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Hispanic Heritage

How Research Opportunities for Undergrads Can Change Lives

Dr. Erika Tatiana Camacho

Program Officer, U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF)

I’m a Mexican immigrant. I moved to the United States when I was eight years old. My parents worked hard and my three older siblings dropped out of high school to help make ends meet. My community of East Los Angeles was a place where there was a lot of poverty and shootings … a lot of trouble. 

I saw education as my only way out of this environment, thanks in part to Jaime Escalante, my high school math teacher who taught us ganas — desire — the subject of the film “Stand and Deliver.” Once in college, I thought a bachelor’s degree would be the highlight of my education, but math, mentors, and the Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program, funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), changed my life. 

Valuable experience

In college, I participated in a summer REU program where I worked with mathematical models of HIV to test the impacts of the treatments using computer simulations. For the first time, I was able to see the true power of math in the real world to solve problems that affect our communities. I made up my mind at that point to earn a Ph.D. and bring others along with me who otherwise would not have the opportunity to do research.

Seven years later, after earning my Ph.D., I received a grant to start my own REU. This catalyzed my trajectory and success in mentoring through research and diversifying the mathematical sciences. 

I am now a professor at Arizona State University and am proud to say have received numerous NSF grants in this area and many of my mentees are now faculty or researchers in industry. In turn, they have similarly continued to “pay it forward” by mentoring others and helping transform our Latino communities. 

Making a difference

NSF’s investment in STEM talent has a profound impact on the lives of so many, like me. My experiences as a Latina in STEM have greatly benefited from NSF’s contribution. 

Now, as an NSF program officer for the Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs) and ADVANCE programs, I am giving back by overseeing awards that are helping change the face of science. We are enhancing undergraduate education, and increasing retention and graduation rates at HSIs. Many of the themes across the HSI-funded projects are embedded in Latino culture and community, their influence on student learning, the intersectional characteristics of this diverse population, and the role of family. 

These themes and NSF’s significant impact on transforming individuals’ lives, sometimes through the creation of opportunities that will alter someone’s life trajectory (like it did with me), extend to other directorates at NSF. NSF recognizes that the creation of STEM pathways and opportunities in STEM is one of the best ways to ensure our nation remains competitive and secure. 

For example, an NSF-funded project in computer science engages African American and Hispanic students with disabilities through voice-user interface technology. In South-Central Los Angeles, boys of color who are striving to improve their math performance are receiving training to develop computational skills, which can be a catalyst to broaden their overall academic achievement. This opportunity is possible because of the NSF INCLUDES CAHSI Alliance, which works to increase Hispanic representation in computing. 

Just as that NSF REU experience profoundly impacted my life, such opportunities for these young boys, and for so many others, can be just as transformative and completely change their lives.

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