Meet Dr. Semarhy Quiñones-Soto who is a full time lecturer at California State University, Sacramento (Sacramento State), where she teaches genetics to biology majors. Not only is Dr. Quiñones-Soto a lecturer, but she also creates beautiful artwork, with the purpose of increasing representation of women in STEM through art. Keep reading to learn more about her story!
What is your name and where you are from?
My name is Semarhy Quiñones-Soto. I was born in Humacao, a medium-size city on the southeast coast of the Spanish-speaking island of Puerto Rico. I moved to California after completing my bachelor’s degree from the University of Puerto Rico, Humacao to pursue my PhD degree in microbiology at the University of California, Davis.
What do you do currently?
I currently work as a full-time Lecturer in the Biological Sciences department at California State University, Sacramento (Sacramento State) teaching genetics to biology majors. In addition to teaching, my job is divided into additional titles, where I work my passion to increase the number of underrepresented minorities and women in the STEM fields. As the Associate Project Director, I help oversee the statewide CSU Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) program composed of all 23 CSU campuses. I work as the Research Coordinator for the CSU-LSAMP at Sacramento State program and the Program Coordinator for the Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement (RISE) program preparing undergraduate researchers from underrepresented backgrounds to become competitive for graduate program applications. I volunteer as the Faculty Advisor for the SACNAS at Sac State Student Chapter, promoting diversity, inclusion and equity efforts to support our student members. And, I volunteer as co-principal investigator in Dr. Drew Reams’ bacterial genetics research program.
How did you decide on doing what you do currently?
My current job is the result of unforeseen opportunities. Growing up, I had convinced myself to never become a professor. I hated the idea of being in school for the rest of my life and standing in front of groups of people giving several oral presentations each week. So, I followed an educational path that would prepare me for a career as a research scientist working in industry. However, after failing to get the job I wanted, I applied for a part-time teaching position at Sacramento State. To my fortune, I was hired to teach one genetics lab section in the department of Biological Sciences. My job as a lecturer did not require me to perform research work, which is the career I have been preparing for my whole life. But. I taught lab courses, which allowed me to perform experiments with students. After my first semester at Sacramento State, I fell in love with teaching – a career I once thought was not for me. Currently, I work with students (inside and outside the classroom) and that is the most rewarding aspect of my job.
"After my first semester at Sacramento State, I fell in love with teaching – a career I once thought was not for me."
What educational path did you have to take to do what you currently do?
My education includes two degrees in microbiology, a bachelor’s of science and a doctorate, a postdoctoral position in bacterial genetics, and over 20 years of lab experience.
While my educational path seems pretty straight forward, I did a lot of exploration because I was unsure what I wanted to do. My parents had a huge influence in my pursuit of science. My mother worked as a laboratory technician at the University of Puerto Rico, Humacao preparing the microbiology lab courses. As a teenager, I would help my mom prepare media (food) to grow bacteria, I would organize the tools the undergraduates would use in their courses and I would help clean the materials. This lab experience led me to pursue a degree in biology.
"...I did a lot of exploration because I was unsure what I wanted to do. "
As a biology major, I was unsure as to what field I wanted to concentrate. So, I explored different topics by working as a student researcher. During my time as an undergraduate student, I had four research experiences, two of which I performed in the US during my summer breaks. These experiences helped me narrow down my interests to microbial genetics. As a graduate student, I joined a program that allowed me to do lab rotations before joining a research group. The lab rotations gave me a chance to learn the science, the culture and the interactions between scientists from each group and I was able to choose a lab that was best suited for me. After completing my doctorate, I continued to work in research as a postdoctoral scientist and had a chance to hone in my skills.
During my educational path, I participated in programs aimed at increasing the number of underrepresented individuals in the STEM fields, including two NIH funded programs, Maximizing Access to Research Careers (MARC) and Initiative for Maximizing Student Development (IMSD), and the NSF Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP). As a faculty, I reached out at Sacramento State and let them know of my past experience and my passion to advance underrepresented people into science careers. Fortunately, I was offered the opportunity to work for the CSU-LSAMP program and I was part of the founding team bringing the NIH funded Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement (RISE) program to Sacramento State.
Did you have any hardships that you experienced while getting to where you are today that
you would like to share?
