When Sonia Zárate received her doctorate, she was one of only 2.5% of doctorates conferred to Hispanic women. She knew then that STEM needed to be more inclusive — and she knew what community could make it happen. 

A member of Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science since she was an undergraduate student, Zárate is now the organization's president. She's working to make STEM more inclusive by developing talent and bolstering institutional policies and practice, while maintaining a full-time job at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, remaining an active runner and spending plenty of quality time with her granddaughters. 

We spoke to Zárate about her inspiring inclusion work, her STEM background and how she learned to bring her whole self to work, despite fears she wouldn't be accepted. 

Fairygodboss of the Week: Dr. Sonia Zárate

President, Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS)

Washington, D.C. 

Tell us a little about your career. How did you get to where you are now?

2.5% of the doctorates conferred in 2007 in the biological sciences were conferred to Hispanic women.  Having received my PhD in 2007 in Plant Molecular Biology, I make up part of the 2.5%. While we have made progress (6.4% were conferred in 2014), we still have lots of work to do. These types of statistics have driven the work that I do as a program officer at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) and as president of Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS).

I don’t think that I am unique in my desire to give back to society through science and science education. What is different is that I was fortunate enough to have mentors that helped me navigate the culture of science. It is because of my experience that I have devoted my career to developing talent — especially science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) students and professionals from populations historically underrepresented — along with identifying and optimizing other variables such as institutional policies and practices that bolster and foster inclusion in STEM.

What is an accomplishment that you are proud of?

I am proud to serve as the fourth woman to lead SACNAS in the 45-year history of the organization and the first president to have benefited from SACNAS throughout my entire academic and professional career; I joined the SACNAS community as an undergraduate. In fact, the annual SACNAS National Diversity in STEM Conference was the first scientific meeting that I ever attended! I am proud to bring this experience to my role as a leader. I am committed to continuing to lead national efforts focused on inclusion in STEM and move the organization closer to its vision of “true diversity in STEM”— diversity at all levels and in all sectors of the STEM enterprise.

What is a challenge that you've faced and overcome?

Like many others, I have struggled with the notion that I could not be my whole self in pretty much any situation. Whether it be at home, trying to explain the STEM “lifestyle” to my family or in my professional life, I compartmentalized my dimensions for fear that I would not “fit in.” The truth is that I am —  and will always be — a daughter, sister, mother, grandmother, scientist and advocate for equity in STEM, regardless of the space that I am in. I have been able to overcome the notion that I have to check my culture or my science at the door by articulating my values and then basing all my decisions on these values. When I do so, I am bringing all of my identities to everything that I do.

Who is YOUR Fairygodboss? and Why?

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Aside from sharing a name, Justice Sotomayor and I share the same outlook about life challenges: and I quote, “difficulty can tap unsuspected strength.” This strength is especially important in STEM, where we need people with a diversity of thought, training and experience to help solve society's greatest challenges. This is why I work to ensure that there is equity in STEM, because these challenging problems require that we tap into the cultural wealth and expertise of the entire community.

What do you do when you're not working?

I love running. It is like meditation to me. There is so much clarity that comes when we “let go.” However, my number one favorite pastime is spending time with my granddaughters, Naomi and Mila. They are a beautiful reminder that “we do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.” This drives my resolve to effect change.

If you could have dinner with one famous person — dead or alive — who would it be?

Civil rights activist and labor leader Dolores Huerta, who coined the phrase “si se puede (yes, we can).” She is the co-founder of the National Farmworkers Association United Farm Workers, alongside Cesar Chavez. Coming from a family of farmworkers that came to the United States initially as part of the Braceros Program, her work has impacted my life. She exemplifies the type of woman I aspire to be — inspirational, impactful and a leader that is of the people, by the people and for the people.

What is the #1 career tip you'd like to share with other women who want to have successful careers like you? 

To know when to say yes, when to say no and when to redirect offers to a colleagues. This last item is important because this is not about any one of us, it is about all of us and we rise as we lift others.

Why do you love where you work?

I have to admit, what I do for HHMI and SACNAS is not “work.” It is a daily opportunity to live my values and contribute to making the STEM enterprise a better place for the next generation.

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