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The Jessica Effect: Valuing Cultural and Familial Connections to Broaden Success in Academe

Jessica Soto-Pérez, daughter of Antonio Israel Soto and Luz N. Pérez, received her undergraduate degree from the University of Puerto Rico Mayaguez. She was a promising chemical engineering graduate student at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) and peer mentor for its National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professoriate (AGEP) program—PROMISE: Maryland’s AGEP.

Jessica’s future plans included returning to her native Puerto Rico to pursue a career as an engineering professor. Unfortunately, she didn’t reach that goal because in 2004, she was tragically killed by her husband. The reasons behind the murder–suicide still remain a mystery to law enforcement, friends, and family. However, university administrators and peers have wondered about the differential impact of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) graduate study on the familial ties of underrepresented students, particularly Latinas, as a major factor in the tragedy.

“I can relate to Jessica, having a husband who is Latino and not in academia…It was very important for my husband…to learn not to feel threatened or intimidated by my PhD-seeking peers.”

—Latina STEM PhD

Initially, the offerings of PROMISE only focused on the needs graduate students. However, Jessica’s death propelled a foundational shift within the structure of the PROMISE program. This shift characterizes what we call the “Jessica Effect”—a strategic institutional planning decision to definitively invite and actively include the family members and friends of graduate students in informative and celebratory events and programs.

This practice of “family and friend” inclusion is the legacy of Jessica. It ultimately achieves several purposes including, but not limited to (1) serving as an advising model that faculty and administrators can utilize to both recognize and value the cultural and familial connections of their graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and colleagues in the STEM disciplines, (2) promoting an understanding of the university experience among those who may not be familiar with academic processes and timelines, (3) reducing feelings of isolation on the part of students and family members, and (4) expanding the opportunities for family members to offer their students the support necessary for degree completion.

Underrepresentation in STEM

The underrepresentation of ethnic minorities and women in doctoral programs and in faculty positions is well documented and often referred to as a “loss of talent to society” and a “loss of potential research.” In 1999, for instance, although African Americans represented 12 percent of the population, they only earned 4 percent of the PhDs in science, engineering, and math fields (Hill 2001). In the biological sciences, there are relatively higher numbers of minorities and women, in part as a result of undergraduate initiatives and interest in biomedical careers (Maton et al. 2009), but the underrepresentation of these special populations still persists at advanced academic career levels (Patton 2011). For Latinas, this phenomenon is believed to arise, in part, from strong domestic roles that often compete with the demands of a STEM career (Malcom et al. 1975).

“Key areas of difficulty include balancing work and family, and the lack of formal support from academic institutions to alleviate this situation, which primarily affects women…women need to be armed to battle this strong and unfair dilemma of choosing between science and family.”

—Latina STEM PhD

The projected demographic changes in higher education and their implications for our expanding STEM workforce have led to growing alarm (Solorzano 1995; George et al. 2001), and concern about this country losing its global competitiveness in innovation (US Department of Commerce 2012). To minimize the threat to US global preeminence, the institutional framework of UMBC’s PROMISE AGEP, now grounded in the “Jessica Effect,” relies upon professional development, community building, and the development of an “extended family” as factors necessary for mentoring and facilitating increases in retention, graduation, and transition to advanced STEM careers for underrepresented minorities in STEM disciplines.

PROMISE: Improving Retention of Underrepresented Groups in STEM

Students bring their values to graduate school, and these values shape their performance and socialization into their departments and their graduate communities. However, values for minority students are thought to be shaped differently from those of majority students. Recent literature suggests that graduate students from more “collectivist cultures” (e.g., Latino, African American) place strong emphasis on personal relationships in school, which may interfere with internally focused and task-driven characteristics that are needed for graduate school success. This is different from students from a more individualist culture who may instead place more focus on traditional activities associated with advanced graduate work, and less focus on relationships to others in the program (Taylor and Antony 2000; Davidson and Foster-Johnson, 2001).

“In Latin culture, family is more important than anything, even education…Ties in the family, especially among the women, are tight.”

—Latina biology PhD

The PROMISE AGEP of the University System of Maryland (with primary partners UMBC, the University of Maryland College Park, and the University of Maryland Baltimore, and involving all of the institutions within the University System of Maryland) is one of several NSF AGEP transformation programs in the United States that supports minority graduate students in STEM. The PROMISE AGEP Transformation (AGEP-T) initiative is now grounded in community psychology theory, and promotes a “psychological sense of community” (PSOC) to meet the needs of the UMBC graduate students (Sarason 1974; McMillan and Chavis 1986). The PSOC model examines membership, influence, integration, and fulfillment of needs, as well as shared emotional connections. It also measures feelings of belonging, and students’ perceptions of effectiveness as related to perceptions of benefits received (Sarason 1974; McMillan and Chavis 1986). PROMISE is designed to meet participants’ needs by addressing the “needs fulfillment and influence” factor; strengthening social bonds that connect to the “shared emotional connection” factor in the classic PSOC construct; and capitalizing on both geographical accessibility and “place attachment,” which assigns influence to the familiarity of a physical environment.

Our conceptual framework is based upon the hypothesis that professional development and community building are strong factors that stimulate increases in retention, graduation, and transition to an advanced STEM career. The PROMISE AGEP further hypothesizes that students of color benefit from the influence of community and an “extended family” approach to mentoring. Therefore, PROMISE mentoring and support extends to students’ personal lives (e.g., weddings, funerals, domestic situations, and relationship issues). An examination of case studies from PROMISE alumni indicates that graduate students rely on a number of institutional support systems that bring people together and build connections (Rutledge, Carter-Veale, and Tull 2011).

