Earlier this year, the White House honored UC Santa Cruz professor of astronomy Enrico Ramirez-Ruiz with a Presidential Award for his ground-breaking mentorship program that helps propel students — particularly women and marginalized groups — forward. With this momentum, the astronomer now aims to expand such impacts, founding a new campus center for STEM leadership.
Enrico Ramirez-Ruiz, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz, knows the feeling of not being good enough.
While doing a fellowship at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, in the early 2000s, he recalls a moment he had with a mentor who told him he wanted to help him advance his career. But first, the mentor told Ramirez-Ruiz, he wanted to give him some advice.
“He says, ‘The first thing that you have to do is to stop telling people that you’re from Mexico, because people are just going to think that you’re not very good,’” Ramirez-Ruiz recalled. “And so here it is, someone that is probably one of the most influential scientists in astronomy thinking that [being Mexican] is a huge decrement to who I am as a scientist.”
Almost 20 years later, in February this year, Ramirez-Ruiz received a Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring. The White House recognized him for 14 years of building STEM training research programs and creating the Lamat Institute mentoring program in 2010 at UCSC. Between Ramirez-Ruiz and the Lamat mentors, they’ve trained half of all historically marginalized students receiving astronomy Ph.D.s in the United States in the past five years. Lamat means “star” in Mayan.
Receiving the award, Ramirez-Ruiz said he felt humbled, excited and validated.
“It’s really nice to be recognized in such a way, because I feel like it gives me a lot of ability to lead for systemic change not only within the university, but also in the field at large,” he said. “I also feel that it’s really important to call out to science in general to catalyze talent that has to be catalyzed.”
When he started teaching courses at UCSC in 2007, he saw the lack of diversity in his physics courses. And he noticed something: In a class he taught entitled “Dead stars and black holes,” not required for physics majors, three times as many Latinx students enrolled, but they weren’t transferring to the major.
“And then I started examining the problem, and I realized that, in order for us to be more effective, we have to change the way that we teach,” he said.
Generally, though, Ramirez-Ruiz wasn’t teaching such introductory courses, and he didn’t think he could convince his colleagues to teach differently.
“‘So how can we do that?’ And then what I realized was that supporting community college students was probably a very effective way of doing this, because they’re taking those introductory courses at community college,” he said. “They have really amazing teachers. And then by the time they transfer to the UC, or to UC Santa Cruz, they have already kind of passed that kind of bottleneck. So that was, I think, the conception of it.”
The Lamat Institute
Ramirez-Ruiz launched the Lamat Institute first working with students from Hartnell College, the Salinas-based community college, after he gave a talk to a class there through the college’s astronomy and physics department. The class was made up of a majority of Mexican American students, who were in awe of Ramirez-Ruiz. They hadn’t met someone from Mexico with a Ph.D.
“That changed my perception, and I started learning more about the systemic structures in this country not allowing students to excel,” he said.
Since the institute’s founding 12 years ago, women and historically marginalized students have made up two-thirds of the participants. Of the Lamat students and the other students Ramirez-Ruiz has mentored, 12 have won NASA postdoctoral fellowships, and 19 are now professors. In addition, 30% of doctoral students in UCSC’s astronomy department come from historically marginalized groups.
Over the years, the institute has expanded and the 129 students who have been accepted into the program have come from between 60 and 90 community colleges and universities. The institute offers an eight-week summer program that provides a range of support to students, aiming to help them transfer to four-year institutions and later to graduate school.
While the program accepts applications from all undergraduate students, community college students are most encouraged to apply. About 100 students apply each year for 10 to 17 openings. The National Science Foundation funds Lamat, providing about $10,000 for each student.
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Each student works with a mentor, or several, learning about scientific inquiry through astrophysical simulations. Some participants who are accepted into the program in consecutive years and are able to continue their research publish scientific papers as a result of their work with their mentors.
The philosophy of paying it forward was embedded into Ramirez-Ruiz’s mind at an early age. In Mexico City, where he grew up, his grandfather often took care of him while his parents, both chemists and academics, worked. He recalls an origin story his grandfather would tell him.
“[The story] says, when we’re conceived, your essence comes rushing towards you. But in the journey to you, it breaks into a million pieces,” he said. “So only a very small fraction of your essence reaches you, and when you gain consciousness, you’re going to feel incomplete, you’re going to realize that you’re missing all of these important pieces.”
