GTRI in STEM

National Hispanic Heritage Month
September 15-October 15, 2020

STEM@GTRI celebrates National Hispanic Heritage Month, which is Sept. 15-Oct. 15, 2020. This year’s theme is, “Be Proud of Your Past, Embrace the Future.” As we celebrate, we remind you of just a few of those who have made significant contributions to science, culture, and society, and introduce you to two researchers from Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI), Margarita Gonzalez and Eric Soto.

National Hispanic Heritage Month pays respect to the cultures and contributions of both Hispanic and Latino Americans and celebrates their heritage. Starting in 1968 as Hispanic Heritage Week under President Lyndon B. Johnson, the celebration was expanded to a 30-day recognition by President Ronald Reagan and signed into law as Hispanic Heritage Month in 1988 by President Ronald Reagan, according to history.com. You might wonder why the month begins mid-September. Sept. 15 was chosen as the starting point for the commemoration because it is the anniversary of independence of five Hispanic countries: Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, which all declared independence in 1821. In addition, Mexico, Chile, and Belize celebrate their independence days Sept. 16, Sept. 18, and Sept. 21, respectively.

According to Pew Research, in 104 U.S. counties, Hispanics made up at least 50% of the population in 2019. The Hispanic population is the second-largest in the U.S., according to the Arizona Hispanic Chamber of Commerce’s 23rd Annual DATOS.

We celebrate the many contributions Hispanics and Latinos have made to the world. We highlight only a few of those individuals below, but we encourage you to do some of your own research and learn more. We are also pleased to have had the opportunity to interview two of our very own GTRI colleagues: Margarita Gonzalez and Eric Soto. Read their interviews to hear directly from them on topics, including how they came into their professional careers and some ways their heritage has influenced their lives. Discover a few interesting personal fun facts as well!

We note that this is merely the tip of the iceberg. From STEM fields to music, theater, sports, business, education, and beyond, there are many individuals to celebrate and learn about. We hope this piques your interest, and you will continue your exploration!

Introducing Margarita Gonzalez and Eric Soto
Information and Communications Lab, GTRI

While over 20% of the U.S. population is of Hispanic heritage, only 7% of STEM professionals are represented by those with Hispanic heritage, according to the Society of Professional Hispanic Engineers (SPHE). We take this opportunity to introduce you to some of our STEM colleagues at GTRI with Hispanic heritage as we talk with them, learn about them and how their Hispanic/Latino heritage has influenced them, and share how they are also shaping the future.

Margarita GonzalezMargarita Gonzalez

Margarita, thank you for agreeing to let us highlight you at STEM@GTRI. We are excited to celebrate National Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs Sept. 15 - Oct. 15, 2020, and are especially happy to be able to talk with you about your career at GTRI and learn about as well!

You are the first generation of Hispanic heritage born in the U.S. Both of your parents were born in Mexico and then immigrated to the U.S. where you were born. Can you tell us a little bit about what that means to you and how that shaped who you are today?

As the oldest child of immigrant parents who came to the U.S. in pursuit of the “American Dream,” I am acutely aware of the sacrifice my parents paid — not only leaving Mexico but also the daily choices they made as they raised a family in a foreign country. My parents modeled for me hard work, resourcefulness, and commitment to family.

Tell us a little about your work. What is it that you do at GTRI?

I have the privilege and pleasure of working with ingenious multi-disciplinary teams who design and develop technological solutions for our Federal, State, and local government clients. In any given week, I get to wear different “hats” and step into different roles. In a nutshell, I am a creative problem-solver who builds alliances (internally and externally) to co-create sustainable solutions with our clients and their stakeholders.

Do you remember how you decided you wanted to be a researcher?

I consider myself fortunate to have had diverse professional experiences prior to GTRI. Because my roles have placed me in very different domains than my educational background, I have always had to learn a lot in a short amount of time in order to be able to do my job. I did not realize it at the time, but I was gradually becoming a research practitioner. I used the research process to learn, to establish baseline understanding, clarify for myself the gap/need, engage others to address the need, and ultimately ensure that we were attempting to develop or implement worthwhile and of value to others.

