September 2019: Hispanic/Latinx Heritage

Baruj BenacerrafBaruj Benacerraf
October 29, 1920 –August 2, 2011
Photo Courtesy of Journal of Immunology

Hispanic Heritage: Venezuelan-American

Claim to Fame: Won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1980

Important Scientific Contribution: Discovered the major histocompatibility complex genes that allow the immune system to distinguish self from non-self. His work has helped future scientists better understand auto immune diseases.

Quote: “In 1970, Dean Robert Ebert offered me the Chair of Pathology at Harvard Medical School. I moved to Harvard because I missed the university environment and, more particularly, the stimulating interaction with the eager, enthusiastic, and unprejudiced young minds of the students and fellows.”

Ynes MexiaYnés Mexia
May 24, 1870 – July 12, 1938
Photo Courtesy of University of Texas at Austin

Hispanic Heritage: Mexican-American

Claim to Fame: Began botany career at age 55, discovered a new genus named after her – Mexianthus.

Important Scientific Contribution: Her meticulous collection of over 140,000 species of plants from Mexico and South America, including 500 new species discovered by Mexia, significantly increased the knowledge base in botany.

Trailblazer: Ynés Mexia considered herself a traditional woman, and was repulsed by the unpatriotic attitudes of one of her traveling companions, Agnes Chase, who embraced feminism and prohibition. Yet, Mexia divorced her second husband in 1909, and commonly traveled alone, very rare behaviors for women in the early 20th Century.

Dr. Carlos Juan FinlayDr. Carlos Juan Finlay
December 3, 1883 –August 20, 1915
Photo Courtesy of Oxford University Press


Hispanic Heritage: Cuban

Claim to Fame: Discovered role of mosquitos in transmission of yellow fever.

Important Scientific Contribution: A champion of public health, Dr. Finlay was the first to suggest that a cholera outbreak was caused by sewage contamination of a public water supply, and studied the negative impacts of various manufacturing processes on workers. Dr. Finlay served as Cuba’s Chief Sanitary Officer and as president of the American Public Health Association.

Quote: “No country owes a greater debt of gratitude to Dr. Finlay than does the United States.” – William Gorgas, Surgeon-General of the U.S. Army.

Maria da Penha Maia FernandesMaria da Penha Maia Fernandes
Photo Courtesy of Folha de S. Paulo

Hispanic Heritage: Brazilian

Claim to Fame: Spearheaded efforts leading to the establishment of the Maria da Penha Law on Domestic and Family Violence.

Important Scientific Contribution: A bio-pharmacist and mother of three, Maria da Penha was shot in her sleep by her abusive husband, leaving her paralyzed. He later tried to electrocute her before she was able to leave the abusive relationship with her daughters. She continues to advocate for women’s rights.

Quote: “I never imagined that my struggle, which began with a lot of pain and suffering, would end up where it did ... To have the law named after me is also a big responsibility, since it does not permit me to stop [my work].”

Luis Federico LeloirLuis Federico Leloir
September 6, 1906 –December 2, 1987
Photo Courtesy of Fuente Biografias y Vidas

Hispanic Heritage: Argentine

Claim to Fame: Won Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1970 for his discovery of the metabolic pathways in lactose.

Important Scientific Contribution: Isolated a new class of substances called sugar nucleotides that were responsible for the ability of organisms to synthesize carbohydrates from sugars.

Quote: “I might paraphrase Churchill and say: never have I received so much for so little.” – Leloir, upon receiving the Nobel Prize for his work on lactose.

Stephanie CastilloStephanie Castillo
Photo Courtesy of CBSA Leadership Institute

Hispanic Heritage: Mexican-American

Claim to Fame: Founder and Executive Director of Latina Girls Code.

Important Scientific Contribution: Latina Girls Code provides computers, classes, internships, and leadership opportunities in technology to young Latinas. She is also involved in human rights issues, especially related to undocumented students in her organization, and motivating young people to create sustainable practices in technology.

Quote: “It’s more than just a technological transformation for our communities that have been locked out of this resource. What we’re seeing is our students are facing unique experiences, unique circumstances.” – discussing the impact of Latina Girls Code programs.

