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Hispanic Heritage Month: Stars of STEM

Hispanic Americans

Every year, from September 15 until October 15, the United States observes Hispanic Heritage Month, an opportunity for us to celebrate the contributions of American citizens whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean and Central/South America.

The archives of literature, theatre, music, visual arts and philosophy are bursting with the stories of Hispanic success. And so are the fields of STEM: science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Hispanic Americans have been creating new inventions, solving complex problems and leading advanced research for many years.  

We'd like to share with you some present-day Hispanic stars of STEM:

Astronaut George Zamka was born in New Jersey and raised between the United States and his parents’ native country, Colombia. But his career would take him a much farther distance than that: In 2007, he piloted the Space Shuttle Discovery in its mission to the International Space Station. Three years later, he commanded its mission to deliver a new control station to the station. In total, he has spent more than 600 hours in space.

Zamka graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics. After his commission into the U.S. Marine Corps, he became a pilot and served in overseas deployments to Japan, Korea, Singapore and Southwest Asia. After earning a master’s in engineering management from the Florida Institute of Technology, he was selected as a pilot for NASA.

After his space adventures, Zamka went on to serve with the Office of Commercial Space Transportation at the Federal Aviation Administration.

Carolina Barillas-Mury, M.D., Ph.D., is a Distinguished Investigator at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Her work is focused on understanding how human pathogens are transmitted from person to person by mosquitoes. How do those pathogens survive the mosquito’s own immune system long enough to be transmitted to a second human?

Mosquitos have been a common thread throughout decades of Barillas-Mury’s research, which has also covered tobacco hornworms and fruit flies. But her current studies have particularly strong implications for humans, as she explores whether the mosquito’s role as a disease spreader could become the key to eradicating widespread diseases like malaria.

A native of Guatemala, Barillas-Mury earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from the Universidad de Valle, and her medical degree from Universidad Francisco Marroquín. After earning a doctorate in biochemistry from the University of Arizona, she continued her research at Harvard University and became a professor at Colorado State University. She became a senior investigator at the National Institutes of Health, where she continues her research today.

Veronica Alicia Alvarez, Ph.D., is a Senior Researcher at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Her research aims to understand the effects of drug abuse on brain activity, and the mechanisms that control compulsive drug-seeking. Why can some people have a casual, occasional relationship with a recreational drug, while others develop an intense addiction that alters their lives?

In one recent study, Alvarez discovered that in the brains of some mice, there appears to be a specific pathway that causes them to lose interest in cocaine when it becomes more difficult to obtain. In mice that lacked this pathway, the impulse to seek cocaine was not affected even when there were many obstacles before it. Better understanding of these pathways may eventually help to alleviate the problem of substance use disorders in humans.

Alvarez earned a doctorate in neuroscience from the University of Buenos Aires in Argentina. She completed a fellowship at the Vollum Institute at the Oregon Health and Science University, and then continued her research at Harvard University. She has been leading research at the National Institutes of Health since 2008.

Guillermo “Billy” Pimentel, Ph.D., is a leader in biodefense research for the U.S. Navy. He was commissioned into service after earning a doctorate in plant pathology with a concentration in mycology, the study of fungi. His first duty station was as department head of the microbiology department at the Naval Medical Center in Portsmouth, Virginia.

Over the next several years, he served in multiple leadership positions related to disease surveillance, global disease detection and zoonotic disease research. He managed more than two dozen research projects to strengthen lab-based disease monitoring in Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia and nations of the former Soviet Union.

In 2013, he successfully led the deployment of two mobile labs for detection of the Ebola virus during the Liberian epidemic. His mobile labs were instrumental in reducing diagnostic wait times to mere hours.

A native of Puerto Rico, Pimentel received a bachelor’s degree in industrial microbiology and a master’s degree in biology from the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez. He earned his doctoral degree in plant pathology from Washington State University.

You can learn about more achievements like this—past and present—by reading up on 10 Hispanic Scientists You Should Know,  including a Nobel prize winner who marked a turning point in diabetes management and the first Hispanic-American astronauts.  Also check out this list of STEM innovators. 

For guidance in pursuing your own career in these fields, check out the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers or TechLatino.