Meet Afro-Latina Scientist Dr. Jessica Esquivel

Jessica Esquivel BELatina Latinx
Photo courtesy of earthsciweek.org

It’s undeniable that representation matters and the idea of what a scientist could or should look like is changing, largely thanks to pioneers like Afro-Latina scientist Dr. Jessica Esquivel, who is breaking barriers for women in STEM one step at a time. 

Dr. Esquivel isn’t just extraordinary because of what she is capable of as an Afro-Latina astrophysicist — she’s also extraordinary in her vulnerability and relatability. She’s on a mission to break barriers in science and to show the humanity behind scientists. 

Dr. Esquivel makes science accessible to everyone, no matter what you look like or where you come from. As one of the only Afro-Latina scientists in her field, and one of the only women who looked like her to pursue a Ph.D. in physics, Dr. Esquivel knows a thing or two about the importance of representation, especially in STEM fields and science labs. 

Women make up only 28% of the science, technology, engineering, and math workforce in the U.S. Those disparities are even more severe when you start to look at minority populations. 

“When you start looking at the intersections of race and gender and then even sexuality, those numbers drop significantly,” Esquivel told CBS Chicago. “There are only about 100 to 150 black women with their Ph.D. in physics in the country!” 

Fighting against the isolation of uniqueness

Dr. Jessica Esquivel recalls being a nontraditional student and being “the only” when she entered graduate school for physics — the only woman in her class, the only Black, the only Mexican, the only lesbian — and all of that made her feel very isolated. 

“On top of such rigorous material, the isolation and otherness that happens due to being the only or one of few is an added burden marginalized people, especially those with multiple marginalized identities, have to deal with,” Dr. Esquivel told BeLatina in an email interview. On top of feeling like an outsider, isolation was also consuming. “Being away from family at a predominately white institution, where the number of microaggressions was constant, really affected my mental health and, in turn, my coursework and research, so it was important to surround myself with mentors who supported me and believed in my ability to be a scientist.” 

While she anticipated that the physics curriculum would be incredibly challenging, she was definitely not prepared for how hard the rest of the experience would be and how it would impact her as a student and a scientist. 

The challenges she faced professionally and personally made her realize early on just how crucial representation is in academia and all fields, but especially in STEM. “It was really impactful for me to learn that there were other Black women who had made it out of the grad school metaphorical trenches. It’s absolutely important to create inclusive spaces where marginalized people, including Black, Latina, and genderqueer people, can thrive,” she said. 

“The secrets of our universe don’t discriminate, these secrets can and should be unraveled by all those who wish to embark on that journey, and my aim is to clear as many barriers and leave these physics spaces better than I entered them.”

When inclusion and equal opportunities are the ultimate goal

Dr. Jessica Esquivel isn’t just dedicating her time and energy to studying complex scientific concepts — think quantum entanglement, space-time fabric, the building blocks of the universe… some seriously abstract physics concepts straight out of a sci-fi movie, as she explains. On top of her research, she put in so much extra work to show people, especially younger generations of women of color, that the physics and STEM world is not some old white man’s club where this prestigious knowledge is only available to them. Dr. Esquivel is an expert in her field; she knows things that no one else currently knows and has the ability and the power to transfer that knowledge to others and pass it down to others. There is a place for everyone, including people who look like her, in the STEM world, and she’s on a mission to inspire others while working to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion in the STEM space.

“Many of us who are underrepresented in STEM have taken on the responsibility of spearheading institutional change toward more just, equitable, and inclusive working environments as a form of survival,” she explains. “I’m putting in more work on top of the research I do because I recognize that I do better research if I feel supported and if I feel like I can bring my whole self to my job. My hope is that one day Black and brown women and gender-queer folks interested in science can pursue just that and not have to fight for their right to be a scientist or defend that they are worthy of doing science.”

Communication as the ultimate science

How is Dr. Esquivel tackling such a daunting task? How is she making science more relatable to everyone? Two words: Science Communication.

Science communication is quite literally learning how to communicate scientific concepts. But it’s more complicated than it might seem – especially when we’re talking about incredibly complex and abstract knowledge that even the smartest people in the world struggle to wrap their heads around. But Dr. Esquivel doesn’t shy away from that challenge because she knows how important it is to share her passion for science and her research with other scientists and everyone. “I think there is this misconception that as scientists we only need to communicate to those who already are knee-deep in our field, but many of us are funded by your tax dollars, and I view it as a critical part of my job to convey to everyone how those tax dollars are being used to unlock the most existential questions of our time.”

It’s a responsibility she does not take lightly. And to make her work as accessible as possible, she leverages the A in STEAM, she explains. “I use graphics, visualizations, story-telling, and analogies to convey ideas that may seem completely foreign, but in fact, many of the questions I spend my time grappling with, people from age 6 to 96 have asked themselves those same exact questions at one point in their lifetimes.” She makes physics relatable, and at the end of the day, Dr. Esquivel’s goal for future generations is simple: making science more accessible and more inclusive.  

She is laser-focused on increasing representation and reminding young Latinas and other aspiring scientists who feel like they can’t see themselves in STEM that there is a place for them. Her best advice for any “outsiders” intimidated to approach a career in science? “Really lean into the notion of failing up,” she suggests. In fact, in science, failure is a good thing, so be prepared to not only accept failure but look forward to it. 

“A career in STEAM is chock full of setbacks and failures, but that’s all a part of the process,” she explains. Consider how the scientific method works: develop a hypothesis, test it, and then recalibrate your thinking based on what you learned. It’s not so much about being right, as it is about modifying what you know to be true. “In science, a failed hypothesis is a success. You’ve just proven that what you thought isn’t actually what is! There’s this joke that only physicists get excited to be proven wrong, and truer words have never been spoken! As counter-intuitive as it may sound, getting comfortable with failure will set you up for success!”