In this episode, Karma Chávez talks with Dr. Lydia Contreras about being a Latina immigrant in chemical engineering and the importance of working to make campus a more inclusive and equitable place.
Dr. Lydia Contreras, associate professor, holder of the Jim and Barbara Miller Endowed Faculty Fellowship in Chemical Engineering, and Managing Director of Diversity in the Office of the Provost at UT-Austin, discusses her experiences being a woman of color in STEM and her approach to doing diversity work on campus.
Resources / Related Links:
Tools for Change: Boosting the Retention of Women in the STEM Pipeline
Ten Latinas Making their Mark in the Stem World – Remezcla
This Episode was Mixed and Mastered by Karoline Pfeil and Will Shute
- Lydia ContrerasAssociate Professor in the McKetta Department of Chemical Engineering
- Karma R. ChávezBobby and Sherri Patton Professor and Chair in the Department of Mexican American & Latina/o Studies | @queermigrations
Karma Chavez: Episode 28. What is the experience of being a woman of color in a stem field? I’m your host Karma Chávez and this is Latinxperts. Research suggests that only about 3- 4% of bachelor degrees in science, technology, engineering and math or stem fields are awarded to Latinas. The numbers get even smaller for masters and PhDs. Among those who end up working in stem fields, there are significant obstacles.
For example, a study published by UC Hastings College of Law in 2015, found that nearly half of Latina scientists reported that they had been mistaken for administrative or custodial staff. Nevertheless, some Latinas thrive in spite of their workplace conditions, or at least they do their jobs very well.
One of those here at UT is Dr. Lydia Contreras. Dr. Contreras is an Associate Professor and holds the Jim and Barbara Miller Endowed Faculty Fellowship in chemical engineering, in the McKenna Department of Chemical Engineering at UT Austin. She holds a PhD from Cornell University and a bachelor’s from Princeton.
Her research focuses on biomolecular engineering, biotechnology and metabolic and cellular engineering. In addition to her faculty role, Dr. Contreras is the Managing Director of Diversity in the Office of the Provost. I am thrilled to speak with her today. Dr. Contreras, welcome to Latinxperts.
Lydia Contrarez: Thanks so much Karma. So excited to be speaking with you today.
Karma Chavez: Well, I’m very excited to have this conversation because I just think you are a wealth of wisdom in so many ways. And I guess I just want to start out by asking you how you came to the field of chemical engineering?
Lydia Contrarez: Yeah, that’s a great question, Karma. So first of all, I am a Latina immigrant. So a lot of my formative years happened in the Dominican Republic until I was about 10 or so. And of course in countries like the Dominican Republic, when it comes to the professional outlook, it’s very limited.
People often think about medical doctors, they think of lawyers and teachers. Those are the most common scenes. So when I came to the United States, I thought that that was all I had to choose from. So I was trying to debate well or a business person. Right. Or do I like business? Do I like. The medical environment, do I want to be a teacher.
So those were the models that were set for me to choose from. As I went to schooling, I just figured out that I was loving chemistry. I was loving math. To be honest in a fortuitous way, a little bit of my self-consciousness of thinking that I would never be good at history or English or any disciplines that require perfect mastery of the English language factored in.
I thought that as a native Spanish speaker, having an accent, having a lot of speaking was not really going to be something I was going to be good at. So ironically, I really stemmed towards the math and science where I figured it doesn’t matter how you sound, how you speak. If you know the math, you know the math.
And so I started really becoming excited about those disciplines. And then I started to uncover a whole world of other things that I could do with it, like engineering, like holding a PhD in science. And that’s when I became a lot more intrigued and looked for a lot of outsiders outside of my family to tell me about those careers and started visiting labs and understanding what a biochemist did and what a chemical engineer did.
And I became fascinated with how broad the training can be and how many opportunities and doors it can open.
Karma Chavez: Yeah. So I find this story absolutely fascinating that it was as a result, at least in part of your accented English that you chose to go in the direction of science. I love that. Because I think that opens up a lot of pathways for people to think differently about some of the things that they think might be a hindrance to them.
And clearly seems you did it. Wasn’t going to allow you maybe to go on to be a, an English professor. But, it opened up this other door. And I think that’s probably really poignant for our students to hear. So you take this pathway, you go into this field and how did you get started thinking about that you were going to be a professor in this field and what got you going in the direction of being a professor?
