One of Dr. Yajaira Sierra-Sastre’s first vivid memories was when she was in kindergarten and her dad picked her up to look at the stars. Since then, it has been her dream to become an astronaut. At 35, the small-town girl raised in Arroyo, Puerto Rico, has completed a PhD in nanomaterials chemistry at Cornell University, and she is just a few months away from her goal of working with NASA.
This Friday, she will be a panelist at the Latino Leadership’s Latino Family Conference in Orlando, Fl., to inspire a new generation to pursue careers in science and engineering, and to encourage young Latinos to be determined and courageous in their pursuits.
The founder and president of Latino Leadership, Marytza Sanz, says she chose Dr. Sierra-Sastre to speak about her experience, because she is the product of the public school system in Puerto Rico, and there is a significant Puerto Rican population presently living in Florida.
“I hope they see her and say ‘I can be like her,’” says Sanz. “We have been receiving calls from people that want a picture with her.”
Dr. Sierra-Sastre is indeed a important role model for young Latinos to follow. Though there has been progress, Hispanic students are still underrepresented throughout higher education, and particularly in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2006, Latinos were 19 percent of the college-aged population, but received only 8 percent of STEM bachelor’s degrees and 3.5 percent of master’s degrees.
The Puerto Rican scientist says she hopes to encourage others to pursue their dreams by sharing her story at the conference. Dr. Sierra-Sastre says the emotional support of her parents was just as integral to her success as her own drive and determination.
“I remember very distinctly the passion and excitement that he showed in looking at the sky,” she recalls, when talking about her father. “I think that had a great impact on me and my love for science.”
This is the third consecutive year of the Latino Family Conference. During this time, Sanz says, it has grown in popularity with more than 200 parents and students currently registered. In fact, Sanz adds, she will need a bigger space next year; they have had to turn people away due to a lack of room.
“The purpose of holding [the bilingual conference] one week before school starts is we want to empower parents for them to know about their kids’ education,” says Sanz. “Our numbers are growing, but if we don’t prepare the new generation and empower them, what is going to be the future of the country?”
Young Latinos will certainly enjoy listening to Dr. Sierra-Sastre, who brings so much passion to science, a subject so many students think is dry – and tough.
An independent educator at two research centers at Cornell University, Dr. Sierra-Sastre also does outreach with school districts in Puerto Rico, and has been recently selected to participate in the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS). This is a NASA- funded study which will test new forms of food preparation strategies for deep space travel.
Beginning in March of 2013, she will be one of six scientists, and the only Hispanic, selected by NASA to live four months in a isolated planetary module that will simulate what life will be like for astronauts at a future base on Mars.
“I was able to create a recipe for Puerto Rican beans cooked from rehydrated ingredients,” says Dr. Sierra-Sastre, sounding thrilled to be part of the innovative team chosen to improve astronaut cuisine in a habitat only 9 meters diameter. “It was surprising to me the amount of meals we are able to cook.”
In addition, because of her expertise in textile materials, she will also be part of the research in habitat design.
“I will be studying the clothing and the socks the crew will wear, as well as the carpets and towels,” says Dr. Sierra-Sastre. “I will be evaluating their performance in antimicrobial activity. We need textiles that will not deteriorate or smell bad.”
In the midst of all of this, she’s anxiously awaiting for the completion of her dream to come to fruition. This past November, she applied to one of NASA’s new astronaut positions.
“We expect to hear from NASA within the next few months,” says Dr. Sierra-Sastre. “I’ll know before going on my mission.”
In the meantime, the future astronaut’s more immediate mission in Florida’s Latino Family Conference is to encourage and inspire.
“I hope that students will look at me and get to know me and see me as who I am,” says Dr. Sierra-Sastre. “I am like them. I look like them.”