Monthly Story

Every month we profile the work of an outstanding CienciaPR member or discuss a topic of relevance to our community

Hericka Cruz Luciano: Representing Puerto Rico in a Scientific Fair

Wilson Javier Gonzalez-Espada's picture

By: Enrique Vargas and Wilson González Espada, Science Puerto Rico

"I got frustrated. I got excited. It made me think. It made me cry."

Whoever hears the student Hericka Loraine Cruz Luciano, would believe that she is describing her favorite movie, a play, or a famous novel, where emotions flow from the deepest sadness to the most euphoric joy with the speed of a thought.

She was, in fact, referring to her experience as a scientific researcher. The student is in the 12th grade at the Josefa Vélez Bauzá High School in the town of Peñuelas, where she has developed a multi-year project that has led her to conquer scientific skills in Puerto Rico and abroad.

According to Hericka, her wave energy project began in the 9th grade, thanks to the motivation of her mother, Profa. Lilybeth Luciano Candelario. Lilybeth noticed in Hericka scientific curiosity and an ability to express herself and communicate, and suggested that she participate in the school's scientific fair.

At first, the student saw the "huge poster boards" of the science fair projects as something that was going to give her a lot of work and as something that she did not feel capable of doing. The support of her mother and the collaboration of her teachers, Vicmaris Lugo (chemistry) and Víctor Galarza (physics), both of the Josefa Vélez Bauzá High School, finally convinced Hericka to enter the scientific fair.

The selection of the project consisted of reviewing an extensive list of topics and seeing which one caught her attention. At the same time, she followed his mother's advice, which emphasized that the topic should be good, competitive and innovative, as well as unique, feasible, cost-effective and relevant to the student's community.

Scientists, educators and students collaborating to rebuild and transform science education in Puerto Rico

Mónica Ivelisse Feliú-Mójer's picture

On September 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico, aggravating a decade-long fiscal crisis that had already weakened Puerto Rico’s educational, social, and economic infrastructure.

For the past year-and-a-half, Ciencia Puerto Rico (CienciaPR) has been hard at work on a new strategic direction to focus on an area of ​​great need and of vital importance for the future of Puerto Rico: transforming science education to promote a culture of science, critical thinking and problem-solving.

The historic devastation caused by Maria has made the implementation of our new strategic direction more urgent. In response, CienciaPR is launching a pilot project that brings together scientists, educators, and students for the co-creation of science lessons that encourage creativity, resilience, entrepreneurship, and the development of problem-solving skills. The initial set of science lessons focuses on renewable energy, environmental sustainability, clean and potable water, and terrestrial ecosystems—topics that are not only relevant immediately after Hurricane Maria, but to rebuild a stronger and more resilient Puerto Rico. This pilot will serve as the foundation for our bold 10-year plan to transform science education. You can support this project through a donation!

The Challenge

Science education in Puerto Rico is failing. In 2016, only 4 in 10 eight grade public school students were proficient in science and 97.9% of middle school students who took the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) test, where Puerto Rico ranked 64 out of 70, exhibited low abilities interpreting scientific information and working on complex problems. In both science and math, the highest drop in academic performance is observed in middle school.

Hurricane Maria - CienciaPR Keeps You Informed

Giovanna Guerrero-Medina's picture

At CienciaPR part of our mission is to serve as a source of information, support, and connection for the sciences and Puerto Rico. At this moment in which Puerto Rico most needs us, we will be gathering from this page information relevant to our community after the passage of Hurricane Maria. We hope it helps rebuild Puerto Rico with science and education leading our way. We thank our community, partners, staff and volunteers for all of their help and support so far. Any resource or idea you would like to share relevant to these initiatives, please write to us!

How can you help? 

For scientists and students in Puerto Rico 

Lorna Cintrón González: A Pioneer in Engineering Education

Mónica Ivelisse Feliú-Mójer's picture
Dr. Lorna Cintrón González
Dr. Lorna Cintrón González

By Monica I. Feliú-Mójer, Ph.D.

"My biggest satisfaction has been to graduate the program’s inaugural class of students."

This is how Dr. Lorna Cintrón- González describes the first great milestone of an adventure that began four years ago. In August of 2013, she joined the faculty of the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Francis Marion University (FMU), as assistant professor and coordinator of the first baccalaureate program in industrial engineering in the history of this academic institution in South Carolina. 

