STEM Equals Profiles - Sara Velasquez

Sara Velasquez - STEM Equals Profiles

Tell us a little bit about you:

I have lived in five countries and eight cities, although I sometimes get tired of moving, I know that each experience has shaped who I am today. Raised in Honduras, Central America, I had never thought about working with STEM research. My personality has been shaped by the countries I have lived in and the friends and colleagues that have inspired me along the way. From my Bachelor’s in Brazil I learned to love the Brazilians’ friendliness and happiness. Portuguese became part of me in a way I couldn’t imagine and some things I feel easier to express them in Portuguese. My experience during my Master’s in Switzerland taught me to love the outdoors. After some years there, a weekend hike or run in the forest became part of my routine.

What is your area of research and what project(s) are you working on now?

I’m a PhD candidate in Pure and Applied Chemistry. My project is part of an international research collaboration on bio-inspired materials (PIRE) between the US, Switzerland and Scotland. At the moment I’m researching amphiphilic polymeric membranes inspired by spider silk and reinforced with cellulose nanocrystals.

When was your interest in STEM/your field first sparked and why?

Since I was a kid, I was interested in how things work and how they are made. Despite not having encouragement to pursue STEM in my home country, I never lost interest in STEM which motivated me to study material engineering in Brazil.

Who or what inspired you to stick with STEM when you were younger?

I believe that my earliest inspiration to stick with STEM came from my family, who always believed that I could do whatever I wanted. They always encouraged me to participate in Math Olympics and extracurricular activities.

What challenges do you think STEM disciplines face with regards to issues of diversity and inclusion and what should a supportive, inclusive STEM community look like?

One of the challenges for STEM disciplines is to make a really integrated community in which there is no differences when it comes to gender or sexual orientation. Although on the outside it might seem that the community is inclusive, many disciplines still have male dominated environments, which makes minorities feel out of place. It eventually may lead to them quitting STEM workplaces for a different work environment where they can be more themselves and don’t feel a certain level of exclusion. It is not only necessary to have diversity, but also to have enough diversity so inclusion is felt.

In your career, what are the moments that have made you proudest so far?

All the stages of my career have made me proud. Each day I have experienced taught me something that allows me to be stronger and acknowledge that, despite the difficulties of being a minority in STEM, I shouldn’t give up. Even the days I feel I haven’t accomplished much, I tend to look back and remember where I started and how far I have come.

Since STEM career paths are rarely easy to navigate, what challenges have you faced along the way?

The biggest issue I have faced has been loneliness, despite being surrounded by lots of colleagues. Several times you feel out of place and that maybe you should change your career path. The internal motivation, will power, and external support is what keeps me going.

Where do you find support to sustain you in your current career?

I’m lucky to have a big international support network, even when I feel they don’t understand my situation, they listen and support me every step of my journey through STEM. My biggest support has always been my mom, aunt and cousin who, no matter where I am, they cheer for my success. Additionally, all the female friends in STEM are an inspiration in my daily life. I keep motivated with friends from my Bachelor’s and Master’s that are now working in different countries and research areas. We share text and voice messages and meet every time we can to motivate and support each other. The big distant community has been a key point to continue in STEM because it reminds me I’m not alone and many others go through similar situations. Additionally, my PhD supervisor has been very supportive and understanding with me being the only female PhD in his group, in a different situation I would have quit my PhD. Last but not least, my boyfriend who is also in STEM is very supportive and tries to inspire me more into science, by giving me books about famous female scientists and showing his support for my research project.

What advice would you give to a young person considering a career in STEM?

Never allow anyone to discourage you from achieving your dreams. If you feel STEM is for you, stay in STEM. If something is not going right, change the situation but not your career, because there are a lot of female scientists in the world fighting for more equality and better working environment for everyone.

Fun question: Tell us two truths and a lie about you.

a) I was once in a bank insurance advertisement in my home country. b) I can understand five languages fluently but sometimes struggle with my mother tongue. c) I actually wanted to be a chef.