Lydia Contrarez: Never thought about it, Karma. I mean, when I thought about professors in engineering, I went through all my schooling and had one woman professor. Not a woman of color, but a great woman professor. So this was not the image I had of professors that did engineering. So never in a million years did I think professor, I didn’t even associate who I was, my interests, my love for music, and family, and community, and doing things for people with an engineering career as a professor.
So how I got to that was back to this idea that okay, well, I can go to school and do the science-y thing, but of course, right. Well, in my world that it’s meant to be a medical doctor. So I actually was a double major in biochemistry in college and I did pre-med and I studied for the MCATs and I was in line to do that until I decided I wanted to try some hands on research experience.
Luckily for me, Princeton required us to do a research experience in a lab, so that was part of my thesis. And I met a wonderful professor in my career who sat down with me multiple times and really saw, I guess, potential. So my love for science, how much I enjoyed discovery, and we had a great conversation about different career options.
And one of the things that he told me that always resonated was that one big differentiator from a career, traditional career in medicine as a medical practicing doctor would be the lack of sort of finding something new every day. That that was really a possibility when you did a lot of research.
And that’s really what opened my eyes to research, but I really started a major in chemical engineering, still bound and confined by the boundaries that my family saw in their very limited vision of what successful career can be. So if you like science, then you needed to be a medical doctor. And I remember when I told one of my aunts that I was starting to like the engineering, her response to that was, oh, that’s an ugly career for women.
Because her vision of an engineer was a civil engineer, you know, stereotypical man that wears overalls, a ruler, and a hard hat and goes up ladders and I couldn’t do that. And once you told me I couldn’t do it, I guess that got me really interested in finding out what I could do. And that actually gave me even more of that resilience to fight that and say, well, what is this thing then that you’re telling me I can’t do and I shouldn’t do? It’s kind of a funny story to that too.
Karma Chavez: That is a funny story. And I confess, science was never my thing. There was an option in college to take courses called like biology and society and those were the easy courses that kids took. So the only chemistry course I ever took was called chemistry and society.
You know, I don’t remember a lot. It’s also been 25 years ago, but I say that to suggest I don’t actually even really know what the field of chemical engineering does. So would you talk to us about your research, what it’s meant to do?
Lydia Contrarez: Sure Karma. So it’s a great question. So one of the wonders that I always tell my students in my intro class, especially my freshmen, about chemical engineering, is that it is a very wide field. It’s full of opportunities.
In reality, what we’re learning in chemical engineering is how to think of chemistry, in addition to biology, math, physics, and make new processes, make something, new scale up processes. And you can apply that quantitative and systematic training to pretty much the making of anything. That’s bioproducts, that’s pharmaceuticals, that’s, you know, Wall Street thinking about money flow. That’s thinking about materials flows, electronics, so environmental engineering.
So our students really learn a skillset that is very broad. In my case, I was very biased already, as I’ve said several times towards the bio world. And so biotechnology is what I really fell in love with. So thinking about, new drugs, drug discovery, pipelines, biotechnology ways to make that more efficient, how to stabilize proteins and RNAs and complexes and things that can be for potential pharmaceutics.
That’s what really drove my excitement to this field, which is a big area within chemical engineering, but chemical engineers do a lot. Some of them work in cosmetics, making Revlon. I mean, any product that you touch, that you can imagine exist pretty much has had a chemical engineer involved.
Karma Chavez: And so it is one of those behind the scenes kind of enterprises that is actually doing the work that makes pretty much everything happened, but the average person may not really even know anything about it.
Lydia Contrarez: That’s right. Thinking about paper, thinking about color, paint, cosmetics. Colgate hires a lot of engineers. All these companies, food, right? The food industry hires a lot of chemical engineers. So absolutely. A lot of that very cool behind-the-scene innovation and work that you enjoy kind of make society a much better place, but people don’t really stop to think, “Hmm. I wonder who came up with this or, Hmm. I wonder how this was produced and how that was optimized for quality , etc.”
Karma Chavez: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. So within that context, what has it been like to be a Latina, to be an immigrant, a woman of color in your field? What is your experience been like?
Lydia Contrarez: Well, I think you mentioned some of them at the beginning, Karma. I think that some of the facts that you mentioned would all of them apply. One of the things that it’s definitely a challenge is the fact that when you walk into a room or others, even walking to your room, like your classroom and your lab and things that you’re managing and in charge of, they’re looking for who’s in charge.
