ESA

"I Cannot Be A Person I Am Not"

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Sonia Ortega

National Science Foundation

Program Officer, K12 Grant Programs

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The first conversation I had with Sonia was back in 2008 in Milwaukee. I was attending the Ecological Society of America's (ESA) annual conference as a SEEDS Mentor and heavily motivated to take a stab at science journalism. My goals were to connect with science writers, understand the current relationship between researchers and journalist, and interview some folks. And what better way for me to dive in, head-first by interviewing people of color about well,...diversity!

I was referred to Sonia as a good person to talk to about diversity. Little did I know that she was an extremely well respected professional in the society and gave me one of the most memorable interviews during that conference.

One of the stories she told me captured my emotions because it was a story of the empowerment she held with her being a Latina in science and a minority at Duke University in the 70’s. She persevered through some of the toughest times in her career and I gained a sense that she had a really deep understanding of diversity efforts in science careers. 

I was excited to speak with her again, four years later. Our conversation was to me… refreshing. And I was reassured by her ability to naturally articulate her perspective. I think you’ll see that she is one that can truly say she plays a positive and proactive role in inclusion at the National Science Foundation (NSF). 

RR: Can you give me a quick and dirty summary of Sonia Ortega? How did you get to being at NSF?

SO: I came here because I was very curious about how the National Science Foundation (NSF) worked. At the time I was a Marine Biologist Researcher. I was approached by a colleague who told me about a position he thought would fit me like a glove. And my first response to that was,

Sonia in 1987, at Duke Marine Lab, selecting oyster shells to use in her experiments

“You mean being a government beaurecrat?" I said, "No way!” But when he said it was a temporary position only for a year or two, I though one year is one year. And I though one year would be great, but one year turned into 23!

It really did change the way I saw my life. I was trained as a Marine Scientist and at that time I was thinking about continuing my research. I knew very little about federal organizations. The only thing I knew about NSF was this is where you apply to get funding. I didn’t know the processes or anything else.

I started to see myself less as a Marine Biologist and more as a person who likes to make a difference and work with people. I started questioning how I can have more of an effect on people rather than doing research. That’s when I made a switch. And the idea that when you’re here, you’re working at a national level and you really can influence a lot of things and really make a difference. That’s how I ended up staying here for so long.

But along with what you said before, I come with a background. I cannot be a

person that I am not. So in everything that I do, I bring my background in terms of my ethnic background, ancestry, the way I grew up and was raised, the way I think. I was raised in a family of very strong women and I bring that because that’s how I was raised. That’s who I am and what makes me who I am; both the cultural background and the experiences I had when I came here. Without knowing the language! All those things made me the person I am. You also become very sensitive to some of the issues, especially those you experience on your own.

RR: And there’s definitely the pathway where you started in Costa Rica and went to Duke. Going back to that statement, “I cannot be a person that I am not", I think for me and some colleagues of mine, we are often challenged in academic career choices (or even environmental professions in general) to express themselves, because the choices are dominated whites and don’t reflect all other cultures involved.

So I want to ask a two part question here, (1) I’m sure that the world was much different when you were at Duke at that time, versus now a days. But how was it then, (to still be who you are in that time) versus now a days where it is more diverse and the struggles you had back them may not have been what the challenges are now and (2) what does that mean to us now?

SO: I went to school in the mid-70’s. It sounds like a long time ago... and it was. There was no Internet, Facebook, cell phones, no word processing. These were the old times. There were typewiriters back then, to give you a sense. There were no mentoring programs, websites for you to connect to others. I didn’t know organizations that existed like the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS). Being in the south, it was a different world because I had to work so hard just to survive. There were a couple of graduate students around, some professors, but no resources at least that I knew about that I could go to. I tried to as much as I can, to swim and stay afloat.

I think that now its much different. Social media for one, the opportunities for students are more transparent and available and people can communicate easily with other students. You can find out what’s where, go here and there, you can Google pretty much anything you want. And that is a big, big difference between then and now. Also some universities are more aware of the need of diversifying their faculty members, providing students with trainings and training programs. None of those things were around before.

RR: And I can’t really imagine…one reason why I decided to continue was because SEEDS was there and I latched onto SEEDS as a sense of community for me. 