Cintrón-González has embraced her role as a pioneer. She was the first professor in industrial engineering at Francis Marion University. During her first two years there, she was not only the first, but the only one. She came to the institution shortly after graduating with a doctorate in this discipline and a specialty in ergonomics from Penn State University, to start and lead the first program in industrial engineering at FMU. 

"My work as a coordinator consists predominantly of teaching, but I also spend a lot of time establishing relationships with industry for the benefit of students and the program. In addition, I am leading the preparation for the program to be accredited by the Accrediting Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET), which will help give it prestige and recognition," she says.

The FMU industrial engineering program is special because the school is predominantly liberal arts. In addition, it is the only program of its kind in the Pee Dee region in northeastern South Carolina, and one of two in the state.

Dr. Manuel Díaz-Ríos: Promoting neuroscience in the laboratory and the community

Marla S. Rivera-Oliver's picture
El Dr. Manuel Díaz-Ríos y su equipo de investigación
Dr. Manuel Díaz-Ríos and his research group

In the laboratory of Dr. Manuel Díaz-Ríos at the University of Puerto Rico’s Institute of Neurobiology, the students and personnel not only study how the motor nervous system functions and how it is affected with trauma or degenerative diseases, but they also learn the value of volunteer work and have the opportunity to teach kids and the community about science. Manolo (as he is known by his friends) firmly believes how important it is for scientists to contribute beyond the walls of the lab through education and mentoring. 

His passion for strengthening Puerto Rican education through volunteering comes from his own life experiences. Manolo acknowledges that he would not have accomplished as much as he has without the mentors that guided and mentored him throughout his career and life and that shared their enthusiasm for science with him. “I have always felt a passion for teaching going beyond just knowledge, so that the person, child or teacher feels excited by his classes or seminars”. 

For Manolo it is very important to transmit that energy: “Your passion for your career is contagious and if you share it, people understand you better and they also get to experience what it feels to do what you love. When you do something that you are passionate about, the way you talk about it is different; you talk about it with you brain and heart in it. When your heart is behind the things that you do, it is much more powerful and affects everyone equally: family, students, and the people around you. That is how you transform a country”. 


Manolo speaking Nemesio Canales II students about what scientists do. Photo provided by Dr. Díaz-Ríos.

Dr. Eduardo Nicolau: creating solutions with nanoparticle chemistry

Lorraine Doralys Rodriguez-Rivera's picture
Dr. Eduardo Nicolau
Dr. Eduardo Nicolau

The International Space Station (ISS) as well as space shuttles possess a limited amount of energy to keep their equipment working once they have been launched into space. Could you imagine being able to generate energy, for the ISS, using molecules found in the astronauts’ urine? Or being able to turn non-drinking water into one that is actually safe to drink?  Moreover, being able to use special materials, called biomaterials, to develop bone grafts?

Although this may sound like science fiction, Dr. Eduardo Nicolau and his students are working very hard to find solutions to these real-world problems. For instance, astronauts, people with severe health conditions, and countries where water scarcity is an issue, could benefit from Dr. Nicolau’s research.

But, how is he planning to accomplish these solutions? It is by studying the interaction between nanoparticles and biomacromolecules. What this means is that Dr. Nicolau focuses on trying to understand how tiny materials, called nanoparticles, “see” biological molecules. “We would like to know if they ‘meet and greet’ or if they ignore each other”, expressed Dr. Nicolau. Depending on the kind of interaction, Dr. Nicolau decides if these nanoparticles or biological molecules are suitable for solving the aforementioned real-world problems.

Rosa Navarro Haydon: Founder of Puerto Rican School Science Education 1926-1966

Wilson Javier Gonzalez-Espada's picture
Prof. Rosa Navarro Hayden. Photo courtesy of Iveliz M. Cruz Irizarry, UPR Universiyt Archive.

Many historians agree that one of the most difficult periods in the history of Puerto Rico occurred between late 1920s and early 1940s. During this time, the Island faced natural disasters, lie hurricanes San Felipe (1928) and San Ciprián (1932), and economic disasters like the collapse of the world economy, the infamous Big Depression [1].

