STEM Sisters in Panamá

Two high school graduates had the research experience of a lifetime

STEM Sisters in Panamá

Two high school graduates had the research experience of a lifetime

When Ruby Pacheco was in high school, she already knew she wanted to participate in research. A phone call to a biology professor at the University of Nevada, Reno led to opportunities she couldn’t have imagined at the time.

Dean’s Future Scholars is a program based at the University that provides outreach and mentorship to Washoe County School District students from disadvantaged backgrounds. For Jenny Rodriguez, the program provided a chance to gain unique research training.

Jamie Voyles has long been an advocate for advancing opportunities for women in STEM. Voyles is the Trevor J. McMinn Endowed Research Professor in Biology at the University of Nevada, Reno. Voyles studies emerging infectious diseases and wildlife conservation through microbial, physiological, evolutionary and ecological lenses.

A group of 6 young women wearing lab coats smile on the quad.
The STEM Sisters cohort of 2022.

In 2019, Voyles received a National Science Foundation CAREER award. With the funding from her CAREER award, Voyles started STEM Sisters, an outreach program designed to provide mentorship and research experience to local girls from backgrounds traditionally underrepresented in the sciences. The program lasted for six weeks over the summer, and paid students to do research, present at a University symposium and at an online international meeting. The program made an impact on students in the first cohort, including Pacheco and Rodriguez, who returned to mentor the next cohort. The two students would soon embark on the experience of a lifetime.

Rodriguez joined Lambertini and Basanta in the rainforests of Panama, trekking through dense foliage and sloshing through rivers to catch frogs (and other amphibians, when they came across them).

After Rodriguez returned to the U.S., Pacheco arrived in El Valle de Antón. There, she worked with the postdocs and the EVACC team to support outreach efforts for Golden Frog day, including classroom visits and presentations and a science fair.

Where are the STEM Sisters now?

The students both returned to the U.S. with an incredible opportunity to list on their resumes. The students thrived in their first semester.

Pacheco is pursuing a degree in cognitive science with an emphasis on data science at Northwestern University.

“My first term in college turned out to be incredibly challenging yet motivating,” Pacheco said. “My experience so far has even further solidified my interest in research and hopefully pursuing a career in academia.”

Two women sit down at a microscope on a table with various pieces of scientific equipment laid out as two people in black t-shirts look on.
Pacheco (foreground, left) supported the community outreach efforts in El Valle.

She’s involved on campus with first-generation organizations and recently joined a research support group. She also participates in the Northwestern Prison Education Program, which provides a liberal arts education to incarcerated individuals in Illinois.

“I am immensely grateful for the incredible opportunities that STEM Sisters has opened up for me in the early stages of my career and studies,” Pacheco said. “Particularly within the university environment, where imposter syndrome often disproportionately impacts minority students, having already developed professional skills that many typically acquire later on is incredibly reassuring and motivating during difficult times.“

Rodriguez is attending the University of Nevada, Reno, and majoring in environmental science, with an emphasis in ecohydrology. On campus, Rodriguez is involved in the Honors College and the McNair Scholars program, which supports underrepresented students in applying and preparing for a doctoral degree. Her faculty mentor for the McNair Scholars program is Voyles.

“I am excited that I get to keep working with her because she has become such an important role model and inspiration to me,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez said that at first, feelings of doubt about whether she belonged on campus or was meant to be in college crept in.

“By stepping outside of my comfort zone and talking to those around, joining clubs and organizations, and going to my professors’ office hours, that quickly changed,” Rodriguez said.

Jenny Rodriguez, wearing a headlamp, smiles as she holds up a plastic bag with a frog inside. She's standing amidst dense green foliage.
Rodriguez joined the researchers in the field to capture and collect data from frogs.

Outside of academics, Rodriguez is involved in the Hiking Club and the Wildlife Society Club on campus.

“Dr. Voyles is a big reason why I have decided to pursue a Ph.D.,” Rodriguez said. “I am also super thankful for Jarell Green and the first-generation services on campus for having connected me with Dr. Voyles and encouraged me to join STEM Sisters!”

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