us a topic to research, yet it is surprisingly difficulty for some of us kids to work on these assignments, especially if we don’t own a laptop. For those who do own a laptop, some parents may not have enough money to pay for access to the internet.
Personally, I don’t own a laptop. I did most of my research using my cell phone. I dare anyone to try using their basic data plan phone to research a topic. If the lack of speed doesn’t annoy you, then the broken links of the phone browser will remind you that it’s a phone not a laptop. The school computers are great but important website, like National Geographic or Discovery, are blocked. Local libraries are the next option but the wait time for the computer is long. The libraries are packed with kids needing access to computers to type up their homework. As result, access to free information is the new hustle. If you’re from my neighborhood you’d be crazy to think you are going to stay late and wait your turn for a computer. It gets very dangerous outside in my neighborhood after 4:30pm during the winter season.
Like my mother, over time I too have developed a strong, independent and assertive approach to reaching my goals. As a scholar in middle school I decided to risk it all and go against the school culture to join the Bronx Task Force, an elite middle school robotics club. During my participation with the team, I helped to research real-world engineering challenges by building LEGO-based robots to complete tasks on a playing surface. It was in the club that I was introduced to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). By far one of the most challenging topics our team explored was the cutting-edge world of Biomedical Engineering.
As a team we discovered innovative ways to repair injuries, overcome genetic predispositions, and maximize the body’s potential, with the intended purpose of leading happier and healthier lives. One of the team mentors, Rebecca Lyddon from the New York Academy of Sciences helped us with this topic. Rebecca is a neurologist at Mount Sinai hospital here in NYC. When I first met Rebecca she didn’t come across as a scientist. She didn’t have bushy wild hair like Albert Einstein or appear absent-minded like Dr. Emmett Brown, from Back to the Future. Before meeting Rebecca I thought most scientists were scary middle age white men with oversize lab coat. Rebecca was young, pretty, smart and cool for a scientist. It was refreshing to see a person like Rebecca.
As a young lady with the dreams of becoming a professional doctor in the medical field or possibly becoming a lawyer, I look forward to working alongside women like Rebecca. She made science research real and fun. I remember Rebecca would bring lab specimen of brain tissue or a life-sized model of the brain and we would inspect and hold it. This is the type of science activity kids should experience. Rebecca would help expose us to the topic of biomedical engineering of the brain by allowing us to actually feel our research in our hands. This was way better than having to wait in line at the Library. Or having a teacher ask you to do a research assignment on a topic that you have no idea how to approach.
I gained a greater appreciation of STEM with Rebecca. I understood that as a young lady and a lady scientist I will be facing many challenges. Whether it’s getting bullied in middle school for something you believe in, overcoming peer pressure in high school, or learning to build the skills necessary to be successful in college and beyond. You must push forward and not give up.
I know through the support of my family, I will become a scientist or even a great lawyer to honor the hard work and sacrifice of my mother. I will graduate from a great university and join the New York Academy of Sciences to teach and mentor other kids from my neighborhood. With the encouragement and example of women like my mommy and Rebecca, we can redefine STEM.
Bio: Emmie Lopez is a fifteen-year-old award winning and highly skilled high school scholar with 6 years of experience in academic research, LEGO NXT mechanical design and in programming using the LEGO MINDSTORM platform. Ms. Lopez lives in the Bronx, New York, though often fantasizes about traveling the world and visiting many exotic places. This is probably why she loves multicultural foods and meeting new people. She is a member of the Leo Club, STEM club and volunteer in her community tutoring middle school students. She is passionate about reading crime thriller novels with strong heroines, and shop for sneakers at the mall. Her favorite quote is, “YOU’RE OFF TO GREAT PLACES! TODAY IS YOUR DAY! YOUR MOUNTAIN IS WAITING, SO GET ON YOUR WAY!” — Dr. Seuss