What path led you to working at the GTRI?

It was synchronistic, actually. For personal reasons and upon completion of my graduate studies in Australia, I returned to Atlanta. I was unsure that I would stay for long. I assumed that after graduate school, I would find myself back in the Middle East. I never imagined that I would be able to put to use my background in Arabic, Islamic studies, and professional experience in the Middle East, working for an applied research institution in Atlanta. During my first year at GTRI, I definitely felt like I was drinking from a fire hydrant. I was introduced to an entirely new world and endless possibilities.

You mention working in the Middle East and going to graduate school in Australia — you’ve had quite the international experiences! Can you tell us a little more about that, and what did you learn that you were able to bring back to your current work at Georgia Tech?

Growing up in NYC and then moving to north Georgia, I was aware that I had access to a different perspective than people around me because of my bilingualism and biculturalism. What I did not realize at the time but soon learned while living in North Africa, the Middle East, and then Australia, is that I was readily able to exercise mental agility, adaptability, and flexibility. While I enjoyed a variety of educational and professional experiences, the common thread was I was frequently a bridge builder, cultivating trust capital and consensus, as well as translating and aligning perspectives. At Georgia Tech, these soft skills have enabled me to work with different groups of people who speak different “languages” (engineers vs. social scientists) and seemingly have competing priorities.

You bring a very important but often overlooked dimension to solving tough technical problems — and that is the human-centric or socio-technical approach. Can you tell us a little about what that means and how it works?

For me, technology is a means to an end. One example — we design software systems with databases to capture data that is important to an organization or company. For an organization to derive the greatest value from its data, it has to be processed, analyzed, and interpreted in order for someone to take action or to answer a nuanced question. Usually, a technology is not considered a “success” simply because it is functional or “works.” It has to work for the intended users. A socio-technical perspective on this brief example highlights that a person is at the center of this context. It recognizes the interaction between people (human behavior) and technology within an organization as well as the rules, procedures, and policies related to the tasks and tools.

What do you consider your great accomplishments so far?

In his book, “The Medici Effect: What Elephants and Epidemics Can Teach Us About Innovation,” Frans Johansson states that innovation is found at the intersection of disciplines. This deeply resonates with me. I have a bachelor’s degree in religion and a master’s degree in international affairs. One would wonder what any of this has to do with technology and applied research. I would say that the combination of my educational and professional experiences prior to GTRI has given me different tools and perspectives to leverage in building high-performing multi-disciplinary teams. In my initial years at GTRI, I was on projects where the social or human aspects of the problems we were solving were not front and center. At times, I felt like my perspective or input was not even considered in the solution design. For months, I felt lost and like I did not really fit in. One day, I was on-site at an Army installation in the middle of nowhere America to help our engineers test the initial version of the tool we thought would “solve” the problem. The users were quite upset since there was very little about the tool that would actually help them. On that day, not only did I feel vindicated because they expressed verbatim things I had brought up to the engineering team months before, but I saw for myself that my perspective was not only valuable but necessary! This was a turning point for me. I realized that I had many skills and lessons learned in my toolkit that I had not used during my first 18 months at GTRI.

I am grateful to be a part of ICL (GTRI’s Information and Communications Laboratory) where we work on very diverse projects that span tough problems that can impact us all — from health to education to telecommunications and big data.

Do you have advice for a student who is considering working within a STEM field but isn’t sure what they want to do?

It is intimidating when students don’t have models in their immediate family or network who are in that field whom they could look up to or learn from.

You won’t even know if you’re interested if you don’t try something. Look for opportunities in your school and be open to exploring something new. I recommend seeing what’s available in your schools or communities, whether it’s a robotics day, a coding day, a talk by a local scientist — or whatever, and just try it. If you enjoy problem-solving and figuring things out, I think there are opportunities in STEM out there for you. The first step doesn’t require taking a big commitment — could be a weekend or evening or day event, but will just give you a chance to check it out. I also recommend discarding whatever assumptions you may have about studying or working in a STEM field until you learn more about it and try it.