I’ve also read in your profile, that mentors have helped you through it. Can you identify any other ways, at that time, helped you stay motivated?

SO: Well, I asked myself many, many times, “Why am I doing this? I’m here away from y family, I barely spoke the language, I am having a very tough time. Why am I here?” I can just go back home and forget about it. But there were a couple of things that kept me going.

One was that perhaps it was a sense of responsibility because I got a fellowship and I felt kind of obligated to. It was the opportunity that I had and

there was maybe fear or the idea that I finally got an opportunity to change my life. And if I don’t do well and if I throw away this opportunity, I might not get another one. So the idea that I got something and I had to do the best I could, that somehow got me going.

I started looking at the alternatives, and I said well, if I don’t do something, if I don’t finish this degree, if I quit what are my options? My options

1987 Sonia studying oysters while a postdoc at Duke University.

were very limited. Whereas finishing it, this may take me somewhere. And it did! One thing led to another and I look at it in retrospect and I said, “Thank god I stayed and I kept at it”! Maybe it was fear, or the sense of going back saying that I failed. Something kept me pushing to say, “I cannot fail” It was very difficult. Looking back it was one of the hardest things I have done. And every time I think about it I say, "Oh, my gosh!"

I look at my nieces and nephews, and I say, “Look, no one said it was easy. I did terribly on my GRE’s, but you have to keep at it because this is the thing you want to do and it will lead you to a better life”. Education; once you reach it and get it, no one can take it away from you. That’s what kept me going.

RR: Can you identify any of those things that made you feel like quitting? Can you identify specific struggles within yourself that pushed you to your limits?

SO: I’m just very stubborn. Since I was a kid I would just refuse to give up. For example, writing. Reading or writing papers was hard because I didn’t’ have command of the language. Giving a talk, my first seminar I was absolutely terrified. And I went to one of my classmates and handed them a list of words I didn’t know how to pronounce. And I asked them if they could pronounce them for me because I don’t know if people are going to understand what I have to say. I gave my talk and I was absolutely terrified. Some of the grad students were very, very critical to everybody, not just me. That was hard.

I felt very isolated at Duke. Duke is a very prestigious institution with high standards. I had no clue what I was getting into. It was very high pressure there. The very first semester I didn’t feel supported by anyone.

1984. Sonia works on her dissertation in the “lab” while in Costa Rica looking at limpets

One thing that changed was when I moved from the main campus to the Marine Lab. That completely changed because I was horrified of the Department Chair and really afraid of a lot of the people on the main campus. But when I made the decision to go to the Marine Lab, I felt really free. I felt like, "Wow! This is what I came here to do." That’s where I had my mentor and the people there were very open and I felt much more welcome there. If I stayed on main campus I probably would have failed.

RR: and this was a phD program?

SO: a Masters program

RR: This might sound weird for me to ask but, you said you were afraid of the Deptartment Chair. What were you afraid of?

SO: Oh, I was terrified of the Dept Chair! I was soo intimidated that I would practice what I was going to say every time I would go into his office. And I went to him to move to the marine lab (because I needed permission), he automatically said, OK! And I was soo relieved that it was that easy.

RR: Well, was it because he was the "Department Chair" or was there something specifically about him that was intimidating?

SO:  I don’t know, maybe it was a combination of both. You know, he was very biased and he actually made a comment to one of my professors saying that I wasn’t smart enough to be in graduate school because I didn’t speak English and I was just trying to learn more about graduate school. He had his biases of, “Well, you know she’s here but she’s not like all the other grad students.” Of coarse I wasn’t! So, when I finished I was really temped to do something terrible, but I didn’t. I had to give a seminar to finish off my Masters degree, and I was really tempted to start speaking in Spanish, and at about 5 minutes into it, I might just stop and say, “I just wanted to give you a sense of what I went through when I first came here”. But I didn’t do it. I figured they might just fail me. But the thought occurred to me!

But you know after my talk, the Department Chair came to me and told me I did a good job! And I thought, "Gosh, this guy actually acknowledged that I did a good job!"

When I went back to get my PhD, things were much different. By then I was much more confident. I already had my MS, I spoke English, I had research experience, I knew exactly what I wanted to do, and I was older. When I went back I was very independent. I had my committee and told them exactly what I wanted to do.

