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Empowering "Boricuas" in the Capital: Promoting Scientific Engagement from Children to the US Congress.

Puerto Rican scientists on the outskirts of the United States Congress.

Puerto Rican scientists on the outskirts of the United States Congress.

From February 13 to 16, 2019, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) attracted scientists from around the world to Washington, DC to share their discoveries and innovations.

            This conference also seeks to establish connections between science policy influencers, diplomats and the scientific community. Due to this, Bench 2 Bench and Caminos en Ciencia, two grassroots projects of science communication and engagement, took advantage of the presence of Puerto Rican student scientists in the capital to connect them with pillars of scientific policy in Congress.

           In addition, we collaborated with Science StoryTellers to talk with children about the importance of science, and inspire them to become scientists when they grow up. Finally, we interviewed the first Puerto Rican to receive the Presidential Innovation Fellowship, Dr. Nelson Colón Vargas. During our interview, he told us about the positive impact mathematics has had on his professional life and how he seeks to innovate a federal agency through this prestigious program.

In this review, I will expand on the scientific engagement and communication activities that were carried out through a collaboration between Bench 2 Bench and Caminos en Ciencia during the AAAS conference in DC

Puerto Rican Scientists in the United States Congress:

  A conversation with Neysa Alsina, Senior Policy Advisor to Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez.

From left to right:  Carlos Pérez  (MD/PhD student in Cancer Biology),  Reinaldo Franqui , PhD (founder of Bench 2 Bench), Adriana Mulero-Russe (Bioengineering PhD student),  Neysa Alsina  (Senior Policy Advisor),  Lorraine Vélez  (Microbiology and Medicinal Zoology PhD student),  Valeria De la Rosa  (PhD student in Anatomy and Neurobiology), María del Mar Maldonado (PhD student in Biochemistry),  Flavia Tejeda  (PhD student in Molecular Biology),  Kevin Alicea-Torres  (PhD student in Molecualr Biology and co-founder of Caminos en Ciencia)

From left to right: Carlos Pérez (MD/PhD student in Cancer Biology), Reinaldo Franqui, PhD (founder of Bench 2 Bench), Adriana Mulero-Russe (Bioengineering PhD student), Neysa Alsina (Senior Policy Advisor), Lorraine Vélez (Microbiology and Medicinal Zoology PhD student), Valeria De la Rosa (PhD student in Anatomy and Neurobiology), María del Mar Maldonado (PhD student in Biochemistry), Flavia Tejeda (PhD student in Molecular Biology), Kevin Alicea-Torres (PhD student in Molecualr Biology and co-founder of Caminos en Ciencia)

Now more than ever, it is imperative to ensure that scientific voices are included in political discourse . To help spark these conversations, the doctoral candidate of the University of Pennsylvania and co-founder of Caminos en Ciencia, Kevin Alicea-Torres, contacted me with the idea of organizing a series of events with Bench 2 Bench to link Puerto Rican students with influential people in government during the AAAS conference.

         After considering multiple representatives, we contacted the office of congresswoman Nydia Velázquez. The congresswoman is from Yabucoa and was the first Puerto Rican woman in the House of Representatives. In addition, she and her team have fought for the rights of Puerto Ricans and aided in the reconstruction of the island after Hurricane Maria.

         I visited the congresswoman's office personally to tell them about the initiative and scheduled a meeting with the Senior Policy Advisor, Neysa Alsina. With experience in advocacy and politics, the lawyer met with our “boricua” group of students to discuss our concerns as scientists and Puerto Ricans.

 

         We talked about the number of deaths due to Hurricane Maria, the problems with the Institute of Forensic Sciences and the Institute of Statistics of Puerto Rico. The students also spoke of their disadvantages as Puerto Rican scientists competing with laboratories in the United States for research funds. At the end of the visit, Alsina provided contacts from local agencies to keep the conversation going. Alsina also offered several tips to ensure that our voice as Puerto Rican scientists is heard and considered in future government decisions.

Selfie with Puerto Rican scientists at the office of Congresswoman Velázquez.

Selfie with Puerto Rican scientists at the office of Congresswoman Velázquez.

For some of these talented scientists, this was their first visit to an office of Congress and they did not know these meetings could be held without being a politician or having previous connections in the public sector.

 

"This is the first time that I have established a direct connection with a Senior Policy Advisor in Congress, and I loved it!" says Flavia Tejeda, a doctoral candidate and ambassador for the Puerto Rico Science Policy Action Network.

"Without a doubt ..." says Flavia, "it's something that I now feel comfortable doing by myself [...] if I have any concern as a citizen and scientist, maybe I can do my part to help out."