What is something really interesting about you that many of us may not know — whether it’s your favorite hobby, food that you enjoy, or places to travel that you want to go visit?

Some people are surprised to learn I’m a certified yoga teacher. I went into it not because I wanted to teach, but for self-discovery and self-interest. I will try anything if it will help me more optimally do my work or help others do theirs. Another thing you may have figured out about me is that I love to travel, but I have yet to visit some of the more “traditional” international travel destinations. I’d really like to be able to spend more time traveling and to visit Spain and England in particular.

Thank you for your time, Margarita, talking with our readers and letting us get to know a little more about you and sharing your advice for exploring different possibilities for studying or working in STEM.

Eric SotoEric Soto

Eric, thank you for taking this time to let us ask you a few questions and share your responses with our STEM@GTRI readers.

You are of Puerto Rican heritage. Can you tell us a little bit about what that means to you and how that influenced who you are today?

Yes, my family is from Puerto Rico. Puerto Ricans have a very rich heritage with influence from the Taino Indians, Spaniards, and Africans. The influences from those people come together to make a beautiful mix that can be seen in many aspects of the Puerto Rican culture, from the music, to food, to art, and life. My father was an officer in the U.S. Army, and I was born in Ft. Polk, Louisiana. I have lived my entire life in the continental United States; however, being raised in a Puerto Rican family greatly influenced who I am. I am very proud of my Puerto Rican heritage.

Tell us a little about your work. What is it that you do at GTRI?

I am a research scientist II at GTRI, and I use my computer science background to develop solutions for different projects. Depending on the project I may be doing anything from software development, system architecture, serving as a subject matter expert, to teaching classes on various technologies. I see myself as a “jack of all trades,” and I use and build on the skills I have developed over the years to develop solutions for projects.

Do you remember how you decided you wanted to work in a STEM field?

My mother had a great influence on me wanting to get into computer science. She worked in the G1 at FORSCOM at Ft MacPherson. She was always working with the setup and configuration of computers and other devices, and I was always very interested in what she did. She would take me to work with her during school breaks, and I would get to shadow her and see what she did. Watching her work really sparked my interest in technology, specifically with wanting to know more about computers and how they work. Additionally, my love for video games as a teenager greatly sparked my interest to understand how to program computers.

What course of study did you pursue to meet your work goals?

I went to Georgia Tech and earned both a bachelor’s degree in computer science and master’s degree in human computer interaction from the College of Computing. Additionally, I never stop learning. I try to stay up to date on the latest technologies and frameworks related to software development.

What path led you to working at GTRI?

I started as a student assistant during my fourth year of undergrad at Georgia Tech. After graduation, I transitioned to a full-time research scientist.

What do you consider your great accomplishments so far?

Being able to help with a wide variety of projects and helping agencies like the Department of Justice, the FBI, the Army, the Air Force, the Marine Corps, the Georgia Emergency Management Agency, and the Georgia Department of Community Health in the 17 years that I’ve been at GTRI.

What about your work gets you the most excited?

The opportunity to work on new and challenging problems. No two projects are the same, and I always have the opportunity to grow and learn new things.

Do you have advice for a student who is considering working within a STEM field but isn’t sure what they want to do?

Reach out to people working in different STEM fields to discuss what they do. Try to find out what they like/dislike about their field, and see how it lines up with what you want to do. Perhaps see if it is possible to shadow that person for a day to see what they do. Try different activities that highlight aspects of different STEM fields that interest you. Even try activities for the fields that do not interest you; you may be surprised and find out you like them. If you have the opportunity, join the tech club at your school, or perhaps join your nearest Scouts BSA troop. It is OK to not be 100% sure what you want to do. I am still trying to figure out what I want to do when I grow up. The big thing is to be open to trying new opportunities in STEM.

What is something really interesting about you that many of us may not know — whether it’s your favorite hobby, food that you enjoy, or places to travel that you want to go visit?