They’re not expecting that you are the person with the knowledge in the room. And so they are not used to people that look like me in this career still. Unfortunately, that comes with a lot of challenges. You mentioned, for example, walking into the cafeteria and people asking you where the drinks are, where things are.
That’s true. So there’s a lot of pressure, usually too. As I tell my husband all the time be in costume, right. Quote, unquote, make sure you look like a professor, right?
And what do I do with the hair? What do I do with the curls? Curly, no curly? Up down, and, you know, should I really be wearing just jeans or I have to throw a blazer so that I can really help people recognize, give them cues of what they’re used to finding me in this role.
So definitely, you touched on that at the beginning, but I think even more than that, there’s a lot of isolation culturally, because there’s not a lot of people that understand your system of values. So for us, for Latinos, I mean, yes, we care a lot about our work.
We care a lot about our profession. For me, engineering means the world. Science is super exciting. It energizes me, but there are other things that energize me that culturally I was trained and thought to believe and still do, are extremely important. Like caring for my community and caring for extended family and thinking about the neighbor that needs help and taking the great uncle to the doctor appointment and being engaged with the grandma and the moms and thinking about my own family.
And those values often crash in a career that’s still very men dominant and not dominant by values of community and communal values. So I think that those are real crashes that I think Latinos in general face in the workforce, especially in a profession that can be so isolating because there’s not too many people that share that cultural heritage.
Karma Chavez: So I love you talking about the importance of your value system and your value system, that in some ways contradicts with what should be expected of, you know, the scientist and presumed to be a masculine person, et cetera.
And I’m wondering if that kind of value that you have that seems to differ from the institution, if that is what has driven your passion for diversity work and your other hat of course, is doing diversity work within the provost office and I’m using that term. You can critique it, of course. I’m wondering is it because of your experience that that kind of work is so important?
Lydia Contrarez: Oh, absolutely Karma. And I would just say for me it means inclusion, right? It really means that anybody from any background that has not just the ability, but the desire to do anything they want to do should be able to find open doors, to do it with less barriers, with much of a cleaner path. And to me, that’s very inspiring.
There was so many people that have opened doors for me, and so many people that haven’t. And that doesn’t mean they’ve closed them, that just means they haven’t. And I think that to me, making the distinction between standing by and watching and doing something proactively to engage, to make people feel that they can really reach their potential.
That’s something we owe to our students. That’s a right that they have when they’re here. This is a right that everybody in the world should have and that is super important to me and drives me every day. When I teach, when I walk into my role in the provost office, when I think about equity, when I think about how to include people so that whoever they are it’s welcomed and it’s an asset.
Karma Chavez: I like what you said about, it’s not necessarily that some people close the door in your face, they just didn’t open the door. And I wanted to pause on that because I think that is such an astute way to think about the way that things like racism and sexism work. It’s not that someone necessarily has to be overtly aggressive or hostile to you, but it could just be that kind of passive act and I didn’t know if you wanted to elaborate on that at all?
Lydia Contrarez: So in terms of people opening doors and not opening doors, I think one of the things that, especially also academics, like to think about is that whoever in our spaces here, because they’re entitled to be here, because they’re the best. And when you really think about what that means, a lot of it starts falling apart and we start really questioning quite a lot.
And then you go back to the doors that were open for them. You go back to the behind the scenes and you go back to a lot of what has been done so that it’s no longer luck, but it’s really increasing their chances of success. And that’s a proactive process that happens for a lot of people.
That’s a process that people take in their hands design, engineer, so that it’s favoring the odds of success for many people. And I think that the absence of that, it’s almost in my mind, very similar to shutting the doors. Because by default, the doors are shut for many people. So if it’s not a proactive effort to open them, you haven’t necessarily shut them yourselves, but you’re recognizing, or you may not even be realizing they’re shut.
There’s nothing active going on to really open and allow them to have active roles in those rooms. So that’s really what I meant by that earlier comment, Karma. So the ability to open more of those doors for many more people. It’s something that I’ve always been very passionate about. And perhaps because of my own path and experience here, because of my experience as an immigrant family coming to the United States, because of the things we were talking about earlier where you have had to almost find a hole and put yourself, squeezed yourself into the hole. That hurts a lot, right? Versus when walk into a door versus squeezing yourself in, and then having a few people kind of push you so that you fit into that hole, it’s hurtful. It can bruise you. It can leave a lot of scars, you know, literally.
So I think that’s how I think about what we all need to come together and think about..
