One Scientist's Quest to Improve Science Education in Puerto Rico

Published Mar 20, 2018

Follow the journey of Dr. Giovanna Guerrero-Medina as she grows from neurobiology researcher to organizer and science advocate for Puerto Rico before and after Hurricane Maria.

In this episode
  • Giovanna recounts how the complexities of life got her hooked on science
  • Giovanna discusses her work with Ciencia Puerto Rico
  • Giovanna tells Ashanti about increasing access to science resources for underrepresented communities
  • Ashanti and Giovanna talk about using science education to increase resilience
  • Giovanna talks about teaching science through experiences, not just through books
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Full transcript

In September 2017—Just about six months ago, Hurricane Maria devastated the US territory of Puerto Rico. Conflicting etimates of the death toll range from dozens to hundreds of people. Hurricane maria also wiped out 80 percent of Puerto Rican agriculture, destroyed homes and business all over the island, and left millions without power. Some ten percent of Puerto Ricans on the island still don’t have power. And many are leaving the island to join relatives and friends living on the US mainland.

The Puerto Rican diaspora in the US was already a strong community, tight-knit despite its differences and distance. The hurricane has forged an even stronger sense of connection, one in which Puerto Ricans living stateside are pooling their time, money, and brainpower to help recovery back on the island.

Dr. Giovanna Guerrero-Medina is among their number. She grew up in San Juan and now lives in Connecticut. As executive director of Ciencia Puerto Rico, she oversees an international network of scientists, students, and educators committed to promoting scientific outreach, education, and careers among Puerto Ricans. Today, post-hurricane, Dr. Guerrero-Medina, Ciencia Puerto Rico, and its thousands of members are working to make the island more resilient and sustainable, through science education and outreach.

Our correspondent Ashanti Washington recently spent some time with Dr. Guerrero Medina. They talked about the need for better science literacy and access for students on the island, the mission of Ciencia Puerto Rico, and how a network of scientists was able to come through for Puerto Rico after the storm.

Ashanti: Thanks, Colleen. I'm here with Doctor Giovanna Guerrero Medina, who is the Executive Director of Ciencia Puerto Rico, and a scientist at Yale Medical School. Giovanna, welcome to the Got Science? podcast.

Giovanna: Hi Ashanti.

Ashanti: Thank you for joining us today. Let's get started. So, you're trained as a neurobiologist. When did you know that you wanted to study science? Was this an idea that you had when you were a kid or did you just kind of stumble into this field?

Giovanna: I always loved science, but I never really considered it a career until my last year of high school when I was able to take a biology class at the university. So as a high school student, my science classes were, unfortunately, very dry, you know. We learned from textbooks, we may have had a few laboratory courses, but they didn't really communicate the excitement of science, you know. It was just, like, memorizing facts and putting them down, but when I was able to go to the university and take this course, I not only saw faculty members who were excited by the research they were actually doing but by undergraduate students that were getting involved in research and were also excited about the research they were doing, and that was really infectious.

And then I started to think about, you know, all the interests I had as a kid, watching Mutual of Omaha and, you know, enjoying going out in nature, and I thought, "You know, this is something that I think I could devote time to and I'm interested in knowing more about. I'm interested in knowing more about how, you know, life works, and how the complexity that we are comes to be," and as I started taking more courses in college, I really...that's what really hooked me, is, like, the complexity of life and how that gets to be.

Ashanti: Well, fabulous. Can you talk a little bit about where you went to university, and where you grew up? It seems like it was a formative part of how you got set on this path.

Giovanna: Yes, yes. I was born in Puerto Rico. I'm from the capital region, San Juan, Puerto Rico. It's a colony of the U.S. It's a beautiful place full of nature, so that was the perfect playground for me except, as I said, you know, unfortunately, even in such a beautiful landscape, you really don't learn about the science that's around you. The way science is taught typically in Puerto Rico is I guess the way it's traditionally taught everywhere, which is from a book, and not from exploring your surrounding.

But Puerto Rico was a wonderful place to be. I went to the University of Puerto Rico in Rio Piedras, also the capital region where there's a big tradition of research, and also of undergrads being involved in research. So, you know, that was also a perfect place for me to get started into science, and into research, and getting actually involved in doing research rather than reading about it.

Ashanti: Nice. Can you talk a little bit more about that beginning time when you're starting to work in labs, and starting to get your feet under you as a junior scientist, an early career scientist? Did you encounter obstacles as a science student or any encouraging factors that said, "Okay, I can keep doing this?"

Giovanna: Yeah, the undergrad years were really encouraging. I had great professors, and I had great mentors, and great role models, so everything went great. I, you know, early on I decided I didn't want to go into medicine, I was going to pursue research. I wasn't quite sure about what research I wanted to do, I wanted to devote myself until my last year at the university where I was able to take a graduate level developmental biology course, and I was immediately hooked.