          This experience motivated several Puerto Ricans to communicate with their local representatives, helping maintain scientific opinion in decisions made in their districts. I want to extend an invitation to develop similar projects in different parts of the United States and Puerto Rico. This could lead to more scientists knowledgeable in effective communication with political leaders to achieve positive changes in their communities.

Touring the Capitol and Meeting the new Congresswoman of New York, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Visiting the office of Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Visiting the office of Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

After the meeting in the office of Congresswoman Velázquez, we took a tour of the Capitol, where the history of the American government and its duty to represent the people and address their concerns were explained.

           Finally, we met the new representative of New York, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. In addition to having Puerto Rican ancestry, the congresswoman has in her platform projects to make education more accessible, ensure the rights of minority groups and combat climate change. In her office, we had the opportunity to exchange a few words, congratulating her on a great victory in The House. She also thanked us for the support, and mentioning the need for projects that seek to bridge communication between scientists and the community.

It should be mentioned that no one in the group had connections in government. Our backgrounds or motivations are not political, we are citizens using our constitutional right to contact representatives of Congress. In the same way, you can contact your representatives, because they are chosen by constituents to listen to their concerns and find solutions. If you are interested in knowing who is your representative or would like to contact him or her, you can achieve it through this page.

Boricua Scientists Instilling Love for Science in Children.

Many scientific volunteers for Science StoryTellers talking with children about the importance of science.

Many scientific volunteers for Science StoryTellers talking with children about the importance of science.

Part of the initiatives of Bench 2 Bench and Caminos en Ciencia is to tell the stories of researchers and provide advice for the next generation of scientists. Using this motivation as a center, we contacted Jennifer Cutraro, a science writer and founder of Science StoryTellers, an organization of science journalists looking for creative ways to connect children with scientists.

During AAAS, Kevin and I volunteered to talk with boys and girls of all ages as they were encouraged to ask us questions like a science journalist would. We answered all kinds of questions, such as:

"Why do you do science?" And "Why do some people get cancer?"

In addition, they told us their motivations to be scientists:

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"I want to be the youngest scientist and win all the science awards" and "I want to be a scientist because I want to know everything about dolphins"

           This has been one of the most enriching experiences I've had, since many Puerto Ricans do not have the opportunity to talk with scientists during their school years. Although there are similar initiatives on the island, we should provide more support and promote related projects to keep children curious and inspired by science.

Interviewing the First Puerto Rican Selected for the Presidential Innovation Fellowship.

Dr. Nelson Colón Vargas during the initiation ceremony as Presidential Innovation Fellow at The White House Campus.

Dr. Nelson Colón Vargas during the initiation ceremony as Presidential Innovation Fellow at The White House Campus.

“Boricua” contributions in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) are not limited to academia and private industry. Recently, Dr. Nelson Colón Vargas, original of Canóvanas, Puerto Rico, was awarded the Presidential Innovation Fellowship. This program selects professionals with vast experience in a specific industry and pairs them with a government agency to create innovative projects. In the case of Dr. Colón, his expertise is in mathematics, with a baccalaureate, two masters, a PhD and several publications in the field.

              In the interview, Dr. Colón told us about his thesis in quantum topology and his work as a Data Scientist in the private sector. The mathematician has experiences in startups and the renowned software company, Microsoft. In this conversation, he told us about the importance of leaving the comfort zone to keep curiosity alive and get ahead in your professional life. In addition, we talked about the difficulties he experienced as a Puerto Rican student moving to the United States to continue his career as a mathematician.

"The best advice I can give you is to keep your mind open to different opportunities"

 

         This is how Dr. Colón concluded our interview. He recommended that students explore all their passions even if they do not see a direct benefit, since previous experiences in music and biochemistry unexpectedly provided him with the tools to excel in mathematics.

Stay tuned with Bench 2 Bench and Caminos en Ciencia for the full interview that will be published soon on various podcasts platforms.

 

This was the end of our weekend of activities during the AAAS conference. We hope this review serves as information and a guide for students seeking to have a positive impact in their community. 

Special thanks to the organizers of Yale Science Academy, a scientific training program that seeks to increase the social commitment of students in science. The Puerto Rican students we took to the Capitol went to the conference in Washington DC thanks to a scholarship provided by the program. For more information, access the following link.

To keep up with the events of all the organizations and programs mentioned, follow us on twitter:

Caminos en Ciencia

Kevin Alicea-Torres

Bench 2 Bench

Reinaldo Franqui Machín

Science StoryTellers

Presidential Innovation Fellowship

#PRSPAN