Graduate school was hard on all aspects of my life. At the beginning, I was homesick. I had never lived away from my family and I could not find my favorite foods in the local stores. Most of the time I was lonely. I did make friends, but there were times where I would go several days without talking to another person. On top of life changes, I had to attend science classes taught in English. Although I am fluent in English, my entire education was in Spanish. Science in English was like learning a third language, and I still had to learn the graduate course contents. I found myself taking blind notes in the classroom, translating my notes at home and re-learning the terms in order to understand the material. By the end of my first year as a graduate student, I had learned most of the scientific terms and I was able to fully communicate my thoughts with ease. Now, I face difficulties in communicating science in Spanish, but I am working on improving it.
Was your family always supportive of you doing what you are currently doing?
Yes, my family has always supported me. Even though I live 3,600+ miles away from my mom, we talk every day. She knows all my struggles and celebrates all my successes. I have a strong cheering section made up of my dad, stepdad, brothers, sister, husband and in-laws. I feel very lucky to also have a strong relationship with a small group of colleagues who share my passion for diversity and inclusion in STEM. Lastly, while not related by blood, I am part of SACNAS, a national family who supports one another and uplifts each other professionally and personally.
"I feel very lucky to also have a strong relationship with a small group of colleagues who share my passion for diversity and inclusion in STEM. "
What other interests/hobbies do you have outside of STEM?
I have always been interested in arts and crafts, from making jewelry to acrylic painting. Mostly, I love to draw and color. As a kid, I had numerous paint-by-color projects and coloring books. As a young adult, I had sketch books completely dedicated to fantasy art, where I drew fairies and mermaids. With the recent release of tablets, I learned how to make digital drawings. Currently, I have incorporated my passion for science and diversity into my art in a project where I draw women of color representing different STEM fields. Even though I make art to amplify an important issue, I still keep the elements of fantasy by using fun styles, like my STEAMpunk and the SciArt Nouveau series.
How did you think of the idea to create representation of women in STEM by using art?
Despite a recent increase in STEM degrees earned by underrepresented individuals, the representation of women of color in the workplace is lower when compared to their representation in the population. (Visit https://www.nsf.gov/statistics/wmpd to learn more about Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering). A clear example of this underrepresentation can be seen by simply performing an online search for images of a scientist. While the search displays somewhat diverse result images, Black women and women of color are overwhelmingly underrepresented. And, their representation is almost non-existent as you start searching online for specific fields, like ecology and geology. In response to the lack of images of Black women and women of color in the STEM fields, I make art where they are overrepresented (at least in my portfolio).
"...the representation of women of color in the workplace is lower when compared to their representation in the population."
Why do you feel that it is important to create representation of women in STEM?
It is important to represent women as STEM workers and professionals because you cannot be what you cannot see. Now, I do not mean that by making images of women in STEM I am pushing these careers to young girls. Rather, they serve as options for what is possible. Personally, when I am interested in something, be it a movie, a song, or even my passion for diversity, it is because I recognized a bit of my identity in it. I like to relax and laugh a lot, so I mostly watch comedies. I like to dance, so I like fast-paced loud music. I am a Latina in STEM, so I work to amplify our presence. It was the same as I made my decision on what profession to pursue. I had my mother’s image as a role model to follow. But, I recognize that not everyone has a person or an image they can identify and follow. Knowing there are women currently working and being successful in all STEM fields sends a message of possibilities and empowerment. This is also true for the women who currently work these fields. For them, images of women in STEM send a message of inclusiveness. After each social media post, I receive comments from different women saying “That is me!”, “I wish I had these as a kid”, and “Thank you for representing us”. Ultimately, creating images of women in STEM sends a message of belonging. In summary, representation matters.
"It is important to represent women as STEM workers and professionals because you cannot be what you cannot see."
What effect do you want your artwork to have on people?
I did not expect to make an impact by drawing women in STEM. I started drawing them as a way of self-care because I was going through my own doubts of sense of belonging. At one point, I had more than twenty drawings and a close friend and fellow Latina in STEM suggested I opened an Instagram account to post my art. After thinking about it for several weeks, I started an Instagram account (@semarhyq.art) and posted my drawings. I then decided to make one post of my drawings on my Twitter account and it was well received. Women scientists from all over the world started commenting on my post and requesting me to draw their fields. I learned about so many STEM fields and subfields, like malacology (the study of mollusks), speleology (the study of caves) and pedology (study of soils), that it became an educational moment for myself. I now continue to draw with the hopes of exposing all the STEM fields available as careers while over-representing women as their workers.
You can find more of Dr. Quiñones-Soto's artwork at semarhyq.art on Instagram