Things That Matter

17 Notable hispanic scientists Pushing Science Forward Today

Over the last century, many scientists have emerged from Latin America and from Latino communities around the world. However noteworthy and important their work has been for the progress of science, these remarkably intelligent, innovative people are rarely talked about in classrooms. The following is a list of men, women and young people who exemplify the best of the Latin community. They come from different ethnic groups and educational background, but what they do have in common is the drive to solve common problems that affect the world through science. 

1. Prof. Pedro A. Sanchez

From selling eggs back in Cuba, to washing dishes to fund his education at Cornell University, Pedro Sanchez, has led groundbreaking research in soil science to improve soil quality and boost food production all around the developing world. Thanks to Sanchez’s work that spurred the Green Revolution, 15 million people no longer starve today.

2. Dr. Lydia Villa-Komaroff

Born in New Mexico from Mexican parents, Dr. Komaroff was the third Mexican-American woman to get a doctorate degree in the sciences. Among many scientific achievements, her most notable work was the first ever production of insulin from bacterial cells. Today, most of the insulin for human use is produced using the techniques that Dr. Komaroff introduced.  

3. Dr. Frances Colón

Dr. Frances Colon grew up in Puerto Rico and received her doctorate in neuroscience at Brandeis University. Colon served almost five years as the Science and Technology Adviser, becoming the highest-ranking Hispanic scientist at the State department. Prior to this role, she served as a Science and Technology Adviser to then Secretary of State John Kerry. In 2009, Colon led the Energy and Climate Partnership for the Americas. In 2015, she co-chaired the UN Commission on Science and Technology. 

4. Sabrina Gonzalez Pasterski

Sabrina Pasterski is a first-generation Cuban American who has been lauded as “the next Einstein”. She completed her undergraduate degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology a year earlier than her peers with a perfect GPA. At just the age of 24, she is now pursuing her doctorate in physics at Harvard University. In 2015, she completed first solo research paper on electromagnetic memory, which was cited by Stephen Hawking in his own research published the next year. 

5. Ellen Ochoa

Perhaps the best known example of a successful Latina scientist is Ellen Ochoa. After completing a doctorate in electrical engineering, Ellen Ochoa served as a researcher at NASA. While at NASA, Ochoa co-invented and patented three optic devices and became the first Hispanic woman to participate in space missions. Most notably, Ochoa helped perform the first ever shuttle docking to the International Space Station in 1999 on board the Discovery. Since 2012, Ochoa has served director of NASA’s Johnson Space Flight Center, becoming the first Hispanic woman to ever do so.  

6. Mario Molina

If you think about chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and how bad they are for the ozone, the last thing on your mind would be the person who figured it all out, Mario Molina. Since he was a child in Mexico, Molina knew he had to be a chemist. He studied in Switzerland, Germany and Mexico and received his doctorate in physical chemistry at UC Berkeley. At Berkeley, Molina pursued his postdoctoral research study on the effects CFCs once they are released into the atmosphere. Within three months, Molina with the help of computer simulations, found that CFCs could potentially damage the ozone layer. Molina and his mentor Prof. Sherwood Roland spent the next decades alerting governments to the dangers of CFCs, but their warnings fell on deaf ears. When Molina’s findings were confirmed, he was awarded with the 1995 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

7. Nicole Hernandez Hammer

Nicole Hammer is a Guatemalan biologist and researcher who studies the effects of climate change on sea levels and vulnerable populations on the coastal areas of Southeastern United States. She has authored several papers and has spoken extensively on climate change for international media outlets like The New York Times, Al Jazeera, and The Washington Post.

8. Scarlin Hernandez

Scarlin Hernandez is a 26 year-old Dominican working as a spacecraft engineer for NASA. She develops and tests code and ground systems for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope Mission. Hernandez was given full scholarship by the National Science Foundation (NSF). After graduating, she interned at the Goddard Space Flight Center at NASA and went on to be team leader for the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission. 