I had already applied to a few grad schools at that point, but not in developmental biology or in developmental neurobiology, which was really the area that called to me, so I decided to take a year off and do a post-bac while I searched for the perfect home. And after that year, I decided to go to Berkeley where they had a great cohort of young developmental biologists and neurobiologists, and it was a great community. It seemed like an intellectual community where I could be a part of.

And, you know, I had a great experience in grad school. I think I suffered from what most students suffer from when they're put into an intensive research-driven environment, and that was Impostor Syndrome. I was also the only Latina student in my department, so I also felt isolated and separated from my culture, and so, you know, I think while I was very confident in myself as an undergrad, my confidence kind of waivered a little bit in graduate school, and I didn't really...I wasn't able to really integrate myself into the intellectual community of the university like I wanted to.

So, you know, I didn't really have anybody telling me, you know, "Everybody goes through this Impostor Syndrome. Everybody, you know, suffers from it. You get better. It's a model where your, you know, research skills improve the longer you're in it. Nobody comes into it perfect," and nobody was telling me that. So I think if I had had somebody to tell me the way it is, tell me, "It's not you," you know, I think I would have enjoyed my graduate experience a little better. That said, I had a great time in grad school, I made lots of friends, my research actually ended up being quite productive. I had a publication in Nature Neuroscience by the end of it, so yeah.

Ashanti: You're clearly very passionate about, and committed to, inventing opportunities and access to science for Latinos and to just generally promote diversity and science. Can you tell me a little bit more about your role with Ciencia Puerto Rico, and why this work is so important to you?

Giovanna: Yes, it's been my life's mission actually, and it did start around that same time when I was doing my Science Policy Fellowship at the National Academy. So I was learning all these ways in which scientists can be engaged with government, and how they can promote better policies for know, to continue advancing their work, and I was thinking, "Oh my gosh, it would be so great if somebody could do this for Puerto Rico," because I know there's a lot of students like me that would love to be exposed to science.

There's a lot of research that goes on at the university, but, you know, it's mostly undergraduate based. We didn't...Puerto Rico didn't really have a great research capacity maybe, you know, at the level of some of the top states here in the U.S., California, Massachusetts, New York, whatever. And it'd be great if we had somebody advocating for Puerto Rico in that way.

So that's when I learned about Ciencia Puerto Rico. It was founded by Daniel Colon Ramos. He was a postdoc at the time at Stanford, and it had just started as a database, a registry, for anybody interested in science in Puerto Rico. And it was very new, it was just, like, a few, maybe eight months when I found it, and I immediately called Daniel, and I'm like, "I love what you're doing. How can I get involved? Let me know how I can help," and so that just started a journey that, you know, where I was a volunteer for the organization for eight years, and continued, you know...started getting more and more, progressively more involved in the operations, and figuring out how we can leverage what was now a really, you know, exponentially growing community of scientists and science supporters.

How could we leverage that to bring about policies or programs that would sustain more people getting interested and excited about science and getting involved in science? So from the very beginning, our focus was in science communication, on making sure that scientists could share that passion, you know, the same way when I went to college. I took that biology course in college and it was from the voices of the scientists, the undergrads that were doing research that kind of affected me. We believe that if we close that bridge between the scientist, the Puerto Rican scientist and the Puerto Rican public, we could really communicate that excitement a lot better.

And so my colleague, Monica Feliu-Mojer, who's our Director of Communications, she was instrumental in that, as well as another science communicator, Wilson Gonzalez Espada. They served as, kind of, the editors and helped get hundreds of scientists' voices in a way that was culturally relevant and exciting for the public, and we managed to establish a collaboration with the main newspaper in Puerto Rico still continues, and has been really fruitful for improving the quality of science education in Puerto Rico.

We...I also was very interested in professional development of students and of scientists and of giving people resources and opportunities so they could find, you know, the opportunity to research, and also find the role models and the mentors that could keep them going on the way that I, maybe I wish I had had when I was in grad school. So a lot of what Ciencia Puerto Rico does has to do with disseminating information about opportunities. Most of the time, it's just, you know, when you have a community or a population that is underrepresented or underserved by science, it really has to do about access.

Most recently, we've also decided that science education is in big need in Puerto Rico, and we have this amazing resource of thousands of scientists that study pretty much everything under the sun. And why not bring those voices to the students and help them see how science is done rather than reading it from a textbook?


Ashanti: So you mentioned your colleague, Monica.

Giovanna: Yeah.

Ashanti: Monica has, in the past, described that network as being geographically dispersed, but emotionally connected network. Does that seem...

