Physicist Jesus Pando shines a light on science careers for students of color
November 5, 2012
By his own admission, Jesus Pando is a late bloomer. The chair of the Physics Department and recent winner of the Excellence in Teaching Award from the College of Science and Health, Pando was forced to drop out of the University of Texas at El Paso because of his poor academic performance.
The son of Mexican immigrants, he was the first member of his family to go to college. In his late 20s and early 30s, he worked as an electronics technician in Tucson. “It was a good job with good benefits and a company car, but it got a bit boring and I didn’t feel a sense of accomplishment,” he says.
More mature by that point, Pando realized he wanted to be back in an academic environment and returned to school, first at a community college and then the University of Arizona. He quit his secure, comfortable job, cashed in his 401 (k) retirement fund to finally complete his undergraduate work and then began his pursuit of a Ph.D. in physics at Arizona.
Based on his test scores on his graduate admission exam, he won a fellowship that helped to financially support his graduate studies. He was awarded a Ph.D. in theoretical astrophysics in 1997 and then won a prestigious Chateaubriand post-doctoral fellowship at the Observatoire du Strasbourg in France and a National Science Foundation post-doctoral international fellowship.
Tenured at DePaul in 2005, Pando has been especially interested in getting first-generation college students, women and students of color interested in careers in science. To that end, he founded the DePaul chapter of the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) and continues to serve as the chapter’s faculty advisor. He spoke with Newsline Editor Edmund Lawler:
Why aren’t more first-generation college students, women or students of color interested in scientific careers?
For first-generation college students, the problem is that they are not aware how the process of pursuing an advanced degree even works. Their parents, who did not go to college, can’t provide them that perspective. Science can be off-putting to students of color and to women because it is perceived as extremely competitive. They see a closed and insular group and conclude that ‘This can’t possibly be for me.’
Because I was older, I had more confidence, although it took me a long time to recognize how to succeed. But traditional college-aged students often lack confidence to break into a competitive field.
How do you get students like that engaged in science?
An important step was founding the local chapter of SACNAS. But to get the students more involved, I wanted them to attend SACNAS’s annual national conference. I made a bold promise to the students: ‘If you actively participate in the chapter, I will get you to the conference.’ After securing the funding, I was able to take five students to the conference in Anaheim, Calif., in 2010. The students had the opportunity to present papers at the conference and network with other students and faculty.
So you were pleased about getting the students to the conference?
I was happy that we got the five students to the conference, but I felt that I didn’t do enough to sell more students on going to it. It was a struggle at first. The conference is truly an eye-opening, transformative experience for the students because they realize that they can become of member of the science community. The challenge for a number of our African-American and Latino students is that they are closely tied to their families and often play important support roles for them, so it’s hard for them to get away for an out-of-town conference.
But I worked with them to overcome some of the logistical problems and I think I did a better job of selling the importance of attending the national conference. In 2011, I was able to bring 25 students to the conference in San Jose, and in October of this year, 35 of our students went to the national conference in Seattle. I am thrilled by the response we have gotten from the students, who recruit their fellow students.