Dr. Ellen Ochoa’s shares her Pathway to STEM

By: Eduardo Sanchez

The first Hispanic woman to travel to space, Dr. Ellen Ochoa, joined the East Los Angeles College Town Hall Series to discuss racial and gender biases in the science field. Dr. Ochoa shared some of her college experiences including being discriminated against by professors and feeling unrepresented in the science field. 

Not only did she share advice for students, but for faculty regarding what they can do to help their students pursue more science, technology, engineering, and mathematic-based careers. 

“It’s pretty hard to choose to major in something when you can’t really picture what that leads to after school,” Ochoa said. 

She recalled taking a calculus series and wanting to know how that type of math could be used in a real job. This led her to reach out to a few professors from STEM-related courses. The engineering professor she spoke with told her the course’s work of study was too hard for women. 

“When he thought of what an engineer looks like, it wasn’t somebody who looked anything like me,” she said. He was not interested in helping her and she did not feel welcome to try a career in science or math.

It wasn’t until she spoke with her physics professor that she was told about the many different careers that could come from studying physics. Being made to feel welcomed by her professor impacted her to try it out. 

Before college, she had never thought about going into a science-related field. She did not grow up with anyone to look up to that came from a similar background as her in the science field. 

“When I was growing up, I’d heard of Marie Curie, but I mean, she has two Nobel prizes. One in physics and one in chemistry. That’s a pretty high bar if that’s the only kind of woman you ever hear about in science,” she said. 

Mario Molina was a Mexican chemist and it wasn’t until later that she became aware of other Mexicans in the science field. “It wasn’t until I was probably out of graduate school when I heard about people like Mario Molina, who was really the one that determined the harmful effects of chlorofluorocarbons or CFCs that were in refrigerants and what it was doing to our atmosphere. Which was actually the subject of my first two shuttle flights and he received the Nobel Prize for that work,” she said. 

“It’s hard for people to get the message that someone like me can learn about these subjects and go into these subjects if everybody that they’re looking at in faculty and leadership doesn’t look like them at all… A lot of higher education institutions struggle to understand why they’re not able to get more people in STEM, but when you look around at their own faculty and their department chairs and deans and presidents, you know it’s not really that big of a mystery. It just doesn’t match up,” she said regarding how unrepresented Mexicans were in STEM and in the faculty positions of those courses.

Receiving support from professors was her biggest motivation to pursue her career in research and science. Her engineering professor at Stanford and her associate Doctor of Philosophy adviser were her biggest mentors throughout her studies. “He never seemed to question that I should be there… Never gave me the impression that I wasn’t capable, or was wondering what I was doing there,”  she said regarding her engineering professor. 

Some of the advice Ochoa hopes professors take from her journey is to realize just how much their words can impact students. She suggests they ensure office hours are offered throughout the day to give students accessible options in case they have work. Sharing information about resources is also very important so that students know if there is tutoring available. Most important is to show students what kind of careers they can have through those fields so that they can envision themselves in them. 

Even with the support from some professors, Ochoa struggled to feel like she belonged in the science field. During her Ph.D. entrance test at Stanford, she overheard from a friend that one of the professors who would be evaluating her had never passed a woman because he believed they didn’t belong in the field. It was because of a supportive professor who spoke with the others that she was able to pass. 

Ochoa struggled with some concepts in her courses but took advantage of office hours to get a better understanding. She made sure to take advantage of the resources that she had available and sought the help of tutors. 

For a time, she felt as though she was the only one who needed help, but found that professors enjoy when students come to their office hours and show an interest in their class. Ochoa says it is worse to be a student who seems confident because they might feel like they know everything and won’t be asking questions or putting in more work. 

With the few professors who tried to discourage her from entering STEM, Ochoa shared some advice for students who might be in a similar situation.

“Realize that people who discourage you are generally people who don’t know you at all, and so really, you should really not pay attention to them,” Ochoa said.

Ochoa was able to work for NASA’s research program and eventually was able to go into space. The support of her professors in college introduced her to careers in STEM. Even when she struggled and felt out of place, she continued her perseverance and sought help. She assures students who are struggling that there is nothing wrong with them as looking back, she realized everyone feels that way sometimes. 

She became the first Hispanic woman to go into space and advocate for more underrepresented ethnicities to join STEM fields. Ochoa’s first mission in space revolved around science and technology experiments to study the atmosphere of the Earth. She received her Bachelor of Science and Physics from San Diego State University and a Masters of Science and a Ph.D. in Electric Engineering from Stanford. Her achievements have earned her inclusion into the Astronaut Hall of Fame, the California Hall of Fame, and the International Air and Space Hall of Fame. 

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