For attendees and presenters alike, the first ever LatinX Biomedical Engineering (BME) Symposium was a welcome forum to share science, build community, and discuss issues specific to the LatinX experience in BME.
Presented by LatinXinBME and FIU’s Department of Biomedical Engineering (BME) on Friday, March 26 with the generous support of the Wallace H. Coulter Foundation endowment to the department, the symposium allowed hundreds of students, researchers, and scientists from universities, industries, clinics, and other venues across the United States and abroad to learn about the latest contributions by the Latinx community to BME. LatinX is a gender-neutral way to refer to people of Latin American cultural or ethnic identity in the United States.
“Our department, which graduates the largest number of undergraduate LatinX biomedical engineers, was honored to partner in hosting this first symposium,” says Ranu Jung, eminent scholar and chair of the department of biomedical engineering.
“My hope is that this will become an annual event that garners support from biomedical engineering programs from across the USA and the world.”
BME is a unique merger of biology, medicine and engineering, where the results of inquiry into biological principles are engineered into solutions for issues related to healthcare and well-being. However, LatinX representation in engineering generally, and in BME specifically, is low. In 2017, the percentages of Bachelor’s degrees awarded to Hispanics was 8.8%, as opposed to the engineering average of 11.2%, and the percentage of Hispanic faculty members in biomedical engineering was 3.0%, as opposed to 3.9% in engineering overall.
LatinXinBME began in 2018, when founders Ana Maria Porras and Brian Aguado realized that Latinx in the BME field struggled to find mentorship, and wanted to create a community that fostered inclusion and provided a space for anyone with roots in LatinX culture or history to come together.
Valentina Dargam, a Ph.D. candidate at FIU and one of the event’s organizers, joined LatinX in BME because she wanted to get to know people in the same field and with similar backgrounds.
“As a graduate student, I don’t see many BME professors or fellow graduate students that are LatinX, even at FIU. It feels great to be able to connect with people all over the world via LatinXinBME, a platform (through Slack) where we can communicate with LatinXinBME peers at any time,” she says.
Tatiana Segura, Professor of Biomedical Engineering, Neurology and Dermatology at Duke University, delivered the keynote address. She discussed the ability of biomaterials to unlock the regenerative capacity of tissues, ultimately leading to immune response modulation and regenerative wound healing.
Part of the symposium was a video competition, wherein individuals from all over the world were invited to submit short talks on their research. Tied for first place were Leyda Marrero-Morales and Angelie Rivera-Rodriguez, both from the University of Florida. Arturo Castro Nava, DWI — Leibniz-Institut für Interaktive Materialien, came in second place, and Amanda Juraski, a PhD student at the University of Sao Paulo, came in third place. There were also honorable mentions in the categories of best undergraduate talks, biomechanics, in vitro models, and biomaterials.
The symposium also looked beyond basic science and clinical research. In the afternoon, health educator Chad Uri Pierre of FIU’s Healthy Living Program delivered a talk on the science of self-care, emphasizing the importance of maintaining a healthy body and mind. According to Pierre, self-care can not only nourish one’s wellbeing, but studies have shown that practicing self-care can increase capacity for empathy, improve immune functions, and manage stress.
Later, panelists Fatima Sancheznieto (Associate Researcher, UW-Madison) Angelie Rivera-Rodriguez (PhD candidate, University of Florida), Jorge Jimenez (PhD candidate, University of Florida), and Kathleen Warman (Predoctoral internal, FIU Counseling and Psychological Services), examined the intersectionality of the LatinX community within the BME field, discussing how people’s identities and experiences affect how they move through both the academic environment and the world at large.
The impact of the symposium is clear to Andres Pena, a postdoctoral fellow at FIU and one of the event’s organizers.
“The symposium brought together hundreds of people from a wide variety of backgrounds that make up the Latinx community. This was an open forum to share the Latinx experience in science,” he says. “I wish I had attended a symposium like this when I was a graduate student, since it would have given me a morale boost as well as a great mental health refresher to keep going with my scientific work.”
The importance of representation to participants was a clear theme throughout the symposium. On Twitter, one participant shared that ”starting a conference by speaking Spanish has somehow brought me the warmest feeling I never realized I was missing. #latinXinBME”