Thursday, May 26, 2016

Faculty Highlight: Prof. Maritza Lara López

Dr. Maritza Lara López
Assistant Professor at the IA-UNAM
Recipient of the 2016 L’Oreal’s Award
Dr. Maritza Lara López is an Assistant Professor at the Institute of Astronomy, UNAM, in Mexico City. Her area of expertise is extragalactic astronomy, focused on the study of metallicity and evolution of galaxies with large surveys. She has directed several theses at different levels, has won several National prizes in Mexico, as well as Institutional prizes in Spain. She is currently the youngest researcher at IA-UNAM. Dr. Lara Lopez is the recipient of this year’s L’Oreal’s Award.

Jorge Moreno: Congratulation on winning the L’Oreal’s Award! What was your reaction when you first learned that you won?

Maritza Lara López: I was at work when I received a phone call from the vice-president of the Mexican Academy of Science giving me the news that I got the L´Oréal prize for women in science! When I first tried to talk I realized that I had lost my voice due to my emotion. After a deep breath, I was able to say thank you.

Jorge: You’ve also recently begun your appointment as a faculty member at UNAM. What are your plans now that you’re a professor?

Maritza: I have many plans. I have just started my very own survey of large, nearby galaxies, and I have been building my own research group to exploit the amazing data we are getting. However, recruiting students can be a bit of a challenge, especially when you have over 40 professors and just an average of 3 students entering our postgraduate program every semester. I have also been doing more outreach activities since I arrived in Mexico. It is very important to inspire more students to study science, and more generally, to help with social change in developing countries, such as Mexico.

I have also been giving talks to graduate students to help them to better understand, and to be more realistic about, the challenges of a career in academia. Also, I am trying to expose the students and the community at IA-UNAM to more seminars in English. So far, this has been a bit of a challenge. Nevertheless, I consider it necessary to offer a friendlier and more welcoming (and inclusive) environment to our foreign postdocs and researchers at our institute, many of whom are not fluent in Spanish! Likewise, this allows our students to become more familiar to listening to talks, and giving talks, in English. This is important because, once when they go outside Mexico, either for postdoctoral appointments and/or conferences, they can understand and interact with researchers from other countries.

Jorge: In your opinion, what qualities make your work so unique and compelling?

Maritza: I find the formation and evolution of galaxies very intriguing. My research focuses a lot on the metallicity of galaxies, which I find fascinating since it gives us so much additional information about the history of a given galaxy. I love exploring new properties, combining information from different wavelengths to find new relationships, and providing new clues on how galaxies form and evolve. I also find it very rewarding to find out about new discoveries in other areas of astronomy (from talks and papers) and in a way extrapolate them to my work to help with new discoveries in my own field.

Jorge: Please tell me more about yourself. What’s your story?

Maritza: I was born and raised in the city of Puebla, in central Mexico, where I also studied my undergrad in Physics. In 2005, I was awarded a scholarship by the Mexican National Council for Science and Technology (CONACyT) to study my Masters and PhD at the Canary Islands Institute of Astrophysics (IAC), in Tenerife, Spain. It was the first time I had traveled outside Mexico for a new adventure in Spain. At the beginning, I was a bit overwhelmed with the very high level of research and students at IAC. However, since CONACyT trusted me, and my country was paying for my education, I was determined to do my best! At the end I received an institutional prize for the best PhD thesis at IAC, and another prize for the best thesis in Mexico.

In 2010, I moved to Australia for a postdoctoral position to work at the Australian Astronomical Observatory (AAO) in Sydney. Later, I won the Super Science Fellowship to continue my research at AAO. I lived in Sydney for four years. The city was beautiful and the quality of life was amazing. However, as in most parts of the world, there are just a few positions in Astronomy for a very large community. During the last year of my fellowship, the Institute of Astronomy at UNAM, in Mexico, opened up tenure track positions. I applied and got one! I have been in Mexico since the end of 2014.

Jorge: Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in astronomy?

Maritza: Ever since I was a child, I have been very curious about everything, and used to annoy everyone around me with all my questions. I was lucky that my mother used to buy lots of books. At home, we had an encyclopedia with answers to lots of questions. I was amazed to read why the sky is blue, why chameleons change colors, why the earth is round, etc. I decided I wanted to be a scientist! From all the topics I read, the most intriguing was Astronomy. In high school I was reading several books by Stephen Hawking, got very confused reading about relativity, and never got sick of admiring images of galaxies. I decided I wanted to be an Astronomer, and got enrolled in a degree of Physics in Puebla. At the end of my degree, I did a thesis project in Astrophysics at INAOE. I had the opportunity to travel to the San Pedro Martir Observatory, located near Ensenada, in Baja California, Mexico. For the first time in my life I saw the Milky Way, and will never forget it. I got butterflies in my stomach when I saw, for the first time, M33 through the computer in the control room of the telescope.