Luis and Walter AlvarezLuis and Walter Alvarez
June 13, 1911 – September 1, 1988; October 3, 1940-
Photo Courtesy of Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory

Hispanic Heritage: Spanish-American

Claim to Fame: Posited the Alvarez hypothesis to explain mass extinction at the end of the Cretaceous Period.

Important Scientific Contribution: The father-and-son duo discovered a clay layer highly enriched with iridium (the K-T boundary) that eventually led to the idea that a large asteroid impact was responsible for the mass extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs.

Quote: “I'm convinced that a controlled disrespect for authority is essential to a scientist. All the good experimental physicists I have known have had an intense curiosity that no Keep Out sign could mute.” – Luis Alvarez

Gabriela FarfanGabriela Farfan
Photo Courtesy of White House

Hispanic Heritage: Chilean-American

Claim to Fame: Earned 10th place in Intel Science Talent Search and attended 2010 State of the Union address with First Lady Michelle Obama.

Important Scientific Contribution: Explained why some gemstones appear to change color when looked at from different angles.

Quote: “I felt awful after [my] first exam and watched as so many classmates — the women and minorities specifically stood out to me — switched majors and quit their dreams of being pre-med or whatever else required chemistry. In that moment, I felt determined that I would not let that stop me.”

Pedro NunesPedro Nunes
1502 –August 11, 1578
Photo Courtesy of Danilo Castagno

Hispanic Heritage: Portuguese

Claim to Fame: Invented the nonius to aid in navigation.

Important Scientific Contribution: A highly intelligent mathematician with strong interest in navigation, Nunes. Determined that ships maintaining a steady course would follow a spiral path.  His calculations were instrumental in the development of the Mercator projection of map-making, which is the projection in which most world maps are displayed.”


Other Interests: In addition to his seminal work in geography/navigation, Nunes was also a theoretical mathematician and a cosmologist. In 1577, Pope Gregory XIII consulted with Nunes about reforming the calendar, but Nunes died before completing the project.

France CordovaFrance Córdova
August 5, 1947-
Photo Courtesy of National Science Foundation

Hispanic Heritage: Mexican-American

Claim to Fame: First female NASA Chief Scientist.

Important Scientific Contribution: As an experimental astrophysicist, she was the first to discover a collapsing binary star system by convincing NASA to position their High Energy Astronomical Observatory satellite where she predicted it would be.

Quote: “I didn't have many science role models as a young girl, and so it wasn't until I graduated from Stanford -- with a degree in English literature! -- that I realized I could be anything that I wanted to be.”

Victor Neumann-LaraVictor Neumann-Lara
June 6, 1933-February 26, 2004
Photo Courtesy of Alchetron

Hispanic Heritage: Mexican

Claim to Fame: Introduced the idea of dichromatic number of a digraph used in kernel theory and tournament theory.

Important Scientific Contribution: A pioneer of graph theory who also worked extensively in the fields of general topology, game theory, and combinatorics. He was a passionate teacher who introduced new teaching methods to the field of mathematics.

Quote: “He tricked us into believing that he was immortal. His research activity increased as he aged; it could be said that he passed away at the pinnacle of this career. Victor died during his talk while solving a problem whose solution had evaded him for many years. [He] left us wondering what he was about to prove.” – Amanda Montejano

Juan Martin MaldacenaJuan Martín Maldacena
September 10, 1968-
Photo Courtesy of Institute for Advanced Study

Hispanic Heritage: Argentine

Claim to Fame: Conceived the ultimate test for the validity of the modern Big Bang Theory, and equated wormholes with entangled particles mathematically.

Important Scientific Contribution: Studies the relationships between quantum gravity and quantum field theories to understand the connection between black holes and quantum field theories.

Quote: “You can create a universe in a bottle.”

Nicole Hernandez HammerNicole Hernandez Hammer
August 5, 1947-
Photo Courtesy of National Public Radio

Hispanic Heritage: Guatemalan and Cuban

Claim to Fame: Southeast Climate Advocate for Union of Concerned Scientists.

Important Scientific Contribution: Integrates science and community activism to study the effects of climate change among Hispanic populations that reside near coastal shorelines.

Quote: “If you look at the polls, Latinos are more onboard than any ethnic group in the country. Not just in terms of believing in climate change but wanting to do something about it and willing to make sacrifices, financial sacrifices to do something about it.”