RR: So you got your phD at Duke as well?

SO: No, at the  University of South Carolina. And part of the reason is because, and I tell people this and people don’t believe me…"I had a very good mentor at Duke. He was my advisor and was so good that I married him!" So, I couldn’t stay at Duke for an obvious conflict of

Sonia with partner, Alan. Iceland, 2010.

interest. I started looking where I could go and still be close by. I applied to South Carolina where I can still commute and travel back and forth. It was an 8hr commute and that was hard, but we also did research together since he’s in the same field. We would do a lot of our work in Costa Rica working in the field.

RR: So there was a stronger support system that you ended up with.

SO: Oh my gosh! It was like night and day. And he spoke Spanish because he had spent some time in Venezuela. So when I first met him he said that he had just come from Venezuela and wanted to speak Spanish. But I told him, “I don’t want to speak Spanish, I know Spanish. I want to improve on my English. I want you to correct me!” And he did. He was correcting me constantly. He was very good at correcting me. That really was the big change personally and professionally. And things did change quite a bit.

RR: Something I observe mainly in the academic realm of students and their experiences, is a different kind of understanding of diversity with respect to racial dynamics and socioeconomic differences between international students versus students who have grown up in the US. What is your perspective with what those differences are when we talk about increasing diversity in environmental careers?

SO: Right, because I had no clue about these things when I came to the US. And I was treated as an international student because, I was back then. I went to school not even thinking about these issues of diversity, in the 70’s, 80’s. No one was talking about it, and I didn’t even know what the issues were. It wasn’t until I came to the NSF in ’89 that I started being aware of all these things. Partly because I started working with some issues related to underrepresented minorities. I started seeing a whole world open up to me cause I didn’t even know about these issues of women and minorities. And all of the sudden I started to see all these issues I had very little knowledge of because I was concentrating so much on getting my degree.

For the last 20yrs I’ve been involved quite a bit through organizations like SACNAS. And there is a big difference in being a foreign student versus growing up here. I have colleagues here that are Hispanics or Latinos, growing up in CA or TX, and have had a very different experience than mine. And when I lived in New Mexico I was there for 3 years. It was a different environment where I was able to see the differences and what it means to be here as a different race or ethnicity than the majority. People look at you differently. It was an eye opener for me to start learning, seeing, and being more observant of people. What happens with the way people approach you or don’t approach you, and a lot of the times it’s not what people say, it's the things people don’t say that are as important.

RR: And in a sense, it is the actions that aren’t spoken about that reveal the truth about the situation. And the interviews here, if anything are meant to drive that out of the individuals. Is there anything you can specifically point out, maybe a general observation that makes you feel like okay, “Here’s what I recognize in something I'd like to change to include more groups or different perspectives”. Can you identify things that tend to happen And what can be done?

SO: Well, here’s my experience at NSF: If you really care about those issues, that’s the main thing. I think all of us have the ability to change something if you want to change it and are aware of it. Here at NSF, I’ve made it one of my personal goals to be as inclusive as I can in a lot of the actions I have been involved in. For in, every program I was running at NSF where I had to put together a panel of reviewers, the first thing I always thought was, I want to have this panel as diverse as possible. And the first people I want to invite on this panel were people of underrepresented groups. Because, I can always fill these seats with the majority but those underrepresented groups are in high demand and they are very busy people. So I’m going to ask them first, way ahead of time because they may commit to something else. And others would often ask me how I do it. And I would say, “Well, because I make that a special effort. I’m aware of it and I want to make a difference.” When I came here to NSF, the panels weren’t very diverse. Because look at who puts together the panels; the people who may not be aware or care about the issues so they aren’t going to put the effort.

I’ve done a lot of those things here at NSF; its always on my mind. It’s part of me that I notice things. Say I go to a group, like in this conference recently. They gave us evaluations for the event and asked us if we have any suggestions or recommendations. And I said, “Yes I’m very disappointed about how little diverse your group is”. And they didn’t say anything and were probably not aware. Yes, it was a great conference, I enjoyed it and met interesting people. But I started counting. There were like 500 people on the list of participants so I started counting the number of Hispanic last names, I see and I count only 10!

