This week on #MeetAScientist, get to know Dr. Greetchen Díaz is the Director of the Science Education Program and Community Partnerships of Ciencia Puerto Rico (CienciaPR). With March around the corner, 500 Women Scientists is preparing to launch our pod-wide campaign to host Science Salons for Puerto Rico. So we're thrilled for Greetchen to share the work she has been spearheading at CienciaPR to transform science education in Puerto Rico through problem-based learning that addresses disaster relief and resilience in the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Maria. A biologist by training, Greetchen shares her work from the lab bench to the world of nonprofits, and how she is working to serve her community in Puerto Rico.
When did you first identify as a scientist? What did your research focus on?
For me, my science and math teachers (both women) at elementary school were crucial. They inspired and guided me in my process of curiosity. My source of inspiration back then was an encyclopedia. I used to read it and learned about medicine, biology, astronomy, geology, meteorology, archaeology, and many other disciplines. Then I became interested in all of them! It was difficult to figure out what I wanted to do in the future. Later, my math teacher in middle school (also a woman) was a very great mentor and she motivated me to apply to a residential science and math specialized high school far from my town, which is the best public school in the island. The school only accepted the best students, and I was one! Then, moving from my town and far from my family was difficult but I was always very independent, so I survived a life-changing opportunity that opened many doors for me. The most important thing was that I finally learned that I wanted to become a biologist (catalyzed by the fact that I also learned that I’m not good at physics, so maybe being an astronomer was not a good idea!).
After completing my Bachelor and Master Degrees in Biology, at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez, I earned a PhD in Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology at The Ohio State University. Later, I started as a postdoctoral researcher at the Nebraska Center for Virology, University of Nebraska at Lincoln, where I got an NIH Postdoctoral Fellowship to conduct studies in reproduction of Human Papilloma Virus using yeast cells as a genetic model.
You made the transition from academia into the nonprofit world. What sparked the transition and what about your training has been the most useful in your work supporting Puerto Rican science?
I love research and sometimes I miss those days. However, I must say that being able to contribute to science in Puerto Rico from another angle has been of great satisfaction. I decided to return to the island as soon as I finished my NIH fellowship. Although on my return I had the idea of obtaining a position as a professor in academia, I was also watching what was happening in terms of the research and entrepreneurship culture. I was fortunate to be able to work for more than two years as the Grants Program Director at the Puerto Rico Science, Technology and Research Trust. There, I was responsible for the implementation of the first local grants mechanism in Puerto Rico. During the time that I led the grants program, I structured the operational and programmatic areas and established an unprecedented peer-review system on the island, and student’s internships in grants management, among others. While I was director, the Grants Program has awarded more than 50 research & development grants through its initiatives that empowered researchers to bring their science to a new level, establish new companies, and to commercialize their products. At the Trust, I also coordinated the outreach activities and was part of many science policy activities. This was also very important because I was able to contribute to help transform the research culture in the island through initiatives that included the Research & Innovation Meetups Series, the Forward Research & Innovation Summit and the Forward Grantees Symposium, among many others.
I always say that we should never underestimate volunteer work. When I came back to Puerto Rico I'd already been volunteering with CienciaPR for about 7 years. At CienciaPR, I participated in numerous projects in science communication, outreach, education and policy. I’m the founder and coordinator of the bilingual blogs "Borinqueña," for Hispanic and Puerto Rican Women in Science and Technology, and “Ciencia a tu alrededor.” In 2015, I was coordinator of "Semillas de Triunfo" (Seeds of Succeed), the first STEM Ambassador Program for middle school girls in Puerto Rico that trained about 160 girls and engaged them in STEM outreach projects that have impacted over 10,500 people around the island. All these experiences, combined with my training as a researcher were the perfect combination that has helped me to contribute to science on the island.
You've been leading up CienciaPR's efforts to develop hurricane-related STEM lesson plans. Can you talk about what has gone into shaping the curriculum and what the program will look like in implementation? How can more people get involved in your efforts?
