Hispanic Astrophysicist and Educator Boosts Women in Science
Many scientists can recall the moment that inspired their interest in science. For Tania Ruiz (pictured left) that moment occurred at the age of six. She says, "After seeing Star Wars at a drive-in in 1977, astrophysics became my passion. I spent almost a year trying to locate the Big Dipper over my house. I recall standing on the top of the front steps, finding the asterism [a cluster of stars or a constellation], and then the next thing I remember is sitting on the floor of my bedroom in a daze. I said out loud, 'I want to be an astronomer.'"
Ruiz, who is in her early 30s, is currently manager of the i-Science Centre for Interdisciplinary Science at the University of Leicester in England, and has launched "SETting an Example: Women in Science, Engineering and Technology," a program that provides a support network for female science, engineering, and technology (SET) students at Leicester. The project's goal is to increase the number of women entering science careers.
Although Ruiz became an astronomer, the research phase of her scientific career was relatively short-lived. "I'm not a research scientist anymore," she says. I went from research science, to school science education, to science educational software, to museum science communication, now to program management in university science education. It's all related to science, but grows ever more dimly related to being a [research] scientist."
The Budding Scientist
Ruiz was born in New Jersey. For her parents, she says, "Think Lucy and Desi" [from the "I Love Lucy" television sitcom]. Her father is Hispanic, her mother a red-headed American of German and Irish extraction. Her story differs from "Lucy" in one important respect: her parents divorced when she was young and she moved between the two families a number of times.
Ruiz had a normal childhood. She loved the rock group KISS, played Atari games, and read a lot. But she also clawed through slime looking for ants and tadpoles and kept crayfish and a cockroach as pets. "I am still the weird chick who picks up earthworms that have strayed onto the pavement and puts them back in a safer place."
Ruiz was a good student, but she had some trouble when she entered high school, by her standards anyway. "I had difficulty in math," she says. "By this I mean I got an occasional B, and once, a C. I was starting to believe that I was not gifted enough to become a scientist. [But] I forced my head down and ignored those thoughts and focused only on science."
Academics versus Economics
With her dream of becoming an astronomer in mind, Ruiz limited her college choices to those with astrophysics or astronomy degree programs. She originally set her sights on Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, because of its massive telescope in Arizona. But when she went to an interview there, the admissions officer encouraged her to apply to Ivy League schools. She considered Cornell because Carl Sagan was there, but that was before she learned he only taught once in a while. A friend convinced her to apply to Harvard, too.
All three schools accepted her, but she decided to move to Cambridge and study at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. "Unlike many Harvard undergrads, I had to work to afford to go there. This was my social and academic downfall, but my career boon."
Ruiz worked at a small radio telescope atop the Harvard observatory, the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, and the Maria Mitchell Observatory on Nantucket Island in Massachusetts. Each experience brought her that much closer to becoming an astronomer. The research completed at one of her summer jobs allowed her to publish a peer-reviewed journal article, but one of the most gratifying things that resulted from her summers of work was meeting and working with Sam Palmer, an engineer at the Harvard observatory, and Christine Jones, a Harvard astrophysicist. Both are still mentors.
Though her summers were a great success, Ruiz continued to struggle during the rest of the year, even failing a math course. "Harvard," she says, "was unsupportive, to say the least." She even wondered if she had a learning disability.
"But," she says, "people hit me over the head with the idea that failing one math course does not mean you are incapable of doing math." Her ability was there, she says, but her faith had to be rekindled.
B.A. in a Ph.D. world
Ruiz received her B.A. from Harvard, but without a Ph.D., one cannot go far in science in the United States, she says. "So, I was stuck." She quit school and became vice president of a dot-com company. One of her early projects involved creating a Web site for Christine Jones.
NASA was interested in getting more space-related programs into the schools, and grants were available. So Ruiz did general space education for NASA's Space Science Office and then outreach for its Chandra Observatory. "I learned educational theory and the physiology of learning so I could write a science curriculum appropriate to children." She spent thousands of hours teaching kids.
Other jobs included being a teaching assistant at Harvard's night-school astronomy classes, developing multimedia products for shows like "Reading Rainbow" and "Bear in the Big Blue House," and working at the Museum of Science in Boston, where she built exhibits and masterminded live performances, slide shows, news releases, and other promotional and production projects. Eventually, however, some interpersonal issues began to take their toll. "I had been used to working in academia," Ruiz says, "where you worked for the work's sake. But there are others who work for their own sake, for awards, praise, and power. I dislike this type of person greatly." Then she left Boston.
Working Across the Pond
Ruiz's diverse experiences as a woman in the sciences provides a background for helping others attain their goals. Still, even in England, women and minorities can find themselves slighted.
"Mentors are everywhere," Ruiz says. "If you have enough courage and desire to admit you need one. Not enough people recognize the great personal evolution they can begin when they connect with people they admire."