“When people move to another environment [e.g., graduate school in the US], they miss the warmth of their Latin environment...People in the U.S. are nice, but their demeanor can be perceived as being cold…Many people from a variety of Latin American backgrounds miss the warm contact...and that is something that tends to be harder to get used to. This is why it is a good idea to be involved in programs that share the same ideals…it makes the transition easier.”

–Latina biology PhD

This unique model of family inclusion is believed to have contributed to positive outcomes in graduate student retention and graduation across the entire University System of Maryland (fig. 1). Additionally, data for Latinas in STEM at the University of Puerto Rico Río Piedras (UPR-RP), a UMBC collaborative partner, revealed that, between 2010 and 2012, more Latinas completed STEM PhDs than Master of Science degrees at UPR-RP. This trend is different from current outcomes at UMBC. It is believed that pursuit of the PhD in Puerto Rico allows Latinas access to pursue STEM doctoral degrees while still maintaining strong familial connections.


Expanding the PROMISE

Attention to family has also become a focal point at the Universidad Metropolitana (UMET) in Puerto Rico, and the PROMISE model of incorporating family into academic events was adapted to and adopted by the NSF-funded ADVANCE Hispanic Women in STEM project. Specifically, in 2012, UMET convened a conference of Hispanic STEM faculty women from institutions throughout Puerto Rico to address relevant issues of family–work balance. The event was unique in that it included faculty, administrators, and family members of participants. One session, uniquely designed for family members, focused on the “Superwoman Syndrome” and exposed family members to the nuances of the family versus work conflict. As a result, both spouses and children of STEM women faculty learned specific strategies for providing intellectual and emotional support and motivation for STEM women faculty.

“It was very important for my husband to be a part of PROMISE…he stopped judging folks as looking down on him…he became their friend…That made a big difference in our relationship…and had a strong effect on me.”

—Latina STEM PhD

The conference in Puerto Rico also included a session titled “The Jessica Alert,” which focused on the story of Jessica Soto-Pérez and encouraged women faculty to share their own stories about family, relationships, issues of male dominance, fears, successes, and connections. The session also encouraged STEM women faculty to be empowered to include partners and spouses of their own undergraduate and graduate students in academic events, celebrations, and career planning.


How do we move forward? In a recent editorial published in Science, McNutt (2013) highlighted the need for continued advocacy for increasing the numbers of women in faculty and academic leadership positions in STEM disciplines. She emphasized the weighty impact of structural issues like organizational culture dominated by male-centric and Eurocentric cultural values (Ong 2001; Gutiérrez y Muhs et al. 2012) and work–family matters (Singh et al. 2013) that greatly impact professional advancement for women in STEM. Given that women of color—including Latinas, African American, and Native American women—are grossly underrepresented in STEM academic careers (American Association of University Women 2010), the time is right to address organizational practices that can inform effective policy to enhance the success of women in STEM.

“Daughters are expected to commit time to helping the family… moving away from the family was difficult…This influenced my decisions in graduate school and now… I would only take a position at a university that would allow me to spend [time] in the town where my family lives…I do not know if I could do that in an academic leadership position. ”

—Latina computer science PhD

Nearly ten years after her passing, we’re certain that Jessica would have finished her chemical engineering PhD, and would have reached her dream of being a professor in her native Puerto Rico. There are many ways to achieve the mission of increasing the numbers of women faculty in STEM. We have chosen to focus on family in the life–work balance equation, and pave plausible pathways that will help women to include, not ignore, their family life in their STEM careers.

Several recommendations emerge from the work presented here, which are intended to address the role and status of Latinas in STEM:

  • Transformational leadership is needed to spearhead implementation of workplace changes (Carnes et al. 2012).
  • Opportunities for formal and informal mentoring networks must be cultivated that can support career navigation in culturally relevant ways (AAUW 2010). Existing structures like MentorNet (, as well as the National Institute of Health’s new initiative to establish a national research mentoring network(, are examples of infrastructure resources that can support such mentoring network opportunities.
  • Metrics and reporting systems should be created that can track accountability and impact of system-wide changes (National Research Council 2013).

In closing, Jessica’s life and death has given us pause to examine advancement of Hispanic women in STEM at the graduate and faculty levels. We must now recognize that the loss of Latina STEM talent is not just a women’s issue, but the loss points to missed opportunities for advancement that affect all individuals in higher education (AAUW, 2010; Singh et al., 2013).


This work receives support from the National Science Foundation’s ADVANCE Collaborative Research: Framing the Issue: A NETWORKing Workshop to Address Academic Advancement of Hispanic Women in STEM (# 1216490), and Collaborative Research: AGEP-T: PROMISE AGEP Maryland Transformation (#1309290). We also acknowledge Douglas Frey (Jessica’s chemical engineering graduate school advisor at UMBC), and the UMBC Graduate Student Association for developing the Jessica Soto-Pérez award for graduate students. We give special thanks to Molly A. Hardigree Cancel (UMET) and Andrea Barrientos (Barrientos Consulting) for helping us to design the “Jessica Alert” workshop in Puerto Rico, and for their support with this project.



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Renetta G. Tull is the associate vice provost for graduate student development and postdoctoral affairs at the University of Maryland Baltimore County; Patricia Ordóñez is an assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras; Frances D. Carter-Johnson is an AAAS science and technology policy fellow and health scientist in the Center for Scientific Review at the National Institutes of Health; Beatriz Zayas is an associate professor of toxicology in the School of Environmental Affairs at the Universidad Metropolitana; Angela Byars-Winston is an associate professor in the Department of Medicine, Division of General Internal Medicine at the University of Wisconsin–Madison; Maria Nandadevi Cortes Rodriguez is the program coordinator of PROMISE: Maryland’s AGEP at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

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