It’s that awareness; it’s the first thing. Some people aren’t even aware of it. Because, why should people be aware unless it’s your thing? Unless it affects you or unless you’re mandated to do it. Whenever you have a diverse group of people, people with different perspectives or different ways of seeing things, the outcomes are always better than when you have a single group of people that are all alike. And there is scientific evidence of that.

But its that first step that people need to take and take with them everywhere, anywhere. Whenever you have the opportunity to invite someone, when you are going to invite a group, be aware of it, and think about it. It has to be one of your priorities or one of the things that moves you.

RR; Sure, the common frustration is that a lot of people come across those that don’t care or are not aware. And sometimes that can be a delicate conversation to say, "Well, this is what I value, this is what my priorities are." That dialog becomes difficult because if there are others that don’t value it but have good intentions, they often don’t know how to approach it. So, how do we (or do we even make efforts to) have them understand it? Or is it on their own pathway whether they do it or not. And I think you spoke about it before when you said, “I have to speak about it, I have to say it in the evaluations”.

SO: Yes, but you also live by example. By doing the things you can do, others will notice. And here at NSF, people do notice. I mean, you go through my panels and it’s very obvious what I do and people comment about it. So all I can say is, “Let me know if you need people to serve on your panel”, or offer my connections to others putting panels together. Helping out my colleagues who might not be thinking about it may or may not invite them, but at least you’re making an effort. And some have asked for help and some are just helpless.

I think some people have good intentions and those are the ones you can help and influence for the better. Not everyone is going to be sensitive, of coarse.

RR: Is there anything you can say about today and modern times for 2012, the state of the world now?

SO: Well I just got back from spending a couple of months abroad in Southeast Asia. And one of the things I realized is that the world gets smaller as we develop all these connections. And the opportunity is really up for grabs for just about anybody. For the young people, the world is open to many more opportunities these days, but you have to be very open-minded about them. People have to be willing to take some risk in places you never thought about. For those who are looking for career opportunities and exploring, I think people needed to be looking worldwide. Look beyond boarders, even beyond their own fields and be a little bit broader in their perspectives. Start looking for other things like having your own business, being an entrepreneur, or working abroad or doing things that during my generation, when I was a grad student we weren’t even thinking about. Now it’s a different world. On one hand its smaller, on the other hand its wide open. Especially for under-represented students. I see opportunities world wide, but for whatever reason, I don’t think they are taking advantage of them. Its one of the things for underrepresented students, its particularly a challenge to go abroad or do something different.

Sonia's visit to Malaysia

You Tube: [youtube=http://youtu.be/mNGV-uu47d8]

RR: Do you think the sciences will ever get to that point where you’re see a diverse palette of people?

SO: Well, it depends on where you go. Like when you go to orgs like SACNAS meetings and its like, OH MY GOSH! This is how it should be everywhere! And its interesting to see that I’ve been going to SACNAS for over 20yrs now and that organization is much more diverse than it was back then when I joined. It was mostly Mexican Americans and Native Americans. Now you see the whole world as the majority of people. Some white people are there because the conference offers a lot that can benefit everyone. You see all these ethnicities and its kind of very refreshing to be there and of coarse you don’t see it in other gatherings.

I’m not sure how long it will take but I know that the world will continue to diversify everywhere, especially here. Look at where we are now, the demographics. You can’t deny the changes in the country. I think it’s going to continue as time goes by. People are mixing. You see something that I didn’t see when I first arrived there. All kinds of combinations of people together from diff races, backgrounds, there’s a lot more of that. I didn’t see all of these mixed couples when I was in graduate school. You see them now on campuses, which is great!

I think the world is opening up a little bit more. Look at these issues of gays and more tolerance. Ten years later I find out some of those kids I went to grad school with are gay but they were in the closet. And now there is a little more openness. It’s still not perfect, but openness to accepting people who are different from you, thinking different...that’s great! Its part of having a diverse group of people. Back then, it wasn’t that we didn’t have the people, but we didn’t have the thinking that we had to be inclusive; that the world was composed of people of different make-ups and ways of viewing the world.

To learn more about Sonia Ortega and her work, check out her profile on the Multicultural Environmental Leadership Development Initiative (MELDI)