Hispanic heritage drives students’ passion for science

By Taylor Gutierrez

In honor of National Hispanic Heritage Month, FIU Institute of Environment graduate students highlighted how their Latin American cultures influenced their journey into the field of environmental science.

Nicole Cordoba, a master’s student in the institute’s CREST Center for Aquatic Chemistry and Environment (CAChE), studies hydrogeology in the Everglades ecosystem. When her parents immigrated from Cuba and Costa Rica, they needed to find a job and didn’t get the opportunity to pursue a formal education.

“They never thought that education was a path for them,” Cordoba said. “They pushed me because they saw what not having an education could look like.”

Cordoba is the first in her family to graduate high school and attend college.

“There is this mentality that you must dedicate all of your time to your research, which is true. But a lot of members of the Latinx community don’t have that luxury because they need to support themselves,” Cordoba said. “This probably deters a lot of people from even studying science in the first place. They think they can’t pursue higher education because they just won’t have time for it.”

Other students, like Steffanie Munguia, were inspired to explore science due to the lack of scientific research in their home countries.

Munguia discovered a better understanding of her Cuban and Puerto Rican heritage by diving into research on international wetland policy and management as a Ph.D. student in the Florida Coastal Everglades Long-Term Ecological Research program.

“Even as an undergraduate student, I have been fascinated by what people were doing in Latin America and the Caribbean. I think that’s a product of this constant desire to go home, which is interesting because I’ve grown up in Florida for most of my life,” Munguia said. “Florida still feels very much like home but you can’t suppress that Latin identity, that ‘Latin-idad.’”

Munguia continues to research international environmental agreements and the reasons why countries in the Caribbean have so little protection for wetlands. She emphasizes that research on Latin American coastal ecosystems can involve extra challenges, especially when many of the scientists are not on-site.

“These countries don’t always have local research teams because institutions are underfunded,” Munguia explained. “There is also an intense pressure to send the best and brightest people to the U.S. and hope they come back. I think that has weakened their opportunity to manage natural resources.”

Similarly, Francisco Peña feels strongly about his role in researching flood risk management for communities in Latin America. Peña is in his last semester as a Ph.D. student in CREST Center for Aquatic Chemistry and Environment, where he studies flood modeling for coastal urban environments across the world.

“We have engineers, architects, urban planners, and politicians but we don’t have the flood risk expert figure,” Peña said. “It does not exist in Mexico or in most countries in Latin America. This is what ignited the spark for me.”

Peña’s family originates from Mexico, which is prone to dangerous flooding. He wants to improve flood protection and serve as a flood risk expert for areas with underdeveloped infrastructure.

Cordoba, Munguia and Peña hope to inspire the next generation of environmental scientists by being a voice that represents their culture and identity.