This week’s #WCWinSTEM is Dr. Nicole E. Cabrera Salazar, astronomer and advocate for equity and inclusion in STEM and beyond!
As compiled by Léolène Carrington, Ph.D.
Following our most recent #VanguardSTEM episode on “Minding our Mental Health” as Women of Color, #VanguardSTEM alum Dr. Nicole E. Cabrera Salazar wrote an in-depth article for the #VSVillage that demystified the therapy and mental health care process in our STEM communities. She gave insights on self-care practices and we’re delighted to feature her as this week’s #WCWinSTEM so you can learn more about her journey!
Responses may be edited for content and brevity.
How would you describe yourself in 1 tweet?
I am first and foremost an advocate of social justice, in STEM and beyond. I’m also a world-class problem solver and I have the BEST ideas.
Where/when did you go to school?
- A.A. Physics, Miami Dade College
- B.S. Physics, Georgia Institute of Technology
- M.S. Physics, Georgia State University
- Ph.D. Astronomy, Georgia State University
What do you do right now?
I recently defended my Ph.D. in Astronomy and am currently transitioning away from research in order to advocate for equity and inclusion in STEM. There is no established career for this, so I have to forge my own path, which is both terrifying and exhilarating. I’m exploring options that range from science policy to higher education to entrepreneurship – not exactly what a typical job search involves. I’m not quite sure where this adventure will take me, but I’m leading with a passion for serving others.
“Young people give me so much hope; if I can make it a little easier for just one marginalized student to achieve their dreams – while remaining true to themselves in the process – then I’ve succeeded.”
What made you choose your STEM discipline in the first place?
After a field trip to the Kennedy Space Center in the 6th grade, I became obsessed with going to Space Camp, but my family could not afford it. That year, my parents surprised me with a small telescope for Christmas and I was thrilled. However, I didn’t know how to use it and I had no one to teach me — I observed one lunar eclipse and then my telescope sat in the closet collecting dust for years. Then in high school I discovered physics and fell in love with it; I wanted to get my degree from Georgia Tech just like my high school teacher, but I didn’t have the grades. After community college I finally transferred there in my junior year and took my first astronomy course. Fascinated, I started doing research with my astronomy professor, who took an interest in me and encouraged me to apply to summer research programs. With his guidance, I earned an internship to study exoplanets in Hawaii, obtaining my own data at Mauna Kea, conducting outreach with underrepresented students, and presenting my research. That summer made me realize I wanted to become an astronomer, so I set out on the path to grad school.
What’s one piece of advice you wish you had when you started your STEM journey?
I wish I had known about the systemic barriers I would inevitably encounter as a woman of color in STEM. My experience through grad school was different from that of my peers, and I started to believe that every negative encounter was my fault. If I had known that the isolation, lack of encouraging mentors, and many other factors were a result of systemic racism and sexism instead of my inability to be a scientist, I may still be pursuing research today.
That’s why the #VSVillage is so important; by the time I starting connecting with other men and women of color in my field, I was already on my way out the door. #VanguardSTEM succeeded in fostering a community that makes women like us visible, validates our struggles, and propels us forward together.
We can succeed because our sisters have succeeded, because we see ourselves in them, and because they lift us up as they climb. That’s what I wish for every woman of color at every point in her STEM journey.
Do you have any woman of color in STEM sheros? Who and why?
This is going to sound corny, but Jedidah is one of my biggest role models. Watching her create this platform and her brand has taught me that I don’t have to be confined to the walls of academia or even science. Her entrepreneurial skills are inspiring — I never, ever thought I’d want to launch my own business until I saw the way she has built #VanguardSTEM from a monthly Google Hangout into a national platform that is truly changing the world. As busy as she gets, she always seems to have time to mentor others, including me — it’s a testament to her humility and graciousness. Seeing her well-earned success definitely pushes me to dream bigger and never stop trying, so I am especially grateful for her presence and this amazing community!
What else are you passionate about?
After struggling with depression throughout grad school, I’m happy to say I’m finding my way back to all the things that bring me joy. I’ve started dancing salsa again (I performed with a dance team in college), and I hope to join a choir after I decide the next step of my career (I’m a mezzo soprano). I’m also learning Polish and American Sign Language (I’m a native Spanish speaker and professionally fluent in French). Mostly, I’m learning how to relax again!
Why do you think it’s important to highlight women of color in STEM?
Someone recently told me that the most powerful words you will ever hear are “Me too.” The journey through STEM can be so isolating, and it makes you feel like you have to change who you are to fit the mold.
“Seeing myself reflected in other women of color in STEM reminds me that I’m not fighting this battle alone, and that I can be whole authentic self AND a scientist at the same damn time.”
Are there institutions, groups or organizations you would like to give a shoutout?
I’m currently a member of the Committee on the Status of Minorities in Astronomy, where I work with a group of phenomenal people to serve the needs of people of color in our community. As a grad student, I often felt powerless when I could not make positive cultural changes; having the support to lead initiatives through the CSMA has helped me reclaim my power.
Is there anything else you’d like us to know about you?
I played underwater hockey in college (yes, it’s a real thing!)
Thank you, Dr. Salazar, for your bravery and dedication to a career in diversifying STEM! We’re honored to have you in our #VanguardSTEM squad!
*All images used with permission from Dr. Nicole E. Cabrera Salazar.
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