Katie Sotelo showed an instinct for science that teachers in her junior high school embraced.
The teachers, one a woman of Vietnamese descent and another a Mexican-American, helped affirm that Sotelo had what it took to go into science.
Now Sotelo, of Goodyear, Arizona, is a Creighton University junior working in a cancer research lab with a goal to become a scientist.
“I definitely want to do medical research,” said Sotelo, who is Hispanic. “Definitely research.”
Sotelo’s story is similar to that of many other women and minorities who choose science, technology, engineering or math — generally known as STEM. A proclivity for science coupled with mentors and school support propelled many of these students, scientists and professionals.
Efforts to increase the numbers of women and minority students in science and technology appear to be having some effect, national statistics indicate.
The numbers of blacks, Hispanics and women earning degrees in science, technology, engineering and math rose considerably between 2008-09 and 2014-15, the most recent year for which data are available.
But the picture remains mixed. There were still more than double the degrees awarded to men than women in STEM, and there were well over twice as many STEM degrees earned by whites as were conferred on blacks, Hispanics and American Indians as a whole.
“We have a ways to go,” said Julie Soukup, director of Creighton University’s Center for Undergraduate Research and Scholarship.
Total degrees in STEM rose about 35 percent during that period, and degrees to women went up 39 percent.
Degrees in STEM to blacks increased 30 percent and to Hispanics 76 percent. The number to American Indians declined slightly over that period.
Half-Haitian and half-white, Frantzlee LaCrete won the Chadron State College men’s Platinum Eagle Award, the top honor given each spring to a young man and young woman for leadership skills. The women’s Platinum Eagle Award went to Teryn Blessin of Greenwood, Nebraska.
LaCrete, who will start medical school at the University of Nebraska Medical Center this year, grew up in Lewellen, in western Nebraska.
“I’ve always had an inclination toward science and helping people,” he said last week.
LaCrete is a participant in the Rural Health Opportunities Program, a UNMC program with Nebraska’s state college system, to encourage rural residents to go into health care professions.
LaCrete’s mother, Terri, said he showed remarkable curiosity when the doctor would treat his ear infections.
The single mother worked multiple jobs to provide for her two sons. She currently manages convenience stores in Oshkosh, Mitchell and Morrill, Nebraska.
LaCrete said his football coaches, who doubled as administrators or teachers at Garden County High School in Oshkosh, were mentors.
“I loved all the teachers at my school there,” he said.
Julia McQuillan, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln sociology professor, said something happens that dampens the interest many girls and minorities have in science.
“It’s not intentional,” said McQuillan, who has written about the subject of women and minorities in STEM. “It’s just really pervasive stereotypes.”
Professionals such as Soukup and Dr. Sheritta Strong, an assistant professor of psychiatry at UNMC, also say certain teachers or activities inspired them to consider STEM-related professions. Soukup had a female teacher, Bonnie Birdwell, at St. John the Baptist Catholic School in Plattsmouth, Nebraska, who was excellent.
“She just made me want to do math,” said Soukup, whose doctorate is in biochemistry and molecular biology.
Strong remembered dissecting fetal pigs and fish at MacMillan Junior High School in Omaha.
“And I just thought that was the coolest thing,” Strong said. “For me, I always wanted to be a scientist, as long as I can remember.”
McQuillan said that after a certain age, kids start to envision scientists as white males.
“How do we change that?” she asked.
She “used to think there were science kinds of kids and non-science kinds of kids,” she said.
Her research suggests that most children have curiosity that can translate into interest in science.
“I think it’s a huge issue for our country,” she said. There is a lot of potential out there, she said, that is going untapped.
STEM-related programs at Iowa and Nebraska colleges and universities
These are among the programs in the region that are aimed at increasing women and minorities in science and related fields.
Iowa State University: Awards dozens of scholarships annually to minorities in engineering, agriculture and other disciplines through its George Washington Carver Scholarship Program. Carver, a black scientist, attended Iowa State and was a faculty member there for a time.
The College of St. Mary: Gives several scholarships annually through its Marie Curie Scholarship Program for women in biology, chemistry or math.
The University of Nebraska Medical Center: This week concludes its annual Summer Health Professions Education Program. This year the program included 86 students, most of whom were minorities. The students were from 20 states and 51 colleges. They received preparation for med school, dental school and other health care professions.
The University of Nebraska at Omaha: Provides a Eureka! STEM program in collaboration with Girls Inc. The program is a summer camp that helps girls find internships and prepare for college.
The University of Nebraska-Lincoln: Belongs to a national initiative led by the California-based Anita Borg Institute and Harvey Mudd College to provide a freshman summer research program and support students from diverse backgrounds in computer science.
Creighton University: Clare Boothe Luce’s will funds undergraduate and graduate-level scholarships at Creighton for women studying science or math. The program also established the Clare Boothe Luce Faculty Chair for Women in Science. There have been six Clare Boothe Luce Professors at Creighton since 1992.
Metropolitan Community College: The Upward Bound Math and Science Program, partnering with Omaha Northwest High School, strives to prepare kids who will soon be first-generation college students.
Nebraska Wesleyan University: Offers STEM scholarships to low-income students. The program is currently funded by the National Science Foundation and eventually will be picked up by the university, said Bill Motzer, a vice president.
Doane University: The Bridge Program assists minorities and women interested in certain STEM fields in the transition from high school to college.