Oct. 22, 2012
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Hispanic Month speaker plants her roots in STEM

When Mayra Padilla was growing up, she never once thought she could have a career in science.

Today, not only does she have a doctorate degree in neuroscience and a long list of publications and awards, including the Jefferson Award for public service, she also has a career dedicated to helping underrepresented youth.

Padilla told the story of her journey from Mexico to the East Bay and then to college ultimately to earn a Ph.D., during her keynote presentation entitled "A Scientist Making a Difference in the STEM Pipeline," last week as part of the Lab's recognition of Hispanic Heritage Month. Glenn Fox, acting associate director for the Physical and Life Sciences Directorate, introduced Padilla. Padilla and her family came to the United States from Mexico and settled in Richmond, Calif. when she was six. She remembers as a child, facing a language barrier and living in a home without a TV, taking refuge in solving math problems. "Math didn't have to be translated," she said. It soon became evident that math was her favorite subject and one in which she excelled.

The fact that she also liked to analyze things often led her and her sister to dig through a nearby dumpster for electronic parts and then spend hours putting the pieces together.

Shortly after high school graduation, she became a teen mom. It was the program METAS ('goals' in Spanish) that helped her redefine her identity and consider college as a possibility.

METAS is a program in the West Contra Costa County School District with a focus in helping Latino students determine a clear path and achieve their academic goals.

Padilla said METAS changed her life. She enrolled in Contra Costa College in San Pablo, initially planning on a career in business. It was not until she took a course in physics ("just for fun") that she became serious about science. She later transferred to UC Davis where she earned a bachelor of science degree in applied physics and then went on to UC Berkeley for a Ph.D. in psychology and behavioral neuroscience.

After working in many research positions, she decided to turn her attention toward students. For the past decade, she had served as program director of METAS Contra Costa College. She recently stepped down from her senior neuroscientist position to direct the Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI) Science Technology Engineering Math (STEM) grant at Contra Costa College.

During her presentation, Padilla showed slides of the many activities for METAS students, including field trips (one that took them to El Salvador to work on a community service project), soft skills workshops, tutoring and career exploration.

This year, Padilla received the Jefferson Award for public service for work in METAS -- a unique program that helps make college dreams come true.

"Nobody at 14 could see me as a scientist," she said. Her hope is that others will "see the light in each and every student," and treat them 'con carino' -- with affection.

The talk was sponsored by Amigos Unidos Hispanic Employee Association (AUHEA) and the Lab's Strategic Diversity Program.