Giovanna: Yes, that's how we...that's how we talk about it, and I know that, you know, as scientists we sometimes don't like to think that emotions exist, but they do. I mean, that's how...that's why the network when I found it online spoke to me, you know. It's like, "Oh my gosh, I'm here in D.C. I'm thousands of miles away from my family and from the environment that I love, and I have all this knowledge that I'm gaining. How can I help?"

You know, it's...I don't think if I had know, if I didn't have that connection with Puerto Rico, I would not have made that connection about putting my work into use, and I think that's the way that most people that come to Ciencia Puerto Rico find it. So the network, we have about 8,500 members. About 70% are in Puerto Rico, so, you know, we have a lot of the scientific Puerto Rican population represented. But the 30% that's outside of Puerto Rico, they're across 49 states, they're in over 50 countries, they're in more than 480 institutions of higher learning, and they're mostly either academic scientists or graduate students or postdocs or stem professionals, so they're, you know, it really covers a big portion of the Puerto Rican diaspora.

Sometimes we're talked about as a diaspora organization, but we're not exclusively and we also kind of...we push back a little bit against that term because it kind of separate, makes it something separate, and to us, Puerto Rico is Puerto Rico and its diaspora, you know. We're not just 3.3 million people living in Puerto Rico. There's more than eight million Puerto Ricans in Puerto Rico and across the US, and for us that's a really powerful population. And, you know, as in my case, as in Monica's case, as in Daniel's case, as in many cases of people that are a part of the Ciencia Puerto Rico community that are not working in Puerto Rico, a lot of our effort, our thoughts, our work centers on Puerto Rico, so that's why we say it's geographically dispersed, but it's emotionally connected.

Ashanti: So in 2017, there were, unfortunately, disastrous hurricanes that impacted Puerto Rico and the United States as well. Can you talk a little bit about what it means to be at the helm of an organization like Ciencia Puerto Rico in 2018, and the aftermath of these hurricanes, and how it's affected the Puerto Rican diaspora, and what you personally would like to do to, kind of, take Ciencia Puerto Rico forward and solve some of these challenges?

Giovanna: Yeah, I mean, the last year has not been an easy year by any stretch of the imagination on many fronts, but what happened after Hurricanes Irma and Maria, it was a traumatic experience, I should say. You know, definitely for the people that were in Puerto Rico and, as I mentioned, 70% of our membership is in Puerto Rico. But for us who are outside, you know, we were watching this monster of a category 5 storm bearing down on Puerto Rico, and we're like, you know, thinking "What's going to happen, and what will I be able to do?"

And then in the weeks afterwards, it was even more stressful because all communication was lost in Puerto Rico. The few reports that were getting out were, you know, about nobody having electricity, the electrical system being completely swept, and, you know, lack of potable water. So we started getting lots of calls and emails from members of our community that are not in Puerto Rico saying, "What can we do? How can we help?" So our emergency response to the hurricane was to do what we always do, and that's to use the power of the network to respond to the emergency. So we established a resource bank with information about how scientists could donate to different scientific causes, or to help scientists and affected students.

We also had information from other partners about general relief efforts but our focus was on scientists and science. We had information about how to make medical donations, how to volunteer if you're a scientist or a computer scientist for recovery and relief efforts. And we also decided to give our members, who were asking for it, advocacy tools. So, you know, at my university I was very lucky in that the leadership knew about what was happening and we got emails from the leadership, individual emails saying, you know, that they were concerned about what was happening, but what we really wanted was more than words of concern.

We wanted them to make a public announcement, get the community in New Haven, which is has a great representation of Puerto Rican people. Let them know that the university was there and let them know what they could do to help. And so we drafted a letter, myself and my colleagues at Yale, and we did...we posted a draft of this letter on Ciencia Puerto Rico for other people to use and we disseminated it, and I know for a fact that, you know, scientists at other universities, UC Davis, the Cooney System, Massachusetts, were using this letter to also communicate to their institutions about, you know, this has happened, you have a big significant portion of your population of students or faculty or people in the community that are impacted. Here's some of the things that you can do as an institution to help Puerto Rico.

And that was just amazing to see, you know, the response not just from the Puerto Rican scientific community, but from the international scientific community. We got over 400 offers of help within one month. So it was really incredible and hopefully it was, you know, it also helped people in Puerto Rico see that they had a whole community of science behind them.

And so after our emergency response, we started to think about the long term, "Okay, this is fine and good, you know, people need emergency urgent help right now, but six months from now, you know, all this aid is going to go away, and what will be left? How can we prepare for the next Maria? You know, the next hurricane season is only three months away." And so, as an organization, we started thinking, "How can we get more involved in long-term recovery, and what will make a long-term impact in making Puerto Rico more resilient and more sustainable?"

