Meet the Woman Making Science Culturally Relevant In the U.S.

By Jose Fermoso, HIPGive Contributor (follow Jose on Twitter @fermoso)

Mónica Feliú-Mojer
Mónica Feliú-Mojer

Mónica Feliú-Mojer was only 11 years old when she found out her father was suffering from a serious mental illness. Gualberto, normally a playful and kind Puerto Rican from Lajas, began showing serious personality changes that concerned the family. Living on a farm that always needed something to be fixed or built, she sometimes found him depressed, barely wanting to get off the couch,while moments earlier he’d been handy and happy. The young Monica didn’t fully understand what was happening, but says she knew his behavior was connected to his brain.

“To me, the change in his personality due to depression was so stark… it was clear there was a connection between the brain and the way people behave,” she says.

From that moment, Monica became interested in neural connections to such a degree it ultimately led her far from her hometown to a doctorate from Harvard in neuroscience. You could say she was another kid who wanted to help understand a parent’s sickness. In time, the young brunette with the gentle face would publish important research papers.

Yet throughout her successful academic career, Feliú-Mojer came to believe that the communication part of science was almost as important as the science itself.

While working for a science outreach organization before grad school, editing papers by scientists hoping to make their research easier to understand for a mass audience, she realized that if people didn’t understand the medical risks they faced, for example, they might not seek help. She also saw that poor communities’ incomplete understanding of science, in Puerto Rico and elsewhere, could actually worsen their potential health outcomes during crises. In terms of the mental illness her father had suffered from, she realized how lucky and unusual he was to have known about his options and that he reached out to a professional. Latinos, it turns out, are among the least likely of groups to talk to mental health professionals.

A lack of science understanding not only affects Latino adults but trickles down to their children. A study published last month in the International Journal of Health Services found Latino children make 58 percent fewer visits to any mental health professional than white children.

The scientific aptitude of Latinos is not the problem, Feliú-Mojer says. Rather, it is about appropriate access to education; science learning usually lacks cultural and contextual information that can help minority groups relate to it. “Culture affects how we learn and approach problems. At the moment, I don’t think science is accessible enough for Latinos,” she said over the phone.

Some of the cultural problems related to science understanding, for example, is based on the absence of minority authority figures. In most American communities, as in hospitals, university research labs, and even on TV as commentators or characters in movies, scientists tend to be male, white, and English-speaking.

The need to improve the public’s understanding of science pushed Feliú-Mojer from a career researching brain plasticity to communications. She sought to bridge the gap between science and her culture by “telling stories about science and, through those stories, empower people.”

Mónica Feliú-Mojer

But if you think for a second she’s not working as hard not being hunched over a microscope, think again. Her colleagues say she’s the most hard-working woman they know and her enthusiasm for science outreach is already gaining national acclaim.

One of her colleagues, cell biology PhD Sarah Goodwin, says Feliú-Mojer’s passion comes across immediately. “She’s a remarkable person. Professional and friendly [with] passion for science outreach, for diversity and making science as inclusive as possible,” she told me.

As the vice-director and news editor-in-chief for Ciencia Puerto Rico (CPR), a nonprofit promoting science awareness and educational improvement, Feliú-Mojer has spearheaded big educational projects.

One of these is the Yale Ciencia Academy, a year-long fellowship program that provides graduate students in biomedical sciences with opportunities for career advancement through mentoring, workshops, and networking. Feliú-Mojer helps interview candidates, many of whom have expertise in fields including HIV, genetics, and epidemiology. The Academy is part of the Yale Ciencia Initiative, a partnership where the Ivy learns how to establish community programs that increase diversity in the sciences while underrepresented groups get culturally-relevant access to research from a world-class university.

Another successful CPR-Yale project Feliú-Mojer is involved with is Seeds of Success, an ambassador program that places middle school girls with female science role models. Mentoring young women is, unsurprisingly, one of her passions. Like others from modest backgrounds, Feliú-Mojer first felt out of place at the hallowed Ivy halls but eventually realized her qualities could help her withstand the rigors of academia. “I came to value my experiences growing up. I was very resourceful and credit my upbringing with teaching me how to be resilient,” she said.

Mónica Feliú-Mojer

Feliú-Mojer tries to impart this lesson to young Latina scientists facing tough challenges, which is important considering the challenges they still face. The last U.S. Census found that among science and engineering graduates, men are employed in computer, engineering, science, and math (STEM) positions at twice the rate of women: 31 percent compared with 15 percent. When looking at minority women, the National Science Foundation said they comprise fewer than one in 10 employed scientists.

Then there are the cultural challenges. A study named “Double Jeopardy? Gender Bias Against Women of Color in Science,” led by Katherine W. Phillips, Professor of Leadership and Ethics at Columbia University Business School, found that nearly all women scientists surveyed were found to have experienced discrimination in the workplace. To make matters worse, almost half of Black and Latina women scientists had been mistaken for a janitor or administrator in their offices.

Feliú-Mojer has also been working at iBiology, a non-profit affiliated with the University of California at San Francisco, to push back against such dire examples. There, she makes free online videos about research with biologists and leads a volunteer program where students and scientists create subtitles for videos in English and other languages. She also produces videos about professional development aimed at helping Latinos succeed, many of which feature women academics.

A colleague from iBiology, Dr. Shannon Behrman, says Feliu-Mojer’s work there perfectly fits her passion because she’s interested in “connecting people and really thinks about their personal lives.”

“From a woman’s perspective, and for underrepresented groups, mentorship is key. Culturally-responsive mentorship is being able to communicate with each other in effective ways. There’s still a lot of white men in this field so we, including Monica, make an effort to reach out to faculty [to appear in videos] from underrepresented groups. We want to level the playing field so students from any background can access this education,” Behrman said in an interview.

While the absolute effectiveness of video-based education has not yet been proven, studies have shown video can be an effective learning tool. A teaching guide from Vanderbilt University’s Education School found a “productive learning experience” in video includes elements that promote active learning such as a conversational style and contextual learning.

As she prepares for her fall tasks, there is one topic Feliú-Mojer says worries her and shows how much more work there is to do communicating proper science: the Zika virus.

Feliú-Mojer told me that during a recent visit to Puerto Rico, a restaurant server offered mosquito repellent to her and her friends and when he brought it, said, “Here you go, but Zika is not real.” Why would a young man who lives on an island expected to have the highest rates of a potentially dire illness not only not be worried about it but be actively derisive of it?

Because, Feliú-Mojer says, there is a history of mistrust in Puerto Rico of public authorities due to its U.S. colonial status going back decades. Not only that, there are false narratives in the media and the streets that confuse people “about the origins of the virus, the health effects, how it is being prevented.”

It also doesn’t help that many people do not present symptoms (only 1 out of 5 people infected do), and that symptoms are not as severe as with other viruses endemic in Puerto Rico, like dengue or chikungunya. But this doesn’t mean that people should be “incorrectly suggesting a Zika vaccine is being used in a clinical trial in Puerto Rico [that] will give people cancer,” which has been heard.

For this young Boricua scientist, the Zika public health crisis highlights the importance of good science communication and community engagement.

“There is no doubt Zika is a complex issue—not only from the scientific perspective but also form a social one. This issue highlights why there needs to be community engagement, why people need to feel empowered by scientific knowledge. It also highlights why scientists and science needs to be made accessible to the public in a way that it’s understandable, relatable and relevant.”

Mónica Feliú-Mojer

Monica’s story is part of Latino Victory Project’s #TheFirsts campaign, which celebrates Latinos’ new successes and builds a community of firsts who are working toward greater Latino representation in authority roles.

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