RWJF Fellow Tapped to Head New Diversity Initiative in California

    • August 28, 2013

A Latina nurse, Mary Lou de Leon Siantz is a unique force in academic science.

The daughter of Mexican immigrants, de Leon Siantz learned English as a second language as a young girl, excelled in school, and grew up to become a pioneering scientist who is renowned for her research on migrant health and for her interdisciplinary work to prepare health professionals for leadership and policy.

Now she’s working to help younger Latinas follow in her footsteps and break into the male-dominated fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

An alumna of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Executive Nurse Fellows program (2004-2007), de Leon Siantz, PhD, RN, FAAN, was tapped in June to head up the Center for the Advancement of Multicultural Perspectives on Science (CAMPOS) at the University of California, Davis (UC-Davis). This new initiative aims to increase the participation of women, and Latinas in particular, in STEM fields.

The appointment of a Latina nurse to this high-profile position calls attention to the often overlooked fact that science undergirds the nursing profession, and to the valuable role that women, and Latinas, play in scientific endeavors, she said. The face of the United States, and of California, is changing, de Leon Siantz added. The university “very much feels that scientists should reflect the demography of the state that they serve.”

In California, Latinos are poised to become the state’s plurality group by 2014, according to state demographers.  

Yet Latinos, and Latinas in particular, are vastly underrepresented in STEM fields at UC-Davis, de Leon Siantz said. Of the 674 faculty members who teach STEM-related courses at the university, only 22 are Latino, and only five of those—or fewer than 1 percent—are Latina.

The lack of diversity among STEM faculty discourages aspiring women, Latinas, and other students from underrepresented backgrounds from pursuing STEM careers and contributes to a body of academic research that fails to adequately address issues of particular concern to underserved populations, she said.

Parity is the Goal

As director of CAMPOS, an initiative of UC-Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi, PhD, MS, de Leon Siantz hopes to begin to rectify that by working with the STEM schools at UC-Davis—the colleges of Agricultural & Environmental Sciences, Biological Sciences, and Engineering, and the Division of Mathematical & Physical Sciences in the College of Letters and Science—to hire up to 16 new faculty members. These faculty members will serve as mentors and role models for aspiring female and Latina STEM scholars and will conduct research of particular interest to underserved populations. The ultimate goal, she said, is gender parity and more racial and ethnic diversity among faculty at the university’s four colleges that teach STEM courses.

Diversity in academic science is sorely needed—a lesson de Leon Siantz learned herself while navigating through a predominately white profession.

After earning her bachelor’s degree in nursing, de Leon Siantz worked as a chief nurse in an interdisciplinary setting. She went on to earn her master’s, and then her doctorate, and then held a succession of influential leadership positions both in and outside of academia—thanks in part to help from a handful of mentors who shared similar backgrounds.

Earlier in her career, she served as the national mental health coordinator for the Migrant Head Start program, the Head Start branch serving infants and children of migrant farmworkers in the United States. She also served as a founding member and president of the National Association of Hispanic Nurses and as president of an association for child and adolescent psychiatric nurses. She is a fellow of the American Academy of Nursing.

Now, in addition to her new role at CAMPOS, de Leon Siantz is a professor at the Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing at UC-Davis and associate director of the university’s Community Engagement and Research Program. She also works with the Migration and Health Research Center, as well as with other collaborative programs that support research to improve the health of migrant and immigrant families. In addition, she is associate director of the mentorship core of the UC-Davis Latino Aging Research Resource Center.

As an RWJF Executive Nurse Fellow, de Leon Siantz worked to persuade federal lawmakers to set aside funding for Milagros, a center she established to conduct research and provide training, technical assistance, and service learning in migrant health and education. The name of the center—which means ‘miracles’ in Spanish—reflects the harsh reality for many migrant families, she said. “Anything that’s positive for a migrant is pretty much a miracle.”

The project she worked on during her fellowship laid the foundation for her new role at CAMPOS, she said. The women of color whom she worked with at Milagros were seldom seen as  having leadership potential, she explained, and the dearth of female, minority leaders in academic STEM fields discourages female students from aspiring to those positions. That, in turn, leads to a cycle of underrepresentation in academia and in scientific leadership positions in society.

De Leon Siantz believes that the CAMPOS program will begin to break that cycle. “Anybody coming into this program is going to be seen as having future leadership potential.”