So before the hurricane hit, we had spent about a year doing strategic planning and really come to the realization that science education was an area where there was a huge need, and we had a unique resource that could really make a big impact. So in Puerto Rico, less than 10% of eighth graders are proficient in math, according to standardized tests. So that's something that should have been an emergency before the hurricanes, but it wasn't.

Less than 60%...sorry, less than 40% of students in eighth grade are proficient in science. So we had already decided before the hurricanes hit that we wanted to focus on science education and that by bringing scientists to collaborate with teachers and students, they would be able to co-create lessons that would be more engaging, that would show how science is done, and that would provide the, you know...that would immerse science in the context that the students lived so that they could see the tangible benefits of science.

After the hurricanes hit, we decided that that approach was still important and useful, and we now had a new set of challenges that students and teachers could contribute to that made it even more...that could make science even more impactful than before, so we developed a set of lesson plans that dealt with challenges that communities across Puerto Rico are facing that have to do with renewable energy, with potable water systems, with sustainable environments, terrestrial ecosystems, things like that.

And this year, we're starting to train teachers on how to implement these lessons, which are project based. It's project-based learning so that students across Puerto Rico can get started in figuring out, you know, for their communities, how can they attend to these challenges? And hopefully, not just be learning in a more effective way about science and that can have lasting effects, create a more...a citizenship that's more engaged with science and a more critical thinking society, but also immediately help those communities be more resilient because they'll know where their challenges are and what solutions they might have. So that's a really exciting project for us.

Ashanti: So it seems that Ciencia Puerto Rico had a goal in mind beginning of 2017 as far as its strategy in Puerto Rico and beyond in communicating science and education, and it may have shifted after the end of 2017 and the hurricanes. What would you like to see in, say, five years in Puerto Rico? What's your vision?

Giovanna: My vision is for an educational system, a public educational system where students are going out into their environments, into their communities, and learning about science as they're doing it, and that they have role models that they can look up to that, you know, represent their faces, their communities, that science is not seen as something that's done elsewhere in other countries, but as part of the Puerto Rican culture. So that's my vision for Puerto Rico.

Ashanti: You're the Executive Director of Ciencia Puerto Rico, you're in charge of so many different moving pieces, and you're keeping an eye on science education and communication, advocacy, and policy, and making sure folks are talking to each other, but at the end of the day, do you miss working on pure science projects? Do you miss working in a lab and pipetting?

Giovanna: It's funny because my husband always tells us this anecdote. When I started at the National Academies, you know, doing science policy work, I called him. He was in California. He was my boyfriend at the time, and I'm like, "Mark, I'm never holding a pipette ever again," so he always tells that know, when he's trying to say how much I, you know, I love the work that I'm doing, and it's true. I mean, I think I found my home, my calling, my, you know, like I said, my life's mission.

Ashanti: Fabulous. Well, Giovanna, it was great to talk to you. Thank you for joining us in our podcast today.

Giovanna: Thank you, Ashanti.

This week in science history

This week in science history, we’re traveling back to 1985. On March 22, one of the most significant international treaties ever negotiated – the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone – was opened for signature.

Our atmosphere is made up of multiple layers. Nearly all of human activity is confined to the troposphere, which extends six miles up from the Earth. The next layer out is the stratosphere, and that’s where the ozone layer is.

Unlike ozone at the ground level — which is usually called smog and is a byproduct of pollution from cars, power plants– stratospheric ozone occurs naturally and provides a protective layer between us and harmful radiation from the sun.

In 1974, scientists published the first paper suggesting we might be damaging the ozone layer. Researchers found that chlorofluorcarbon gases, or CFCs, were migrating to the stratosphere and breaking down the ozone layer. And CFCs were everywhere, from hairsprays to refrigerators. By the eighties newspapers were full of headlines about the ozone hole and the damage it could cause, including increasing rates of skin cancer as people were exposed to more harmful UV radiation.

It was only through international cooperation like the Vienna Convention, which led to the Montreal Protocol, an international treaty that led to the phase out of CFCs and other ozone depleting chemicals, that the damage was slowed, and eventually, reversed. The United States signed onto the Montreal Protocol more than 30 years ago and as of this January, scientists reported that ozone depletion over Antarctica was around 20 percent lower in the 2016 Antarctic winter than it was in 2005. The hole isn’t gone, but international action to fix the problem means that the situation continues to improve.

The parallels to climate change are clear: Human activity is causing damage to our atmosphere that threatens us all and scientists are sounding the warning. And while society has not moved as swiftly on climate change as they did on the ozone hole, the good news is that there is a clear precedent. When we listen to scientists and have the political will to act we can effectively address global problems like the hole in the ozone layer… and global warming.

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Correspondent: Ashanti Washington
This Week in Science History: Katy Love
Editing: Omari Spears
Music: Brian Middleton
Research and writing: Pamela Worth
Executive producer: Rich Hayes
Host: Colleen Macdonald

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