As a day on which several Spanish-speaking countries celebrate their independence, Sept. 15 marked the start of Hispanic Heritage Month, the annual celebration of the contributions and influences of Americans whose families come from Spain and other Spanish-speaking countries in the Caribbean and Central and South America.
With such a large population, those of Hispanic descent are found in every department here at UC Santa Barbara. In particular, several S.T.E.M. departments on campus are shining a spotlight on their researchers who identify as part of these minority groups and are currently taking part in cutting-edge, innovative research, from creating quantum materials and manufacturing newly-discovered metals to theorizing well-defined and functional polymers and biomaterials.
In 2015, UCSB was designated both a Hispanic-Serving Institution and an Asian American Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institution by the U.S. Department of Education, meaning at least 25% of enrolled students identify as Hispanic, Latinx and/or Chicanx.
“Community is a big thing for Hispanic folks — culturally, it’s something we really appreciate,” assistant materials professor Daniel Oropeza said. Oropeza, who came to UCSB in July 2023, leads a research team that studies the manufacturing and processing of materials, such as metals and ceramics. “[W]e have some fantastic people to do all design and understanding of structural mechanics; I try to fit somewhere in between them to help them get from material synthesis to structural understanding,” Oropeza said.
Just recently, UCSB’s College of Engineering created a webpage dedicated to celebrating their Hispanic faculty. One featured researcher is Daniela Rivera Mirabal, a third-year doctoral student in the department of Chemical Engineering. Mirabal grew up and studied in Puerto Rico and is currently working on developing a model to understand different materials’ chemistries and sequences.
“I think my background has especially motivated my passion for mentoring. Especially from not seeing that much representation in the broader scientific sphere, it has inspired me to want to mentor more students,” Mirabal said. Over this past summer, Mirabal worked with the Center for Science and Engineering Partnerships, working with first-generation students from various S.T.E.M. fields.
According to UCSB’s 2022-23 campus profile, 28% of newly enrolled freshmen identified themselves as Hispanic/Latinx/Chicanx and 48% of freshmen chose to study physical and biological sciences.
Many of UCSB’s faculty members are also from Latin America: Juliana Acosta-Uribe, a research assistant in the Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology, graduated from the University of Antioquia in Medellín, Colombia in 2013. She subsequently spent the next three years studying hereditary neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease.
Acosta-Uribe was eventually invited to continue her research at UCSB and has continued to study population genetics, especially in those of Latin American descent. “I would love to have more Latin American students in the lab since my research directly involves their own people,” Acosta-Uribe said.
Every day across multiple S.T.E.M. departments at UCSB, members of the Latinx and Chicanx communities are becoming leaders in their fields. “I’m sort of like the chef of the quantum world — I figure out how to make interesting materials that people care about. We [discover] new materials and try to search for things that people haven’t thought about yet” said Steven Gomez-Alvarado, a doctoral student in the materials department.
For first-generation students, such as Gomez-Alvarado, this sense of accomplishment is incredibly important. “I’m fortunate enough to have my grandparents still alive, and talking to them about what I do is probably the most exciting thing that lights up their eyes,” Gomez-Alvarado said.
This month is dedicated to acknowledging the sacrifices and legacies of both past and current generations of Hispanic Americans. Their research and contributions in science, medicine, engineering and mathematics — to name just a few — will continue to help create a stronger, more inclusive future for us all.
“When I think about Hispanic Heritage Month, it’s a time for me to tie back to my roots and be especially grateful to be in S.T.E.M. [and be] grateful for the people that have paved the way beforehand [while] at the same time pushing for more representation,” Mirabal said.
A version of this article appeared on p. 9 of the Oct. 5, 2023 print edition of the Daily Nexus.