Happy Women’s History Month. We’re honoring the occasion with a look at access and equity in science, technology, engineering and math. To put a spotlight on STEM, we caught up with Citlali Aguilera-Rico, an After-School All-Stars alum who’s now majoring in molecular biology at Middlebury College. She talks about how her experiences in school and in afterschool programs opened pathways to her pre-med studies and development as a leader. The interview has been edited for length.
Q: To begin, tell us more about where you go to school and what you are studying.
I attend Middlebury College in Vermont. I’m majoring in molecular biology and biochemistry and minoring in global health. I’m on the pre-med track.
Q: What inspired your interest in biology?
In high school, I took cell biology and really liked it. I wanted to learn more because I thought it was so interesting how our bodies are made up of trillions of cells that make the whole body work so we can think and feel things and move. This major stood out to me because there were a lot of fun elective courses like developmental biology and upper-level courses like the biochemistry of metabolism on how your body respirates and makes energy.
Q: You talk about how crucial it is to blend the humanities with the sciences. Tell us more about this.
I think it's very important that the humanities be a part of the medical field and science education in general. One area I’m studying is how health access is inequitable in different regions of the world, and to different people in this country based on their income or ability. I’m really appreciative that I have a liberal arts education that allows me to think about all the ways that healthcare can be made more accessible and equitable to everyone.
Q: Tell us about your STEM journey. How did you first get interested in science and medicine?
When I was in the second grade, we had to do a project on someone we consider a hero. I chose my dad. A few years before, he had gotten a pacemaker surgery, and they had saved all his X-rays. For my presentation, I brought the X-rays to class. When I was showing them around, everyone seemed a little shocked. But I thought, “it's so cool!” That was what first got me interested in medicine.
Q: You talk about how failure is as important as success. Can you say more about that?
When I was part of After-School All-Stars in the seventh grade, I had the chance to go to a regional science fair. We had this project on electricity, magnetism and making a magnetic field. Our experiment didn’t work, but my team ended up winning. It taught me that science isn’t always about successes. As I do more intensive lab experiments now, not everything works the first time. Learning that science isn’t always linear was pivotal for me.
The developmental biology class I’m taking right now is the most interesting thing I’ve ever studied. How can two cells turn into a person or a functioning organism? Questions like that drive me to learn how and why biological systems interact. And I’ve continued to nourish my passion for medicine through different internships and shadowing doctors. That’s motivated me to keep pursuing a medical career.
Q: What role has the support of peers or mentors played?
"...No one has ever told me I couldn’t do it, which is something I’m very grateful for. Especially when I was in afterschool and I would say ‘I want to be a doctor’ or ‘I want to do the science fair,’ no one ever told me I couldn’t do it. I've always had a group of people who really believe in me and are willing to support me and whatever I chose to do. So when I think back to my time in afterschool, all those very supportive and empathetic moments really motivated me and pushed me to do all the things that I've done."
My parents were Mexican immigrants, and I identify as Chicana. I came from a Title I high school. Going to a college that is predominantly a white, wealthy institution, I felt unprepared. Many of my peers went to private schools their whole lives. So, I tried to find mentors I could connect with. My first-year chemistry teacher was the only Black woman in the department, and she really encouraged me. Working with her, I would think back to all the people in afterschool, all the Latinx program leaders and board members who ran the All-Stars Los Angeles and national offices. They believed in me and saw something in me. I try to use my voice and leadership to advocate for change on and off campus. At school, I helped found the campus organization, Concerned Students of Middlebury, to uplift BIPOC voices and dismantle structurally oppressive systems.
Q: You’ve said that your experiences in afterschool also helped you become a leader. How so?
A big thing I did with After-School All-Stars was develop my leadership skills. I was a youth advisory board member and I got to go to a weeklong conference over the summer in DC. This gave me the chance to improve my public speaking skills, learn how to find the issues that I’m most passionate about and how to take action on them. All the support and opportunities I've had since middle school also shaped my definition of leadership and community and are why I try to incorporate community into everything that I do.
Q: If you could pass along one message to girls who are considering STEM fields, what would you say?
Remember your “why.” When you're studying for an exam or you have to apply to schools or you’re going through a tough time, remember why you're so passionate about this and why you want to go into this field. Remember all the people who believe in you and have helped you along the way. That'll really motivate you to keep going and not give up.
Q: Looking ahead, what do you think is needed most to expand STEM learning opportunities and careers?
We need to increase opportunities not only for young people to engage in STEM learning, but in hands-on extracurricular projects. You need to be able to take the knowledge that you’ve learned in a textbook or in class, apply it to a real-life situation, and see how it makes a difference. My school didn’t host a science fair, so having access to that through an afterschool program was really great. We need more targeted opportunities to get people excited about STEM and all the cool things that come out of it. It’s also really important that kids can see themselves in this field and know that their unique lived experiences are desperately needed in any STEM field to help make the world a better place.
Women’s History Month is a great time to celebrate all the accomplishments that women have achieved. It’s a time to continue to remember our past, how we got here, and how we secured all the rights that we have. It’s also a time to look to the future and remember all the inequities that still exist and what’s needed to address them. It's a time for celebration, and also a time to remember all the work that still needs to be done.