Rock the Boat: Dr. Casas on Discrimination & Diversity in STEM
By: Jessica Martin, SDSU Chapter Member
Recently, I got the opportunity to interview Dr. Veronica Casas, an amazing woman who is doing her best to create positive change in the STEM fields. Currently, Dr. Casas is pursuing a career in the biotechnology industry, but her prior position was as a research professor and Director of the STEM Start program at San Diego State University.
Throughout her life and career, Dr. Casas has experienced discrimination based on her race and gender. As a Latina woman, she was not necessarily surprised to be faced with discrimination in the STEM fields, but instead was surprised by the people who were perpetuating the discrimination. It was alarming to encounter something such as discrimination, which is without base or merit, among educated individuals working in a field based exclusively on logic and facts. Regardless, in her experience she found that when it comes to workplace discrimination, “people will always act according to their biases and ingrained opinions on who or what a person is based on their gender, race, ethnicity, etc.”
To handle the adversity that she faced, Dr. Casas created a repertoire of strategies. First, she made sure to allow herself the freedom to feel and express the emotions that came with experiencing discrimination. She found that if she refused to deal with them and kept them bottled up, the toxic resentment and anger would build up and take a negative toll on her health and well-being. Second, she learned to pick her battles. If the discrimination was something that would penetrate her daily life, affecting her enjoyment and her performance in her job, she would confront either the individual themselves or, if more appropriate, a supervisor or manager to ensure that corrective actions were taken. Lastly, she made sure to surround herself with those who would be allies when she needed to step up and be an advocate for herself.
Since STEM fields are still mostly dominated by white males, Dr. Casas has made it a personal mission to increase diversity wherever she can. She has talked to students at local elementary, middle, and high schools with under-served and underrepresented populations to teach them about careers in science. Her goal is not only to provide the information, but also to enlighten them and make them understand that they are fully capable of pursuing careers in science. At the university level, she has spoken at seminars that targeted diverse audiences where she encouraged students to pursue graduate education and careers in STEM, developed research and enrichment programs to foster success for undergraduate students, and trained and mentored students in her own environmental microbiology lab at SDSU. On top of all of the other amazing things she has accomplished, Dr. Casas was also the first faculty adviser for the first WSS Chapter at San Diego State University. As faculty adviser, she strove to inspire and support young women on their journey through their undergraduate careers. Now, Dr. Casas is still involved with WSS, acting as the Vice President on the Board of Directors, taking her legacy of diversification and empowerment to a national level.
Dr. Casas was told that she didn’t have it in her to get her PhD, yet she did just that and was able to accomplish so much more. As she transitions towards a new career she is facing all of that negativity once again, but she knows that she is the only one who can determine her own capabilities and worth. The biggest piece of advice that Dr. Casas can offer to women pursuing careers in STEM today is to never give up on your dreams and aspirations. There will always be someone there telling you that you can’t, but YOU are the only one who can determine what you are capable of.
Through all of her time battling discrimination, the biggest lesson that Dr. Casas has learned is to be her own advocate. In her experience, both as a student and in the field, she found that you have to talk to be heard. Men are constantly talking, letting their opinions be known and speaking even when they are blatantly wrong. “In general, as women we are encouraged to be polite, quiet, and not rock the boat lest we upset anyone. That is the LAST thing you should do… Always stay classy, but never miss that opportunity to get your voice heard.”
Although diversity and acceptance in the STEM fields continues to improve, it is due to the efforts of the strong women who came before us who have taken a stand and actively sought change, much like Dr. Casas herself. We might not all be able to have our names go down in history, but we can all make a change. As Dr. Casas said, “do something, big or small, just do something.”