Latinx professors at Yale break barriers in STEM
Martha Muñoz, Enrique M. De La Cruz and Daniel Colón Ramos reflect on their journeys in science academia and emphasize commitments toward increasing diversity and representation in education.
This piece was published as part of the News’ 2022 Lifting Up Latinx Identity special issue, celebrating Latinx Heritage Month from Sep. 15 to Oct. 15.
Latinx educators are pushing the bounds of human knowledge while inspiring and guiding students through mentorship in a wide range of roles, from professor to head of college.
Assistant professor Martha Muñoz, and professors Enrique M. De La Cruz, Daniel Colón-Ramos are three professors whose identities have been foundational to their research, impacts and future goals. As they continue to conduct groundbreaking research and serve in leadership roles at Yale, they strive to increase diversity and inclusion in academia.
“[My background] contributes to how I view research and my roles as an academic and a scientist, and it certainly contributes to my dedication and commitment to science and teaching,” De La Cruz said. “I’m well aware that I am lucky to be here … I also recognize that I’m here because of others’ goodwill and … I understand that I am very privileged now, and I intend to use this privilege in a form of service to help others achieve their goals and experience things they may not even be able to imagine because they don’t know what it is.”
Martha Muñoz, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology
Growing up in a tiny apartment in New York City, Muñoz rarely experienced the natural world. Yet her imagination ran wild during visits to museums, which she saw as magical places.
“It’s a real act of love for me, the way that collections and museums can stimulate wonder and curiosity in people and connect them to the natural world,” Muñoz said. “[And they] very much fuel the beating heart of science.”
Muñoz also serves as an Assistant Curator at the Yale Peabody Museum, but growing up, she hadn’t known that there were scientists in the museums, seeing scientists as an abstract concept — an “elite group of folks.”
At her middle school in Queens, she was one of the few Hispanic kids. According to her, it was a burdensome feat to even have access to good schools, especially for those new to the country and trying to escape poverty, as her parents’ generation had.
“My grandmother never got a break,” Muñoz said. “She went straight from working to the bone to raising both me and my sister. If I had had the privilege I would have given her a much more peaceful retirement.”
In her first year at Boston University, Muñoz discovered “real science” as a work study student in a neurophysiology lab led by Ayako Yamaguchi. Muñoz learned of the struggles Yamaguchi experienced coming to the U.S. and drew parallels to her own Cuban American experience.
“She was just really energetic, surprisingly relatable, surprisingly human,” Muñoz said. “I thought scientists were these superhuman beings who couldn’t possibly be as human as the rest of us.”
Muñoz went on to earn a doctorate degree at Harvard University while working with collections in their Museum of Comparative Zoology.
Now, her research asks how the organisms themselves can influence evolution as it does not proceed evenly, Muñoz explained. Sometimes evolution can be rapid, sometimes there can be lineages with lots of species — and sometimes neither occurs.
“I knew in particular that I wanted to work in Latin America because I wanted to, in a sense, go home and connect to that part of myself by studying evolution and organisms that were found there,” Muñoz said.
Though now an award-winning biologist with a successful lab under her belt, she had to overcome self-doubt. Muñoz sees imposter syndrome as the natural doubt people experience amplified by societal pressures — such as a “societally induced toxicity” from not seeing anyone who looked like her in a certain space.
She said to disregard the societal pressures that amplify doubt, but also allow the voice of doubt to ground yourself, while still holding onto the voice of the dreamer who maps out somewhere greater to go.
“The way I see it, there’s nothing I’ve done or could do with my life that could ever match the sacrifice, commitment and effort of my parents and my grandparents,” Muñoz said. “They were heroes, they went through real struggle.”
Enrique De La Cruz, professor and chair of the department of molecular biophysics and biochemistry
De La Cruz’s passion for his field of study began when he was an undergraduate studying biology at Rutgers University.
After taking physical chemistry, he realized that he wanted to work in a chemistry lab and joined the program called the Minority Biomedical Research Support Program, an NIH funded program that helped members of underrepresented groups get lab experience.
De La Cruz recalled having “very supportive” advisors and the “liberty of having a job,” which made it possible for him to transition from working in a biology laboratory to a chemical one.
Beginning as a graduate student, De La Cruz has strived to increase diversity in science and in education. As a graduate student, trainee and postdoctoral student, he “focused on teaching and [facilitating] workships.” He also mentored postdoctoral students, other graduate students and even elementary school students.
As a professor, he has continued with those same efforts and has formally mentored members of underrepresented groups in institutions beyond Yale. De La Cruz — who serves as the head of Branford College — noted that, on campus, he has the ability to provide individual attention by mentoring students one-on-one in the lab, classroom or residential college.
“I’ve tried to be active and done what I could along the way … it just seemed natural to care for people who didn’t have the same opportunities,” De La Cruz said. “My family is from Cuba, and I know … the difference when you have the opportunity.”
Last month, De La Cruz and Colón-Ramos were named two of the one hundred most inspiring Hispanic/Latinx scientists in America.
De La Cruz described his approach to leadership as the same for all his roles, from department chair of molecular biophysics and biochemistry (MB&B) to head of Branford college. He said that “first and foremost, … lose the ego.” In addition, he “strives to be the first among equals,” “lead by example” and to not ask other people to do what he isn’t able or willing to do himself.
“It’s very important that I do serve as an example for what a scientist looks like and where scientists could come from,” De La Cruz said.
De La Cruz noted that feeling “unprepared or unqualified” can be a challenge. He mentioned how many people might share this struggle and advises people to be just as fair to themselves as their loved ones would be.
Daniel Colón-Ramos, Dorys McConnell Duberg professor of neuroscience and cell biology
To Colón-Ramos, science is for the people.
Born and raised in Puerto Rico, he derived inspiration from the tropical environment. As an undergraduate at Harvard, he traveled to Central America to work with Indigenous groups living in rainforests.
His senior thesis explored the use of medicinal plants by Indigenous groups near the watershed area of the Panama Canal. But Colón-Ramos was not satisfied by just knowing the identity of the “invisible [chemical] compounds” in the plants: he realized that his brain naturally wanted to know why the leaves caused the effects described, getting closer to the root of the science.
He entered a graduate program at Duke University, where his experiences in Central America equipped him to maneuver the research setting and communicate his science. To Colón-Ramos, science is not a solitary process, it relates to “our shared human experience.”
At Yale, his lab uses the transparent model worm C. elegans to investigate neurons. His lab is able to visualize neurons “talking” to each other. Colón-Ramos is proud to contribute knowledge to better understand the nervous system and how it goes awry in disease.
A committed mentor, Colón-Ramos compared students to “high performing athletes” as they progressed from consuming knowledge to producing it. In his mind, for students to overcome hurdles, they have to find their pace.
Colón-Ramos has hosted science workshops across the world and collaborated with other scientists in Puerto Rico to spearhead mentoring programs. He helped lead a scientific coalition that advised Puerto Rico’s governor during the process of delivering massive vaccinations during the pandemic. Drawing on his knowledge of scientific findings, he advises policies that affect the lives of millions, which he considers one of the most beautiful experiences he has ever had.
“I still get letters from people afterwards thanking me for making the information accessible, for being able to explain it,” Colón-Ramos said. “I would have never imagined that the skill sets that I had as a scientist would be valuable in that way.”