9. Dr. Juan Maldacena

Born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Juan Maldacena studied physics at the University of Buenos Aires before going on to earn two master’s degrees and a doctorate in theoretical physics. As a young professor in Harvard in 1999, Maldacena managed to reshape the fundamentals of physics with his discovery. Maldacena’s discovery has helped physicists to study black holes and quantum gravity, and  has been cited more than 15, 000 times since its publication, making it the most widely cited paper ever in physics. 

10. Javier Fernandez-Han

Javier Fernandez-Han is just 17. As young as he is, Javier Fernandez-Han has taken strides that not many adults can claim to. Born to Chinese and Mexican immigrants, Fernandez-Han was recently named among the Forbes’ 30 under 30 for his invention of using algae to break down sewage waste into methane, which can be used for fuel. But that’s not all: When he was 14, he launched an organization “Inventors without Borders”. It aims to find “innovative solutions to solve real-world problems in rural, poverty-stricken areas”.

11. Eloy Rodriguez

Another noteworthy Latino scientist is Eloy Rodriguez. Rodriguez was born in Texas to Mexican parents. He is a world-renowned professor and scientist in many specialties of science, including toxicology, cell biology, plant biology and chemical ecology. He has published two books and more than 160 research studies and has received many awards for his exceptional work. Rodriguez also founded Kids Investigating and Discovering Science (KIDS) that gives minority children an opportunity to study science.

12. France Anne-Dominic Córdova

France Cordova is an astrophysicist appointed as the fourteenth president of the National Science Foundation in 2014. Previously, she had published more than 150 studies in astrophysics. As if that wasn’t enough, Cordova also served as chief scientist for NASA, founded a medical school and has won multiple awards, including the NASA Distinguished Service Medal.

13. Salvador Moncada

Salvador Moncada is a Honduran pharmacologist who is currently the Research Director at the University of Manchester Cancer Centre. Moncada studied medicine in El Salvador, then went on to pursue a PhD in Pharmacology at the Royal College of Surgeons. His scientific work continues to break ground in the molecular mechanisms and treatment of heart disease, inflammation, cancer and malaria. Dr. Moncada’s discoveries have been lauded internationally, especially his discovery of nitric oxide. His unjust exclusion from the 1998 Nobel Prize for Medicine was heavily criticised in the scientific community. 

14. Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa

Also known as “Dr. Q”, Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa is a neurosurgeon and a world-renowned researcher. He is the director of Neurologic Surgery and runs the research lab at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida. Between 2005-2016, Quiñones and his team published more than 150 scientific studies on the development of brain cancer. Currently, Quiñones leads the NIH initiative to find a cure for brain cancer. He has also been developing minimally-invasive neurosurgical techniques with the use of nanotechnology.

15. Manny Villafaña

Far from being a typical PhD educated scientist, Manny Villafaña grew up in the Bronx and received only a high school diploma. What he lacks in education, though, he makes up for in foresight and grit. He started out his career at Picker International, then moved on to Medtronic. In 1971, left Medtronic to launch rival company Cardiac Pacemakers Inc. that revolutionized pacemaker technology. In 1976, Villafaña launched St. Jude Medical that engineered the first artificial bileaflet heart valve that blood clotting. Recently, Villafaña launched his new venture which aims to produce artificial coronary arteries for patients needing bypass surgery. 

16. Dr. Julio C. Palmaz

If you have had a heart attack, you’ve got Julio Palmaz to thank for. Born in Argentina to parents of Italian descent, Palmaz moved to the United States with his family in 1977. The next year, Palmaz conceived the idea of a stent after a conference in New Orleans. In 1983, he successfully developed the prototype, which received patent in 1994. Dr. Palmaz has basically saved millions of lives and continues to drive innovation in stent technology.

17. Dr. Domingo Liotta

Another Latino whose work continues to push innovation in cardiology and cardiac surgery is Domingo Liotta. Like Julio Palmaz, Liotta was born in Argentina to Italian parents. In 1958, Liotta created a prototype of the world’ first ever artificial heart. His invention caught the attention of world-renowned cardiothoracic surgeon Dr. Michael DeBakey, who hired Liotta to be chief of the Artificial Heart Program at Baylor College of Medicine. Modern heart assist devices are based off of Liotta’s original design, and continues to save lives.

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