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Grad student becomes a voice for diversity in STEM
Angelica Moncada

Grad student becomes a voice for diversity in STEM

A bit of luck and a lot of tenacity led one student to a unique program at FIU

February 24, 2020 at 2:43pm

Stapled to a crowded bulletin board, a flyer stood out: A nearby animal shelter was seeking volunteers.

Since moving to South Florida and leaving behind her family in Colombia, Angelica Moncada had felt her connection to nature slipping away. Splitting her days between a classroom at Broward College and a part-time job at a cafeteria, she thought that spending her free time with animals would reconnect her to nature.

She dialed the number on the flyer. The phone rang. A woman answered. She didn’t work at the animal shelter. She knew nothing of the volunteer opportunity. Wrong number.

The call should have ended there, but it didn’t. The woman told Moncada about an opening at a nearby termite research facility. It required a science background, and Moncada happened to be studying environmental science. Moncada—whose first language was Spanish—had only one question: “What is a termite?”

She toured the facility the next day where scientists were studying the voracious insects she knew as “comején.” She felt like she had entered another world.

“Before then, I didn’t really know about biological research,” says Moncada, who was fascinated as she watched those around her working intently. “I didn’t know you could make a career of such learning.”

Despite having no research experience, she impressed the team and was offered a job as a lab technician. Because it was a paid position, she was able to leave her job at the cafeteria. She remained in college and went on to earn a bachelor’s in environmental science. She wanted to continue her education, but with limited resources, a graduate degree seemed out of reach.

Then Moncada heard about a National Science Foundation (NSF) program at FIU that supports research opportunities for underrepresented minority students. It was available through the CREST Center for Aquatic Chemistry and the Environment in FIU’s Institute of Environment. So Moncada applied and was admitted to FIU and then applied for the CREST research assistantship that would help launch her new career.

The combination of a stipend and numerous opportunities allowed her to grow as a scientist. One of those opportunities was an NSF conference in Chicago exploring research needs for populated coastal areas. The conference organizers asked Moncada to give a five-minute speech about her journey into science. As she stood on a stage in front of 200 scientists, Moncada couldn’t help but think, “They have nothing to learn from me.”

Turns out, they had a lot to learn.

Moncada’s pursuit of a Ph.D. is unlike that of many people who were in the room, but a common narrative for others like her. Often, underrepresented minorities cannot afford the hiatus from paid employment that’s typically required to complete a dissertation. As the nation tries to grow diversity within scientific ranks, Moncada contends the need for financial support will only grow. So will the need for more opportunities.

Jeff Schaeffer, then-editor in chief of a magazine for scientists working in the fisheries industry, was at that NSF conference that day. He invited her to write an essay as soon as she exited the stage. Moncada’s essay, What Does Diversity Require of Us?, appeared in the publication’s August 2019 issue.

“I know many scientists who are dismayed about our inability to retain bright Hispanic students in STEM fields, but there was no understanding of why we were losing them,” Schaeffer says. “Angelica’s presentation about why we lose them nailed it.”

Today, Moncada is studying under Assefa Melesse, a professor of water resources engineering in the Department of Earth and Environment in FIU’s College of Arts, Sciences & Education. Using remote sensing and modeling technology, she’s tracking water contaminants.

Her ability to focus and get the job done has impressed Melesse. “She is consistent and persistent in setting goals and working toward them,” he says, citing the very qualities that have guided her throughout life thus far.