Argonne National Laboratory

Hispanic and Latino students get an inside look at science at Argonne

By Tona KunzOctober 19, 2015

The question on the test used the world "she" to describe a scientist doing work.

"That can't be correct," came the ripple of comments from throughout the 7th grade classroom.

The science that the question asked them to do wasn't too difficult to grasp, but the thought of a female scientist was, said Diego Figueroa, a math and science teacher at Sawyer Elementary School in Gage Park on the Southwest side of Chicago.

That got Figueroa thinking.

"Most of them have never met a real scientist and a lot of the students don't have an accurate idea of the variety of science careers out there," he said. "I wanted to show them what a real lab looks like."

On October 9, 39 of Figuero's students got that opportunity on a day-long visit to Argonne National Laboratory sponsored by Argonne's Hispanic Latino Club.

"You will be in actual spaces where some of the top scientists in the world do their experiments, and you will be doing similar experiments," Michael Kaminski, club president and a nuclear engineer at Argonne, told the students.

As part of the 11th annual Hispanic/Latino Educational Outreach Day, students visited the high-energy physics, nuclear energy, Advanced Photon Source, and Advanced Protein Characterization Facility areas of the lab.

The students got to choose whether they wanted to visit Argonne. Aisha Aich chose to take the field trip so that she could do hands-on experiments, which included working with conductivity and extracting DNA from a strawberry. She hoped the exposure to Argonne could help her decide whether she should follow a career path in science, which she is considering because of the chance it would give her to leave a legacy.

"One experiment can change the whole world. That is pretty cool," Aich said.

The students also met several Hispanic and Latino scientists and engineers at Argonne who answered questions about the education needed to be a scientist and what typical workday would be like.

For Melvin Villegas, that was perfect. He volunteered to start his day early just so he could make the field trip.

"I gave up my sleep because I wanted to see the kinds of jobs you could do," he said.

Villegas has been interested in science and math since he was young, and he has his eye on a job in chemistry.

"What we do at Argonne is focus on the betterment of society," said John Quintana, deputy chief operations officer for Argonne. "How we do that is pretty simple. We are about big ideas and big challenges. You need to bring diverse people together to tackle those."

He told the students that they would notice that the lab is full of people of different ethnic backgrounds and different genders, all working in different disciplines.

Argonne and the U.S. Department of Energy have stressed that it takes those different perspectives to find the best answer to complex problems. Outreach activities exposing students to science and the national laboratories is one way to encourage students to enter STEM fields. This will help make sure that the national laboratories have a diverse workforce in the future to drive innovation and discovery.

"That is why we are really excited that you are all here," Quintana told the students. "Because we can't solve the world's problems without people like you."

Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation's first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America's scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science.