In terms of education, however, the situation in Puerto Rico has slowly improving. An aggressive program of school constructions resulted in an increase in the number of children who attended school from 9% in 1900 to almost 50% by 1940. A controversial component of the U.S. education policy that applied to Puerto Rico was the use of English as the teaching language, a decision humorously satirized in Don Abelardo Díaz Alfaro’s short story “Peyo Mercé teaches English” [2].

In 1930, U.S. President Herbert Hoover named José Padín Rodríguez, a Puerto Rican, as Commissioner of Instruction. Under his leadership, a study was completed; it demonstrated that children learned better in their first language, and not in English. By 1934, instruction in Spanish became official at the elementary and middle school levels, and English was included in the curriculum as a subject [3].

Carla Restrepo: Leaving a mark with ecological studies

Lorraine Doralys Rodriguez-Rivera's picture
Dr. Carla Restrepo

At some point in our lives we have asked questions regarding the environment, the animals that inhabit planet earth, and climatic conditions. How does an increase in temperature could affect some organisms? How do small changes in a specific environment can have a large-scale effect on our planet? How does human activity affect our bodies of water? These are some of the questions that Dr. Restrepo, an ecologist and professor in the Department of Biology at the University of Puerto Rico Río Piedras, is attempting to answer through her research projects.

Dr. Restrepo had a very interesting childhood. Since she was a little girl she had many questions about the workings of living organisms around her. Her mom and dad were scientists back in Colombia. Since an early age, she was in awe with her mom’s biology textbook. Her dad was a mathematician and had a large collection of books and magazines on various topics. Carla enjoyed organizing his library. Although she cannot pinpoint a specific event that inspired her to be a scientist, she grew up in an environment were knowledge was highly esteemed.

She grew up in several countries allowing her to be exposed to different cultures. Early in her childhood she lived in the United States, Mexico, and Puerto Rico and at age 8 moved to Colombia. Shed lived there until she graduate from the  Universidad del Valle in Cali where she majored in Biology. She had her first research experience, published her first peer-reviewed article, and fell-in-love with birds during her undergraduate years.

Patricia Ordóñez: Propelling computer science into the health industry and equity

Reyna I. Martínez De Luna's picture
Dra. Patricia Ordóñez
Dr. Patricia Ordóñez

The disparity of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields is still a serious issue in 2016. Computer science, a STEM discipline, is not the exception. Data from the National Science Foundation show that although the number women acquiring computer science degrees has increased since 2002, women are still a small proportion of the workforce in this field which continues to be dominated by men. 

That was the case for Dr. Patricia Ordóñez, an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Puerto Rico Río Piedras, who despite her abilities and interests, took a tortuous road to obtain the position she holds today. Patricia knows too well about the unconscious bias and discrimination that women and minorities face in this field and is set on changing these statistics.

From a young age, Patricia knew she would pursue a career that involved mathematics. By the time she finished high school in the state of Maryland, where she grew up with her family originally from Colombia, Patricia had taken Calculus II. 

Her proficiency in mathematics led her to take a computer science course in high school, where she discovered that she could apply math to program and understand computers. From her exposure to this course, computer science became her interest. However, Patricia chose to major in electrical engineering at Johns Hopkins University because she did not know about a program in computer science at the time of her application.


A Decade Transforming Science in Puerto Rico Together

Mónica Ivelisse Feliú-Mójer's picture

This year, we are celebrating a decade of promoting science and research in Puerto Rico. Through our programs and initiatives we have transformed the way science and scientists are presented in the media. We have created thousands of resources to make science relevant to the reality and culture of students in our classrooms. We have also established programs that foster the development of the next generation of Puerto Rican scientists and innovators. Our efforts have been recognized by the White House and by the Caribbean Division of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

A seemingly wild idea

A little over 10 years ago, CienciaPR was as an idea. What if there was a website where anyone in the world who is interested in science and Puerto Rico could find each other? What if scientists could contribute to Puerto Rico no matter where they were located?

This seemingly wild idea was born at Stanford University —in the heart of Silicon Valley—where founder Daniel Colón-Ramos was a postdoc and around the same time where social networks like Facebook were created.

CienciaPR was envisioned as a space for connection, cooperation and the exchange of ideas and resources. We realized that by creating a web-based network that brought together the geographically dispersed Puerto Rican scientific community we could transform the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) ecosystem in Puerto Rico. Ten years ago we could not have imagined that it would become so much more.