Born and raised in Puerto Rico, Monica Feliu-Mojer, has fused her passion for science into her career.
A PhD graduate in neurobiology from Harvard University, Feliu-Mojer is now the manager of outreach of the Department of Biostatistics at the University of Washington.
Her Puerto Rican upbringing has shaped her into a driven educator wanting to give back to her family and community.
As she describes her love for science, she exudes gratitude for the life she has and those that have inspired her.
Did you know you wanted to do this when you were younger?
Yes and no. I was interested in science pretty early on. I grew up in a rural area of Puerto Rico.
I liked to say that nature was my play laboratory. We had animals, we had cows, chickens and dogs.
So I grew up surrounded by nature and I was always very curious. I would say that I was always innately interested in science and in a way I think we all are.
I was always interested but I didn’t know that I could be a scientist or that being a scientist was a profession. The only science-related position I knew about when I was little was medicine.
Particularly I thought that I wanted to be a psychiatrist because I was really interested in the brain. My dad was diagnosed with depression back then and I knew it was a disease that had to do with the brain.
I experienced first hand how his behavior was changing and I knew there were things happening in his brain and I wanted to understand that.
When I was I college my first year biology professor encouraged me to apply to a summer research program.
Early on I was interested in the brain and from that research experience that I had I realized that I didn’t have to be a psychiatrist. I didn’t have to go in to medicine which was something I was never really interested in. I realized by doing research I could understand the brain.
What I say is that after that research experience I saw the light. This is what I wanted to do, this was my calling.
Were there any challenges that you faced being a woman in your field?
Yes definitely, there are many challenges. One of the earliest memories I had was when I was applying to grad school.
I know that I face this early on but unfortunately I think when you’re younger you’re naïve and you don’t know that these things happen. You’re not necessarily aware of them.
But one of the things that I still get sometimes was when I was applying to grad school people would tell me, “Oh you can apply wherever you want. Apply to the best schools because you’re a double minority. You’re a woman and you’re Hispanic.”
That was something that struck me because they were going to accept me because I was a Hispanic woman, not because I was good. It really bothered me.
What does your cultural identity mean to you?
Well its really important to who I am. The context and the culture in which you grow up in really influences the way you see the world and interests.
I am very proud of who I am and I’m very eager to own that cultural identity.
In my profession and my identity, I am a scientist and science is nothing more than a quest for knowledge and understanding the world that surrounds us. It’s a human quest. It’s not American, its not Puerto Rican, its not Chinese, its not Italian, it’s a human quest.
As humans we’re all curious and we all want to learn and we want to know and we want to understand what surrounds us. We do it in many different ways.
Being 100% Puerto Rican for me is important in terms of the work that I do. I have a responsibility to give back to my community, I have a responsibility to use my knowledge and my experiences to help my people.
That’s not only limited to Puerto Ricans but to Hispanics and anyone really. When it comes to that cultural identity that’s something that I feel really strongly.
What’s a word you would use to describe yourself?
There is a group of women called HSBARs. It stands for “Hot Sh** Bad-A** Rockstars!” It’s a community of empowerment for women, that are doing different things.
It really empowers you to “own your awesome.” If a man says, “I’m great, and you should know it,” as women we are discouraged from doing that often.
There is a fine line between tooting your own horn and like “I’m awesome.” If you’re good at something, you have to own it! So that’s how I’ve been describing myself lately.
It’s pretty cool because there is a good and supportive community around it with a lot of people to look up to and learn from.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
I see myself continuing to be a leader and an advocate for science and education. I see myself using my knowledge and my experiences to create opportunities for others.
I like creating and I’ve been really lucky. I mean I’ve worked hard and I don’t deny that I’m smart and I’m talented. But I’ve also been lucky with some of the opportunities that I’ve been given.
My ultimate goal is to use my work to create an impact in science and education in Puerto Rico. Seventy-five percent of the students fail science at the high school level.
I feel that as a scientist, communicator and educator, I have the opportunity to create an impact. That’s what I want to do and will continue to work hard to do.