Karma Chavez: Well, just listening to you talk I can see exactly why you’re the perfect person in the role that you’re in. And I wonder if you would just tell me a little bit about what the role of the Managing Director of Diversity in the Provost Office is designed to.
Lydia Contrarez: Yeah. So that was a role that was designed by Ted Gordon in our university, who has been a huge visionary of a lot of this work for many, many, many years. And once the strategic plan was designed, it’s been in the making for a while. Even before a lot of these inclusion conversations have recently sparked. It was clear that we needed more involvement with faculty, with other areas of the university to try to make this a collective successful initiative.
So that’s where the roles started getting designed and it’s fun. I am super thrilled to be working with the people that I work with.
One of the things that I’ve realized is that by stepping out to the larger UT community, we have a lot of people that care in our environment, Karma. We have a lot of people that care to support one another.
We have a lot of people that cared to innovate ways by which we could open doors for one another. And it’s been super energizing to be part of this office, of this effort, and of this role. There’s a lot of commitment on our campus to make a lot of very creative, new paths, starting to open up and happen.
So I’m so glad to be able to serve in that capacity.
Karma Chavez: Well in one of the programs I know that you’re very closely involved with is this, early career post-doctoral fellow program. And would you talk just a little bit about what that program is designed to do?
Lydia Contrarez: Absolutely. So this program was designed in conjunction with our previous interim provost, Dan Jaffe. And it was a program where we are saying, we’re going to recruit the best talent that we can find. And we’re going to tell them that UT is a place for them, but we’re going to do that early.
People don’t have to be perfect. They don’t have to fit in the perfect profile. Quote unquote, they don’t have to fit in a little image of anything that we want them to be. We’re going to help them build up here at UT and we’re going to really show them that this could be a great place for them to start their careers. So we started with that philosophy in mind and recognizing that we wanted to work with early talent.
And so we started working with departments, deans, department chairs, to cast programs together that were filling in a strategic need for that department. So these are people that we want because of what they bring intellectually to our environment. They’re filling in a niche, a scholarly niche, a research niche, a teaching niche.
So that was the predesigned. Then the call went out to the broader community. U.S., international community for young scholars and researchers to apply. And we got a great response. We started with 26 early career fellows. So these are postdoctoral fellows. These are people that have had teaching experience, but also a great deal of training in terms of diversity, equity, inclusion, and how to open doors and think about that for other people, particularly in their teaching, in their scholarly work in terms of our students.
And so those are the people we’ve been able to attract the campus. There’s 26 of them. They are thriving. If you are sitting in a room with them, it just makes your day. They’re bright. They are excited to be here. And the idea is that hopefully many of them will be able to see that this could be a place for them to start their careers, tenure track faculty.
So that’s a pool of talent that we’re helping build and, or send them to the world with that UT stamp to really change whatever environment they go in based on the training they received here. Or act as our ambassadors and tell other people what we can offer here at UT, which is often under sold.
Karma Chavez: Well, I think it’s a fantastic program. I’m super excited about it and so glad that you’re helming it cause I just think if you’re doing a terrific job. So we’re re we’re running out of time here, but I did want to ask you if you had one piece of advice to give to women of color who were thinking about a career path, like the one that you’ve taken, what piece of advice would you give them?
Lydia Contrarez: Stick to being who you are. At the end of the day, we bring strengths, we bring beauty and being different in thinking different and caring about different things. Especially speaking from a Latina background culture. We come from a very happy culture. We like music. We like happy things that might not be necessarily well-connected with a stereotypical view of engineering.
You know, boring and being so static and being so impersonal, but you can change that. It’s changing and we’re changing it. And so really to be who you are, I think it’s inspiring when I see women that I can still see myself in them that there’s not the status quo.
So you never know who’s watching, you never know who’s looking. They may not tell you, but just by being who you are, we can really move the needle. So just by being who we are, there could be a lot of people watching, noticing that we’re not even aware and implicitly, we are really inspiring a lot of other people. I know for myself, I see a lot of other women in this field that they may never know I look up to them.
When they are who they are, when they bring in something new to the table that I can identify with, that means the world to me.
Karma Chavez: I love that. Well, what a great place for us to end today. Dr. Contreras, thank you so much for being here.
Lydia Contrarez: Thank you Karma. This is a lot of fun.
Karma Chavez: Good. Again, our guest today was Dr. Lydia Contreras, who is a chemical engineer. I’m Karma Chávez. I’ve been your host today, and this is Latinxperts.