El Zoominario: giving a voice to Latinx scientists and inspiring the next generation

By Leo Barolo

With unexpected time on her hands during the pandemic, Assistant Professor Claudia Solís-Lemus was captivated by a problem she noticed since moving to the United States from her native Mexico: the lack of Latinx/Latine scientists in prominent positions.

Out of that came a new project co-created by Solís-Lemus and Assistant Professor Daniel Pimentel-Alarcón: El Zoominario, a web seminar series designed to highlight Latinx speakers and their science as role models to budding scientists.

Dr. Claudia Solís-Lemus

Solís-Lemus is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Plant Pathology and an affiliate of WID and CGSI. As a Latinx scientist herself, she considers building connections with other scientists one of the biggest challenges for Latinx scientists in the US.  Not knowing conference and seminar organizers impedes Latinx scientists from presenting their work at these events and connecting to researchers. “It is a vicious cycle,” she explains, “Someone needs to open the door for you the very first time, and then you start to be more recognized.”

Solís-Lemus noticed that many prominent Latinx scientists were born outside the United States, which raised the question: why are there so few American-born Latinx scientists? One theory is that Latinx children in the US do not see science as a career option, instead gravitating towards the same job as their parents or people in their immediate community. The lack of science role models perpetuates the cycle.

“[In Mexico] all my college professors, scientists, physicians, doctors; everybody looked like me. So, it was very easy for me to visualize myself in any role, which is not necessarily the case for students that identify as Latinx in the US.”

With the goal of highlighting Latinx scientists for other scientists as well as Latinx children, Solís-Lemus co-created El Zoominario, an online seminar series aimed at the general public. The series includes presentations from dozens of Latinx speakers from any STEM field. The speakers use broadly accessible lay terms and share something about their cultural background at the end of their talk.

The presentations are available on Solís-Lemus’s lab YouTube channel, which is shared with Wisconsin schools with a high Latinx student population. Short previews of the talks are posted on TikTok, as the app is particularly popular with a younger demographic.

Solís-Lemus uses TikTok to help children visualize themselves as scientists via “a-day-in-life video” where Latinx scientists share where they work, what they do, and where they are from.

While the project is in its early days, Solís-Lemus believes it is already impacting people’s lives. “Here’s a story that made my day: We made one short video for kids about statistics. And then I got an email that says ‘oh my kid was so excited about statistics. He asked his school teacher when he’s gonna learn statistics’ and I’m like ‘Oh my God, this made my life’. That’s the best comment I’ve ever received in my career,” she shares.

Solís-Lemus plans to expand the project by producing content in other formats such as learning activities to accompany the videos for easier integration in classrooms, doing shorter cartoon-style videos, and diversifying both the talks’ topics and representation. People interested in nominating themselves or someone else as a speaker should contact Solís-Lemus at solislemus@wisc.edu.