I love motor sports. I greatly enjoy watching races, and my happy place is in the garage working on a car. I was very active with the Solo program of the Atlanta Region Sports Car Club of America for 14 years. I took a brief break while my children were young. This year, my oldest son has taken an interest in motor sports, and we have started to get him into karting. Now you can find me pretty much every weekend wrenching on his kart, or taking him to the track for seat time. Also, I love to cook, especially barbecue. From brisket, to pork butts, to rib — any chance I get, I like to something on the smoker. My latest interest has been trying to figure out how to introduce Puerto Rican flavors into Southern-style barbecue. Another passion of mine is music. I played trumpet for over 14 years. During the pandemic, I decided it was time to learn guitar and start teaching my kids music as well. We always have music of all genres playing in our house.

Finally, for our readers and students interested in learning more about the contributions made by those with Hispanic and Latin heritage, what would you advise them to do?

Read as much as possible. Know your history. It is so important to know where you came from and what the people with whom you share your heritage have done.

Thank you, Eric, for sharing with us and for your advice for our readers interesting in learning more and in exploring STEM.

Other Notable Individuals

Dr. Mario Molina
Co-Recipient of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Mario Molina was a co-recipient of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1995. Molina, professor Sherwood Rowland, and Paul Crutzen share the Nobel Price in Chemistry for their work in understanding the dangers of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which ultimately led to the discovery of the hole in the ozone layer of the Antarctic Ocean, according to Britannica.com. Thanks to the Montreal Protocol, CFCs are banned in large parts of the world. Molina was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013 by President Barack Obama.

To learn more about Molina, including his references to growing up in Mexico City and the influence of his aunt on in interest in the study of chemistry, see his biography the Nobel Prize website.

Sonia Sotomayor
First Latina U.S. Supreme Court Justice

According to one of her biographies, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor was born in New York, where her parents, who both were born in Puerto Rico, met and married. After graduating summa cum laude from Princeton University and then from Yale Law School, Chief Justice Sotomayor worked her way up to the highest level of the American judicial system. She started as an assistant district attorney in Manhattan, New York, and then was appointed U.S. District Court judge in 1991 and then U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in 1998. In 2009, President Obama appointed her as Supreme Court Justice, making history as the first Latina to hold this prestigious post.

Want to learn more about Sotomayor? There is a wealth of resources online for great information, including this website.

Rita Moreno

A legendary actress hailing from Puerto Rico, Rita Moreno broke grounds for Latinos in entertainment. According to Britannica.com, she has achieved acclaim and the highest recognition for her work. Active on Broadway, in movies, and in TV, she shows no signs of slowing down. You may know her from her famous role as Anita in “West Side Story,” her work on “Sesame Street” and “The Electric Company,” or from her numerous other work and accolades. Morena is one of only 16 recipients of the EGOT, according to thewrap.com – meaning she has been awarded an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and a Tony Award. In 2019, she was also awarded the prestigious Peabody Award, making her one of three PEGOT recipients.

Lin Manuel-Miranda

If you’ve heard of “Hamilton,” you know of Lin Manuel-Miranda. Born in New York City to Puerto Rican parents, he is an award-winning writer, actor, performer, and a humanitarian devoted to bringing Puerto Rico back after the recent hurricanes, according to Britannica.com. The musical, “Hamilton” won 11 Tony Awards and broke records with 16 nominations and was also awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Drama. Miranda has also been recognized with two Grammys, for cast recordings of “In The Heights” and “Hamilton,” and an Emmy for music and lyrics for the 2013 Tony Awards show.

Want to learn more?

To learn more about National Hispanic Heritage Month, you can visit: https://hispanicheritagemonth.gov/

You can also visit the Society for Hispanic Professional Engineers for additional resources. SHPE is the nation’s largest association dedicated to fostering Hispanic leadership in the STEM field. SHPE was founded in 1974 by a group of engineers employed by the City of Los Angeles. Today, SHPE serves more than 13,000 members and is active on more than 275 student and professional chapters. SHPE is helping to close the gap between the Hispanic population and representation in STEM. Check out the SHPE website for references and learn more about their K12, post-secondary, and professional programs.