Growing up in Mexico City, I was intensely curious, but felt like I had to hide my interest in physics. Back then, science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects were seen as male-oriented, and I was told countless times that women couldn’t do advanced math that I started believing it. So, after being told philosophy was like physics, but more appropriate for me – a woman – I started my studies.
Despite throwing myself into the course, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was meant to pursue a STEM career. I knew this wouldn’t be possible in Mexico, so I researched colleges in America – and came across a scholarship program at Brandeis University in Massachusetts. Before I knew it, I was travelling to Boston alone and, honestly, a little scared – but I had to try. And as I discussed with Joe DosSantos on the Data Brilliant podcast, I’m so glad I took that leap.
A helping hand goes a long way
I sat at the back of my classes, a little unsure to begin with. That was where I first spoke with Roopesh, the teaching assistant, about my love of physics. He could see my enthusiasm and offered to help me – and I owe so much to him for doing so. He taught me everything I needed to catch up with my peers and meet the requirements to start a physics major. I wanted to pay him, but all he asked was that I share my knowledge with others.
This culture of knowledge sharing is something I’ve taken with me, and it’s why I’m so eager to encourage more young girls to follow their dreams. My story isn’t unique – so many women face obstacles accessing STEM careers and education, but with the right support and a little bravery, we can change this.
To me, bravery is about understanding that you don’t have to be good to begin with; you can get there through practice and risk taking. In fact, failure should be encouraged and accepted – and I preach this at home with my children. Every week, I ask them what they’ve learned over the last seven days, and what challenges they’ve come up against. We talk about the highs and lows, and we laugh. I’m teaching them that failing isn’t negative – it simply means you tried and you learned along the way.
Don’t let defeat define you
My story is often shared and praised, but I’ve experienced failure too. Yes, I have a PhD in Physics from Stanford, but on the way to getting my degree, I failed the qualifying exam to start my PhD. The exam took place once a year, so I could have easily quit, but I knew this failure was part of my journey. And my advisor, Nobel Prize winner Bob Loughlin, told me something that stuck with me: “You’re a warrior; you have the skills to fight for what you want.”
So, I went back to my dorm room, and I studied. I reviewed every single lesson, from calculus to classical mechanics; thermodynamics to quantum mechanics. One year later, I stepped back into that exam room and passed. There are no guarantees in life, but if you persevere you’ll at least know you are doing everything you can to make your dreams come true. And I’m so glad I took that step.
Increasing diversity in data for today and tomorrow
I make use of these lessons when I share my passion and knowledge with others. I’m proud to say I’ve worked with organizations across the world, hosted television shows, and given my all to inspire girls and women to pursue their interest in STEM.
Diversity is particularly important when working with data, which demands a variety of perspectives. Bias is a very dangerous thing – if we fall victim to it, ultimately, we are not doing data science at all. It’s therefore imperative that every data scientist brings critical thinking and ethics to their analyses. Data is not there for the sake of it, it’s supposed to solve real-world problems, and so every data scientist should prioritize good ethics.
Each time I work with young women, I'm reminded that it’s up to everyone in the data community to help them thrive. We need to work together to break the discrimination cycle and bring more diversity into STEM careers. After all, if you only hire people with similar experiences, you’ll keep getting the same result, you won’t truly understand your client base, and you might miss out on the passion of a little girl with big dreams from Mexico City.