You’re asking about my new mission! CienciaPR plans to launch a new program during the summer of 2018 to connect and train scientists and middle school teachers to co-create contextualized Project Based Learning (PBL) lesson plans that motivate students by addressing the challenges facing their communities. That was the original plan before hurricanes Irma and María. After the hurricanes, we decided to continue the plan but also to start with a focus on specific challenges that Puerto Rico is facing today as a consequence of the disasters. The resulting lessons aim to encourage resilience, creativity and entrepreneurship both for teachers and students. There are five main components for this project:
Teachers — Science and math middle school teachers will be trained in: (1) integrated science and math learning through projects, (2) strategies to make teaching contextualized and culturally relevant, and (3) a practicum with scientists in the co-development and implementation of PBL lessons. The program will include follow up meetings between scientists and teachers and facilitation of scientist classroom visits during the semester.
STEM experts — STEM graduate students, postdocs and professionals will participate in the co-development of science lesson plans with teachers and will receive training in science education and communication.
Students — Middle school students will complete PBL lesson plans and the outcomes will be measured for science proficiency, but also on attitudes that predispose to continued science learning.
Family & Community — We will establish partnerships with companies and community organizations that can help in the implementation of students' projects and recruit STEM professionals who can serve as role models. Family and community members will have active roles in the implementation of the student’s activities and outcomes.
Lesson plans and educational resources — Co-created PBL lesson plans will follow the Department of Education of Puerto Rico (DEPR) science and math curricular standards, will be contextualized to students' lives and community challenges, and will incorporate Puerto Rican STEM role models. The CienciaPR website will give visibility to the outcomes of this project and serve as a central repository of lesson plans and educational resources.
Although the project as described above begins in the summer, we will be doing other related activities during this spring. After Hurricane María, CienciaPR worked in collaboration with the DEPR and the organization “Echar Pa’ lante” to develop a set of PBL lesson plans to be implemented in schools that serve as shelters and at home, under the supervision of an adult. I personally developed these lessons in topics such as potable water and terrestrial ecosystems. In March, we plan to train science middle school teachers and school directors so they can implement them in their schools.
There are different ways in which people can get involved. The first thing is to join the CienciaPR network, learn more about the organization, and spread the word. Also, as our education projects progress, we will need graduate students, postdocs and other STEM experts who wish to collaborate with science and math teachers in the development of PBL curricula. We will need support from the private sector and organizations interested in promoting education, especially STEM education. This is of the utmost importance in order to be able to train teachers, scientists and finally impact the students and their communities.
When you're not busy transforming science education in Puerto Rico, what do you do to unwind and relax?
Yeah, that moment when you have to come out from the bubble and remember you’re a human being! I’m a very multifaceted person. Sometimes the usual things like reading, watching a movie or sports, relax me a lot, but I also like many things and I practice some of them. For example, I dedicate a good amount of time to writing and I have the ability to draw and sing. I also like to design and make accessories and even while doing my PhD, I sold my creations with the help of some friends. A little over a year ago I started photography, a new passion that I enjoy a lot. I'm also taking “Bomba” dance classes. “Bomba” is a traditional Puerto Rican music that has African roots. It turned out that dancing “Bomba” is an excellent cardiovascular exercise, very fun and relaxing. I have to say that I enjoy being a student and I hope to continue taking courses in different areas, especially those that allow me to develop my most creative side.
Dr. Greetchen Díaz is the Director of the Science Education Program and Community Partnerships of Ciencia Puerto Rico (CienciaPR). For more than ten years, as a CienciaPR’s volunteer, she participated in numerous projects in science communication, outreach, education and policy. She’s also the President of the Puerto Rico Society of Microbiologists, the local branch for the American Society for Microbiology, where she is also a member of its Board of Directors. Dr. Díaz is a scientist and creative thinker who has developed innovative initiatives of high impact for the economic development of Puerto Rico and beyond, through research, scientific culture and education at all levels, in order to highlight its impact on society. Her vision is that equal access to resources and opportunities are the only way to elevate our citizens to their maximum potential so that they can exercise as agents of social and economic change. You can reach her by email : firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @GreetDiaz