My father immigrated to the United States from Argentina before I was born, and money was always tight in our home. This was particularly true after my parents divorced when I was 8, and my brother and I were raised by our single mom, who began working full time and getting charitable job training in the evenings. My path to a career in science was atypical: I grew up in a small oil town, Humble, Texas, where science, often ‘at odds’ with economic growth and religion, was taught ‘to the test’, preventing many K-12 students from identifying science as a creative process. My subsequent travels and outreach work have shown me that my early science education experience in an underserved school system is common, particularly among groups underrepresented in STEM fields.
As a kid, I thought I hated ‘science’. However, I loved wild animals. Thus, when I was awarded scholarships to attend college, I majored in journalism, with hopes of one day becoming a writer/photographer for National Geographic, spreading appreciation for wild animals and wild places and a sense of urgency to conserve them. But in the summer of my freshmen year, studying on scholarship in the Great Barrier Reef, I realized that science was a process of discovery beyond my wildest dreams. I decided then that through science I would help the world effectively conserve wildlife and ecosystems essential to humankind.
After Australia, I participated on scholarship in two other research-intensive programs abroad, studying ecology in the Mexican Caribbean and studying ocean acidification while sailing from Mexico to French Polynesia. Witnessing the dependence of these developing countries on the threatened marine resources I was studying solidified my decision to pursue graduate school. I completed my Ph.D. at the University of Florida, where I primarily studied the effects of nutrient pollution on coral reefs in French Polynesia. As a former NSF Postdoc Fellow at UC Davis, Chancellor’s Fellow at UC Santa Cruz, Chancellor’s Fellow at CU Boulder, and incoming Assistant Professor at CU Boulder, I have continued to study the functioning and resilience of marine ecosystems that support the lives and livelihoods of countless individuals, including disadvantaged communities in the developing world.
Science has provided the scaffolding for my life’s purpose, but in discovering this, I found an additional calling: showing others, especially those who share a ‘non-science upbringing’, the exhilarating process of scientific discovery and the careers and societal benefits it offers. I have experienced, firsthand, the power of field research to redefine science in the mind of a student. Thus, I strive to share this experience as frequently as possible. Through the field courses I have developed and taught (7 courses in Mexico and French Polynesia) and my research, I have served as a mentor for 42 graduate and undergraduate researchers (28 female, 5 Hispanic, 1 African American, and 1 Pacific Islander). Most of my undergraduates go on to pursue careers in science or medicine, and two female undergraduates under my guidance were awarded NSF GRFs, which funded their Ph.D.s. During my postdoc fellowship at UC Davis, I served as a student-elected mentor, providing STEM career advice, for the undergraduate program ‘Strategies for Ecology Education, Diversity and Sustainability’ (SEEDS). From fall 2019 to summer 2021, I served as an appointed member of the inaugural ‘Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee’ for the Western Society of Naturalists, tasked with making the society and its annual meetings more accessible and welcoming to students, postdocs and faculty from various groups that are underrepresented in STEM fields.
While I take pride in engaging university students of all backgrounds with science, I have learned that the scientific process is largely exclusive and is fraught with cultural barriers that prevent many from ever considering science a creative process, a career option, or a public utility. To make science more inclusive of everyone, not just students already pursuing science classes in college, I launched a campaign in September 2015, SciAll.org (now a registered 501(c)3 nonprofit), centered on free videos and public talks that aim to humanize scientists, demystify the process of scientific discovery, and make STEM careers accessible to all. Though unconventional, these efforts to make science more accessible to groups underrepresented in STEM are working: our videos have been watched for >25,000 hours (on YouTube alone) and have improved perceptions about science among female and minority viewers. According to surveys from 530 voluntary respondents (60% female, 19% minorities): 94% (95% of females, 96% of minorities) became interested to learn more about scientific research because of my videos, which “made science more appealing” to 51% (54% of females, 56% of minorities) (full results published open access: Gil Ideas in Ecology and Evolution 2017). These efforts to diversify access to and engagement with STEM contributed to my selection as a National Geographic Explorer and a TED Fellow, a distinction awarded to ‘young leaders, based on achievements, strength of character, and innovative approaches to solving global problems’. As a speaker for both TED and National Geographic, I will continually expand and diversify my network of audiences and bring much-needed attention to the timely fight to bring everyone to the science table.
As a new professor, I will strive to attract graduate students from groups underrepresented in STEM. Establishing a diversity of perspectives in my lab will not only foster innovative ideas and an enriched lab culture, but it will facilitate a lab tradition of mentoring a diversity of undergraduate researchers. Furthermore, I will continue to share my own humble beginnings as a first-generation student with hopes to help current first-generation students feel a sense of belonging (something I struggled with a lot in college).
As of the summer of 2020, SciAll.org has expanded to a majority-female, majority-BIPOC team of >30 scientist ‘vloggers’ (video bloggers), leveraging a variety of perspectives and identities to humanize science and make viewers, no matter their appearance or background, realize that they too can have a personal connection to scientific discovery. We also provide freely accessible advice and guidance to science students at various stages, who may have limited or no access to mentoring. Our team covers various pertinent topics, ranging from how to overcome financial barriers to pursue science, and how to get into graduate school, to the causes and consequences of the underrepresentation of women and minorities in STEM, and the role of environmental science in fostering a sustainable future. Our expansion comes at a critical time, when divisiveness threatens both the infrastructure that supports objective scientific research and the guidance science provides to society.
As a first-generation Hispanic American and first-generation college graduate from humble roots, I am excited to support and empower future STEM leaders and allies from a wide diversity of racial, cultural, and socioeconomic backgrounds. I am fortunate that at this point in my career I have proven to enough powerful and influential people and institutions that cutting-edge scientific research and efforts to foster justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion (JEDI) in STEM need not take away from one another but can, instead, strengthen one another. This synergy that can effect progressive change will be a hallmark of the lab I am growing at CU Boulder. Interested in joining us? Learn how here.