But rather than being sad about being incomplete, his grandfather would say, it’s a great opportunity for you to pick up the pieces of you that fell into other people.
“And only by sharing those pieces with other people, you become more complete,” Ramirez-Ruiz said. “Every single piece matters, and also your ability in the way that you interact with others, in the way that you listen to others, that you care for others — if you don’t have that ability to share those pieces, then you will never complete.”
Two Lamat students’ experience
Cabrillo College student Rewa Bush and De Anza College student Lailani Kenoly, two of the 17 Lamat students participating this summer, are returning for their second year in the program.
Both of them grew up curious and interested in astronomy, but looked around to see they were the only girls in STEM clubs and workshops. Women make up only 28% of science, technology, engineering and math professionals, according to the American Association of University Women.
Bush studied English at Oberlin College from 2012 to 2016, and then enrolled at Cabrillo three years ago. She began taking the math and science courses she would need to pursue her dream.
Today, she’s deciding on her next steps after Wesleyan University accepted her into its master’s program for astronomy for next fall.
Her research with Lamat focuses on “simulations of stars that get so close to a black hole that they are nearly torn apart.” Using computers — much of astronomy and astrophysics is now more online than through stargazing — she then evolves the simulations to see how they age and understand their changing characteristics in order to try to observe them through a telescope.
For Kenoly, who like Bush grew up thinking that astrophysics wasn’t a place for someone like her, it was a long road before deciding she would pursue what she was always interested in. First she pursued linguistics. Then she started taking psychology classes.
“But eventually, I was just like, I had enough of running around. And I just thought, ‘OK, what’s the one thing I thought I would never be able to do, but I really wanted to do,’ and astrophysics was that,” she said. “And so I just thought, ‘All right, this is what I’m gonna do, I don’t care what anyone says, I’ll commit to it.’ And then immediately started looking for research opportunities.”
While continuing her studies at De Anza, she’s also meeting weekly with Ramirez-Ruiz and her other mentors. Her research focuses on a cluster of old stars known as M15 and why the element barium isn’t well mixed within the cluster.
As she finishes her studies at De Anza, Kenoly plans to apply to graduate schools.
Of all the Lamat students, 100% have gone on to complete a bachelor’s degree in STEM, and 74% go on to graduate school.
Ramirez-Ruiz says having students publish before they finish their undergraduate career is very unusual, and Kenoly and Bush are on their way to doing that. Since their participation in last summer’s program, both have continued their research projects and hope to publish soon.
“That will open the doors for them to go to almost any grad school that they want to go to,” Ramirez-Ruiz said. “And just kind of demystify and bring clarity to what are the skills that you need to be a scientist and how science is performed. There’s a lot of hidden curriculum, if you’re not in an R1 university (with very high research activity), that you don’t get exposed to.”
Today, Ramirez-Ruiz has students who participated in Lamat who are now launching their own mentorship programs.
“They’re paying it forward on this kind of continuous wave of paying it forward. They’re really leading by example, and bringing some of the principles that we have tried to put forward in the program,” he said. “They’re now re-creating those principles, in many cases, amplified in ways that hopefully lead to systemic change within the field.”
In about a month, Ramirez-Ruiz aims to continue that legacy as he founds UCSC’s new Center for the Advancement of STEM Leadership. He said UCSC committed an operating budget for three years to build programming to “promote equitable participation so that the rich diversity of people, perspectives, and modes of expertise can drive innovation within the field.”
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He says UCSC can do more to prioritize equitable access to resources for all of its doctoral students, as there continues to be a low number of Black, Hispanic and Indigenous doctoral students in STEM. The center will put resources toward ensuring career development of mentees, encourage STEM members to work with equity-forward frameworks to support junior researchers, provide professional development for mentors and mentees and collect demographic data and outcomes to assess programs, among other initiatives.
While Ramirez-Ruiz launches the center, he’ll continue teaching courses, running Lamat and doing his own research. That research focuses on cataclysmic events in the universe, mostly related to the death of stars. But he also spends time understanding the formation of heavy elements, which is directly related to where human life comes from.
“Our entire existence is linked to the universe and the evolution of the universe has become kind of an essential component of who we are as humans,” he said. “That’s what drives me. I think in some ways. Maybe it gives more meaning to life, thinking about the grandiosity of the universe.”
FOR THE RECORD: This article has been updated to clarify that the Institute for Advanced Study is in Princeton, New Jersey; it is not affiliated with Princeton University.