How a High-School Chemistry Teacher Reached the White House

The Benefits of the Graduate STEM Fellowship of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute

By Chelsea R. Martinez, Ph.D.

I grew up on the border of Los Angeles and Orange Counties in California where my father and mother had settled to start a family. I decided to go to college in Ohio, which was much further away than my parents expected me to travel. But they also were both transplants — my father moved to California from El Paso, Texas in the 1970s; and, my mother, as one of seven children, arrived to California with her family in the 1960s.

In high school I enjoyed chemistry even studying on my own for an AP chemistry test since my school did not offer such a course for it. But at the time, I did not know what it meant to do “science”. At Oberlin College, my chemistry degree exposed me to real science experimentation and academic research. I also learned how scientific skills could prepare me for different kinds of careers.

After graduation, I taught science and math at a private boarding school in Virginia and then at a large comprehensive public high school in California. I loved my job but had been told that if I wanted to go back for an advanced degree in Chemistry, that I shouldn’t wait too long to return — advice that I’m not convinced anymore is actually true. Since I felt that my B.A. degree had really only scratched the surface of what practicing chemistry as a career was really like, I entered a doctoral graduate program in Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Texas at Austin. I spent several years on graduate coursework, conducting peptide synthesis research, and “TAing” for a variety of chemistry courses. I came to understand the particular needs of the college students I taught through the large lecture and lab organic chemistry courses. We tried to replace a traditional lab course with a more authentic research experience.

Although it was considered unusual by my department for a student to ever leave the lab during their graduate years, I successfully received two national fellowships to help strengthen my communication skills. I knew that these experiences would be useful for any career (academic or not) after my graduate training. In the summer of 2007, I wrote for the Los Angeles Times Health desk as a AAAS Mass Media Fellow, where I researched stories on health, medicine, and frontier research for the print and online LA Times editions. Next, in the fall of 2010, I was a Christian Mirzayan Science & Technology Policy Graduate Fellow at the National Academy of Engineering, where I contributed to the development of the website and to the planning of a two-day workshop on the National Academy of Sciences report “Changing the Conversation”. The goal was to enact recommendations for more successfully recruiting diverse groups of students into engineering majors and careers. These professional experiences gave me the opportunity to practice writing for both general and policy-oriented audiences and focused my interest in working on the goal of improving our nation’s STEM education system. I came to the realization that a longer policy fellowship would be my entry into the world of government.

people we spend time with contribute to our character

In the fall of 2011, I began a Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute (CHCI) Graduate STEM Fellowship after turning in my doctoral dissertation. The CHCI fellowship allows a Hispanic master’s or Ph.D. graduate to experience two great opportunities. First, a fellow is paid while working in a legislative, executive, non-profit, or corporate office for 9 months. The work makes use of the fellow’s STEM expertise while building skills that translate this expertise into practical policy applications. Second, a fellow forms an intimate network with a larger cohort of fellows from non-STEM fields. This community engages in weekly professional development discussions and more informal outside social activities. The greater CHCI network allows a fellow to establish cultural and professional connections throughout the D.C. community. I spent my 9 months at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, which advises the president both on urgent day-to-day challenges such as the Macondo oil spill or contaminated food outbreaks. The office also researches long-term budgeting, strategy, and priorities for federal agencies like NASA, the Department of Defense, and the National Institutes of Health, that carry out crucial science and engineering research. The fellowship experience allowed me to meet cabinet secretaries Chu, Duncan, Suresh, and Solis. I also got the chance to work with Hispanic White House staff who advise the president on education and immigration issues, and who coordinate administration events through the Office of Public Engagement.

I was able to use my writing skills in two posts for the Office of Science and Technology Policy Blog. In the first article, Don’t Mess With Texas…Science Students, I described two Texas high-school teams that participated in the 2012 White House Science Fair. These teams epitomize the President’s call for “hands-on” learning to increase America’s STEM education success. In my second article, I reflected upon diversity during Hispanic Heritage Month. My Mexican-American father and my Costa Rican mother both taught me to value both formal and informal education. The latter was exemplified by my mother’s advise “Dime con quién andas, y te diré quién eres.” My interpretation was that the people we spend time with contribute to our character and what we want out of life. So I appreciated my other CHCI fellows even more knowing that this community made me a better person and citizen.

The capstone of the CHCI fellowship is a policy paper and related conference. A fellow chooses a topic that is timely, policy-relevant, and important to the Hispanic community. My policy paper was entitled “STEM, Shoots, and Leaves: Increasing Access of Underrepresented Groups to High-Quality, Career-Readying Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Education”. The fellows organize a policy summit to promote and publicize the issues described in their policy papers. A panel of speakers discuss each policy topic from a variety of perspectives. My panel presented strategies for increasing the pool of STEM-capable graduates in our nation. Another STEM panel described green space, education opportunities outside the classroom, and “getting Latino STEM students outdoors”. The experience of writing the paper, planning the summit, and educating an eager audience is the culminating event that really demonstrates how far the fellows have progressed. My own journey as a science policy fellow had taken me from California to the White House — preparation for my next career step.

Chelsea R. Martinez, Ph.D. is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor of Organic Chemistry at Oberlin College. Any opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.

The citation for this article is:
C.R. Martinez (2012) How a High-School Chemistry Teacher Reached the White House.
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Published 6-Oct-2012