Jorge: What challenges or obstacles have you faced in pursing your interests in astronomy? How have you overcome them?

Maritza: I have been very lucky in the cities where I have lived so far. People have always been nice to me. My main obstacles, however, have been in the academic environment. Someone tried to block one of my papers from my PhD from being published. I was just a student and had no idea yet how unfair the refereeing processes could be sometimes. My PhD supervisor was very supportive and fought with me, as well as the Editor in chief of the Journal, who at the understood the situation and gave us a fair referee. In the process, both the original editor and referee had to be replaced. It turns out that my paper was, indeed, quite important. It is currently my most cited paper so far. Overall, having a very supportive supervisor (Prof. Jordi Cepat at IAC) was essential in overcoming this problem.

I have also received sexist comments like: "How surprising that you developed a 3D model, that is too much abstraction for a woman". In this regard, I think it is important to educate our colleagues, and for everyone to point out when a comment is sexist, racist, or out of line.  I have also experienced intimidation from researchers at institutes where I have worked, from more senior researchers trying to stop my projects to lack of support when I have asked for help from other researchers and administrators. Unfortunately, the world of academia can be very aggressive, intimidating, and incredibly competitive. As a human being, I think aggression and intimidation are not necessary in any scientific argument. I have been very disappointed to see many my colleagues accept that as normal and acceptable behavior.

Jorge: On a global scale, women of color are severely under-represented in our field. The same is true for women astronomers in Mexico. What ideas do you have for making astronomy a more equitable and inclusive community?

Maritza: I have seen in many job applications things like: "in case of equal qualifications, preference will be given to a female over a male applicant". This is a good start, but we need more than that! We need to create more scholarships, fellowships and tenure-track positions just for women at all levels. At conferences, we need to invite the same number of female and male invited speakers. As women, we need to promote ourselves to the younger generations, point out our challenges, talk about them, and fight to solve them.

We need more female astronomers in leading roles, as diversity is crucial to creating an inclusive environment. In a male dominated academic society, sexual harassment cannot be tolerated under any circumstances. Universities need more severe penalties against the aggressors, and to better protect their more vulnerable members.
We also need to put more strict rules, and a clear code of conduct, at Institutes and conferences with the aim to stop intimidation, aggressive, and improper behavior against anyone, especially vulnerable groups, such as students and female astronomers. AAS President Meg Urry has already started doing this in the United States. It is time for other organizations and institutes to follow suit.

I have thought a lot about "positive discrimination" – i.e., creating policies that benefit underrepresented minorities. Often times pride can make us think we can do things alone without help from anyone else. However, in an academic society dominated by male folks, the fastest way to reach equality is via positive discrimination. Women have been underrepresented for so many centuries, thus positive discrimination sounds like the minimum price to pay to compensate for a long history of oppression against us.

Jorge:  What advice would you give to other people with a similar background to yours who might be interested in following your path?

Maritza: I come from a divorced mother, where she was the only support of our little family. We grew up in a very modest house. All of my education was through public schools. Since an early age, my mother told my siblings and I that her salary could support education at a public university, and that the rest would be up to us (by law, public universities in Mexico are nearly tuition free). My mother is a very smart teacher, and decided to invest everything she had in our education, through good books and academic activities. Getting good grades at school was a must, since I needed to get scholarships to help at home. I had to learn from an early age to be constant and perseverant.

We could think that my color, my gender, my citizenship, and my economical situation were not the best combination for a successful future. However, I learned that, despite these obstacles, success can be more related to education, perseverance, grit, and finding your passion. I would also recommend the readers to look for international opportunities and scholarships. Create a good network, as this will be essential to open you up to more opportunities. If you are not fluent in English, enroll in a course right now! Science today is done primarily in English, so do not let the language deter you from your path to success. You might be rejected many many many times for scholarships, fellowships and jobs in this competitive world, but keep trying! Remember that perseverance is the key to success.

Jorge:  Any final words?

Maritza: I would like to thank enormously to L´Oréal-UNESCO for this prize! And for making a difference in directly supporting research by women!

*Jorge Moreno is an Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Cal Poly Pomona. He is also a member, and Chair Elect, of the AAS Committee on the Status of Minorities in Astronomy (CSMA).

1 comment: