After Minerva Cordero and her three sisters finished dinner every evening, they would stay at the dinner table to do their homework and talk about their science classes.
Pamela Padilla said she got her interest in nature from her naturalist father, and from her artistic mother, her creativity and work ethic.
Manuela Murillo Sánchez grew up drawing inspiration from her engineer parents to solve real-world problems through engineering.
Now, Cordero is a professor of mathematics and senior associate dean of the College of Science at the University of Texas at Arlington.
Padilla is the new dean of the College of Science at the University of North Texas.
And Murillo Sánchez recently graduated from Southern Methodist University with degrees in mathematics and mechanical engineering.
The three women are part of two underrepresented groups in their respective fields in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
Even though women make up almost half of the U.S. workforce, they account for only about 27% of STEM professionals and workers, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
And despite Hispanic or Latina women making up almost 7% of the workforce, they represent just under 2% of all STEM workers nationwide, according to the Census.
About 5% of STEM workers are Hispanic men.
The two educators were once first-generation students. Hispanics and Latinos accounted for 27% of first-generation students nationwide in 2017, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
The three pioneers shared their professional and academic paths with Al Día, as well as how their childhood impacted their career decisions.
Cordero was born and raised in Puerto Rico, where she studied in a public school.
She completed college at the University of Puerto Rico. She got a master’s degree at the University of California, Berkeley, and a doctorate at the University of Iowa.
Before arriving at the University of Texas at Arlington, she was a professor at Texas Tech.
Cordero grew up valuing education ever since she began sharing her academic experiences with her sisters.
Her efforts have coalesced in a “common theme”: Attracting women and minorities to STEM careers.
In 2019, those efforts were recognized.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and Lyda Hill Philanthropies named Cordero, alongside over 120 other women in the U.S., a STEM ambassador.
“When I was chosen by Lyda Hill as a STEM ambassador, I was very pleased,” Cordero, 62, said. “For me, it is an honor working with this group of women.”
Out of the 125 ambassador women, 10 were from North Texas. Another five were from other parts of the state, The Dallas Morning News reported back then.
The exhibit #IfThenSheCan is part of a national initiative known as If/Then. Cordero explained the name: “If we help a girl in science, [then] she will be able to change the world.”
Some ambassadors have launched projects such as Seeds of Success, an educational program led by Cordero and two other fellow Puerto Rican ambassadors to familiarize middle school students with STEM fields.
At NorthPark Center, orange statues were set up to honor the ambassadors on May 5, 2021.
After getting a full-body scan at the Perot Museum in October 2019, each woman’s figures were 3D printed.
The audiovisual, interactive exhibition will be at the mall through Oct. 31.
“I hope the momentum created by this exhibition, this If/Then project, will continue and move forward,” Cordero said.
She hopes different institutions and universities in North Texas can come together to create more welcoming environments for Hispanics, minorities and women in STEM.
“At the end of the day, if the U.S. wants to retain its world leadership, we have to attract Hispanics and women to science, to engineering,” she said.
“It’s really exciting to have such a public celebration of women in STEM,” said Murillo Sánchez about the #IfThenSheCan exhibit.
She emphasized the importance for young Latinas to find role models in other Latina women working in STEM in order to close the inequality gap in these fields of study.
“Fortunately, we’ve had some very strong female role models that are Latina, such as Ellen Ochoa and Diana Trujillo and their leadership in NASA,” she said.
Ochoa, whose parents are Mexican, was the first Hispanic woman to travel to space in 1993.
Trujillo, a Colombia-born engineer, was flight director for the Perseverance probe used in the 2020 mission to Mars.
Murillo Sánchez, 22, who recently graduated from SMU, shares something with both women.
Growing up, she dreamed of being an astronaut like Ochoa but ended up being an engineer like Trujillo — although a mechanical one, not an aerospace engineer.
When she was 4, her parents emigrated with her from Colombia to Houston.
After they moved to Egypt when she was 7 years old, Murillo Sánchez returned to Texas at 10, where she completed school.
Her parents are Colombia-trained engineers. Her mother, Murillo Sánchez said, uses her skills to identify and solve problems in her community.
For instance, in Alexandria, Egypt, her mother developed micro-business projects for refugee women and fundraising for orphanages.
In high school, Murillo Sánchez developed an interest in humanities and business — until she found an opportunity to learn problem-solving through engineering.
At SMU, she was in charge of revitalizing the school’s chapter of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers.
In addition, she had the opportunity to learn — and apply — her skills in a variety of fields, from aerospace engineering to investment banking.
In October, Murillo Sánchez will start working with the Bain & Company consulting firm. The job offers her an opportunity to combine her skills and interests with different ways of applying scientific knowledge.
We live in what engineers call a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world.
Murillo Sánchez said STEM skills are so versatile, they allow people to understand and solve the problems of this complicated world.
“Even if you aren’t considering engineering — maybe you want to be a businessperson, a doctor or a lawyer — I wouldn’t close myself to a STEM degree,” she said.
“It provides you with very robust and transferable skills that open doors for you in basically any career.”
On June 16, Pamela Padilla became the second dean of the College of Science at UNT, and the first woman in that role.
She is also the current president of the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science, the country’s largest group promoting diversity in STEM.
Originally from New Mexico, Padilla described her Native American and Chicano heritage.
She said her father, an avid nature watcher — especially of birds and deer — instilled an appreciation for nature in her.
Growing up in a farming community also taught her the value of hard work, she said.
She turned that lesson into action, working hard to go to college despite a tight financial situation.
She earned an undergraduate degree and then pursued a Ph.D. in biology at the University of New Mexico.
Among other things, she then conducted postdoctoral research at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Wash., with a scholarship from the National Science Foundation.
Though she comes from a culture of returning home after school, she chose to go to Texas to join UNT as a professor of biological sciences.
That was part of her original plan: to teach in a state university that served primarily first-generation students.
“Because that’s who I was,” Padilla said. “And I saw that there was a need — not all of the faculty, as wonderful as they can be as professors and mentors, may have experienced that.”
“It helps for students to know that you have a professor that has the same path that you have, and some of the same challenges and experiences,” she said.