Vamos a Fermilab aims to boost Hispanic participation in lab internships

Minerba Betancourt is one of three Fermilab scientists behind Vamos a Fermilab (“Let’s go to Fermilab”). The outreach program has received funding from the Department of Energy Office of Science’s Office of Workforce Development for Teachers and Scientists. Photo: Reidar Hahn

One day last year, Fermilab scientist V. Daniel Elvira was thinking about the other lab tenure-track and staff scientists he works with who are of Hispanic or Latinx heritage. He saw how small a group it was, and he realized there must be something they could do to boost representation of this group so it’s closer to the level in the general U.S. population.

That realization prompted Daniel and fellow scientists Minerba Betancourt and Juan Estrada to brainstorm ways to increase the number of Hispanic or Latinx individuals pursuing STEM careers. Their answer is Vamos a Fermilab (“Let’s go to Fermilab”), an outreach program they envisioned as building a more inclusive climate by recruiting, training, mentoring, promoting and retaining this demographic group for lab internships.

Their vision for Vamos a Fermilab took a big step forward recently when the program received funding from the Department of Energy Office of Science’s Office of Workforce Development for Teachers and Scientists.

In collaboration with Fermilab’s Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, the scientists submitted a proposal in response to a WDTS call to develop and execute outreach activities that will generate more diverse applicant pools for the DOE Community College Internships, the Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internships, and the Science Graduate Student Research programs.

“Although Fermilab is a land of opportunities for professionals seeking a career in STEM, the number of Hispanic scientists, engineers and technicians at the lab is below the percentage of Hispanics in the general population,” Juan Estrada said. “As a result, we saw there was a need for a multi-pronged plan to develop a pipeline program to drive employment and successful careers for Hispanic and Latinx talent.”

The scientists based their proposal on their experiences with existing internship and outreach activities such as TARGET, Saturday Morning Physics and Scientific Writing, as well as conferences aimed at middle and high school students. They intend to combine this with an array of new approaches, such as one-to-one mentoring and shadowing relationships, to boost the interest in laboratory STEM activities among the target audience.

Minerba Betancourt’s long history with internship programs has proven invaluable. “Building strong partnerships with Chicago-area post-secondary Hispanic-serving educational and research institutions is key because of their role in driving candidates to the WDTS internship programs,” Minerba said. “In fact, we’re already working with teachers and the Equity, Diversity and Inclusion offices at seven area community colleges and research universities.”

A main element of Vamos a Fermilab is a 3-day in-person summer recruitment event where teachers and Fermilab STEM professionals can offer the 20 students tours of Fermilab facilities, the opportunity to shadow Fermilab STEM professionals, and guidance on filling out the application forms. “Our long-term goal is to establish a feeder program that tackles all these elements and presents opportunities for Hispanic and Latinx individuals brought up and educated in the United States,” Juan said.

For the remainder of 2021 and the first half of 2022, the Vamos a Fermilab team will organize outreach activities to highlight opportunities the CCI, SULI and SCGSR programs offer teachers and students, as well as career options at Fermilab and the value of a future pipeline program. They will also continue to plan the summer event (conditions permitting), followed by a nationwide online recruitment event sometime after that.

Throughout their efforts, the group will feature DOE and Fermilab logos, brochures, videos, and educational and other materials to present a unified and cohesive approach. “At every step, we will convey a message that highlights the missions of the DOE Office of Science and Fermilab and how these can translate into career opportunities in STEM,” Daniel said.