UH Researcher Receives NSF CAREER Award to Boost Latina Representation in STEM Fields

$1.3 Million Grant to Study Latina STEM Majors at Texas Colleges

Elsa Gonzalez
Elsa Gonzalez, assistant professor in the UH College of Education’s Department of Educational Leadership & Policy Studies, has received a 5-year, $1.3 million NSF CAREER Award to study Latina STEM majors at Texas colleges.

Despite the rapid rise of Hispanics enrolled in college across Texas, few Hispanic women are graduating with degrees in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. To address this significant issue, University of Houston researcher Elsa Gonzalez has received a $1.3 million CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to identify factors that promote and hinder the success of Latina STEM majors at Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSI), including UH.

“With the growing population of Hispanics in the country, we really need to be concerned about supporting those students who want to pursue a career in STEM,” said Gonzalez, assistant professor in the UH College of Education’s Department of Educational Leadership & Policy Studies. “We need to help them become successful in the workforce because they are fundamental for the economic and social development of our country.”

The project led by Gonzalez’s research team will track the progress of Latina STEM majors over five years at UH, Texas A&M University and Texas A&M University – Corpus Christi, all Hispanic Serving Institutions with at least 25% Hispanic undergraduate enrollment.

“The changing demographics of Texas coupled with the vibrant diversity of Greater Houston makes this research even more important for the future of our state,” said Paula Myrick Short, UH senior vice president for academic affairs and provost. “As opportunities in STEM fields grow every year, we should see an increase in Latinas with careers in STEM who also are assuming leadership roles and positions of influence.”

Hispanics account for more than 36% of college students in Texas, and while the number of Latinas enrolling in college is projected to continue its upward trajectory, retention remains a critical issue. There is a 17% college completion disparity between Hispanic and white students across all majors, according to Excelencia In Education, an organization that promotes Latino student achievement in higher education. Of all STEM graduates in the country, only about 3% are Latinas. 

“We need to understand what makes this 3% successful,” Gonzalez said. “In my work, I’ve found that resilience, culture and family are key factors, but if we can identify what strategies those students put in place, we can replicate them and put them into practice systematically and integrate them into policies at higher education institutions around the country.”

The Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) program through the NSF offers awards in support of junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through “outstanding research, excellent education, and the integration of education and research.”

Gonzalez has studied Latinas at various stages of education, from K-12 to postgraduate studies, exploring the barriers and challenges they face. Her passion for her work started eight years ago when her then 10-year-old daughter made a revealing comment while competing at an elementary math competition.

“She turned to me and said, ‘Mom, look around. I don’t see anyone who looks like me’,” recalled Gonzalez. Her daughter was referring to the lack of Latinas at the competition. “It really opened my eyes to the need of continuing this research.”

Ultimately, the study will guide the development of evidence-based mentoring strategies and interventions that support resilience, persistence and graduation of Latina STEM majors across the country.

Look no further than Gonzalez’s daughter today for an example of persistence. She is now an 18-year-old student in Texas A&M University’s honors program pursuing a degree in biomedical engineering – yes, she’s a STEM major.