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Imagine New Mexico being known for inspired ideas, creative approaches to global problems and life-changing technical achievements. New Mexico is all of that. Home to creative artists and writers, it’s also recognized for scientific innovation, thanks to universities and national laboratories that have brought thousands of scientists here from across the globe.

It is therefore shocking that New Mexico consistently ranks close to last in national evaluations of education. … How can we reverse school rankings and make New Mexico the go-to place for quality education, which translates into a skilled workforce and a healthy economy?

One way is to get more students excited about science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education. STEM encourages children to think rationally, ask questions and explore answers, and develop a cohesive approach to education. That can change their perceptions at an impressionable age and stimulate learning – with lifelong benefits.

Several recent studies on how young schoolchildren see a scientist reinforce a common stereotype: a white male holding a test tube representing a chemistry laboratory. The human side of the scientist is opaque and fails to attract people who don’t match that image.

I am a scientist, and I bear no resemblance to that stereotypical representation. I have always been a creative person, with a curiosity for all things new, characteristics that can describe scientist and an artist equally. … Originally, I wanted to be an actress and dancer. Not until I was pursuing my master’s degree did I begin to truly appreciate scientific research and pursue it as my career.

I came to the United States from India to pursue my Ph.D. at the University of New Mexico. Today, as a scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, I develop methods to rapidly diagnose all infectious diseases on the spot – a challenging, exciting goal. I work with a magnificent team of scientists and collaborators who inspire and teach me something new every day.

But being a scientist is not my only identity. Happily married for over two decades, I am the mother of two wonderful children. I travel, cook creatively and continue to dance. For me, science is exciting, fun and a highly fulfilling career. One does not have to sacrifice creativity to be a scientist but can thrive because of it.

And not all scientists are chemists. I know scientists who drive the rover on Mars, who study climate change in Antarctica, who develop computers that can compute at previously unimagined speeds – and who, all in all, make the world a safer, better place.

Understanding and reveling in this scientific diversity is the focus of Lyda Hill Philanthropies, which, with the American Association for the Advancement in Science, has embarked on the IF/THEN Alliance that promotes showing scientific role models in their entirety: as healthy, happy, inquisitive and cool individuals. The program’s 125 ambassadors work to change the stereotypes of scientists across America, and I am proud to be chosen as one of them.

Statistics indicate that stereotypes and perception deter many children from STEM as early as kindergarten, but personal connections with scientists can stimulate young minds. We need more STEM mentors and statewide programs. … Those personal connections are the place to start. Together, we can build a team of mentors and role models and develop a curious, creative and inspired force for the future.

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