The last time that Soledad Pech Cohuo went to a scientific conference — dressed in her traditional Mayan clothes embroidered with colourful floral patterns — she was refused entrance by the doorman of the hotel in northern Mexico. “No street vendors selling crafts allowed,” he told her. The young woman muttered a few words of apology while searching in her bag for her admission badge for the conference.
A few months later, sitting on the terrace of a juice bar in Mérida, the capital of her home state of Yucatán, Soledad recalls the incident somewhat bitterly. “Everything happened fast, and I didn’t realize that he was discriminating against me because I’m an Indigenous woman.”
The 36-year-old chemical engineer, who holds a PhD in polymers, does not reflect the image most Mexicans have of scientists. In a country where women of Indigenous peoples attend school for an average of 6.2 years, Soledad Pech Cohuo’s academic path is exceptional.
Since 2019, Soledad has been able to conduct her research on the future generation of food packaging in an ideal setting, thanks to PEPMI — the Spanish acronym for the postdoctoral program for Indigenous women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). PEPMI is a partnership between IDRC, Mexico’s National Council of Science and Technology (CONACYT) and the Centre for Research and Higher Education in Social Anthropology (CIESAS).
“When we communicated with CONACYT, we were concerned with the barriers that Indigenous women encounter in STEM careers when seeking access not only to education, but also to funding for their research,” explains Alejandra Vargas Garcia, senior program specialist in IDRC’s education and science program.
The decision was therefore made to back 12 female Indigenous Mexican applicants for a three-year postdoctoral research program, in which Soledad Pech Cohuo is currently participating. The total budget for the project is CAD1.5 million.
Soledad is now learning about green chemistry at the head office of the Centre for Research in Technology and Design of Jalisco in Mérida. While she is passionate about the study of synthetic polymers, she is concerned about increased plastic waste, so she is working on the development of biopolymers. As a postdoctoral fellow, she is looking for an alternative to plastics that is made from petroleum derivatives. Its biodegradable filmic material is composed of chitosan obtained from shrimp residues, an important fishing product in Yucatán, and from starch made from the seeds of the breadnut tree (Brosimum alicastrum). These could be used as food packaging with antibacterial, antimicrobial and antioxidant properties, which would delay the time it takes for certain foods to spoil and thus extend their shelf life.
The two cohorts of postdoctoral fellows (2018–2021 and 2019–2022) are each composed of six researchers. Seven Indigenous communities of Mexico are represented, including four Mayas from Yucatán, one Tseltal Maya and one Mam Maya from the state of Chiapas, two Zapotecs, one Mixtec and one Mazatec from Oaxaca, and two Otomis from the state of Mexico. Together, they formed a network of Indigenous female scientists, REDMIC, which is a platform to promote interaction and the convergence of their research projects.
In addition to their postdoctoral research program, the fellows developed a community education project linked to their academic field. IDRC granted 50,000 Mexican pesos (CAD3,150) to each fellow on two occasions for the community education project: once in the first year of their postdoctoral research and once in the second year. Some of the fellows carry out their project right in their home community.
Soledad Pech Cohuo organized eight educational workshops, spread out over two weeks, in the small town of Tixcacal, which has a population of about 1,300 and is 10 kilometres from Mérida. Until 2020, this small community was economically dependent on its hacienda, an estate where sisal fibre was once grown to make ropes. The estate was converted into a hotel. Many events, weddings and receptions were held in the elegant red and white building that reigned over the area before the hacienda closed its doors due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The hacienda is no longer the economic centre it used to be.
Focusing on food production and the recycling of residues, the researcher’s workshops are intended to boost the community’s economy. Participants make use of the entire fruit by making jams and keeping the peels for making bioplastics; they prepare preserves and learn the basics of composting. They also discuss the health benefits of local fruit and the breadnut tree. “The goal is to develop local residents’ skills so they can either start community businesses or become self-employed,” explains Soledad.
In the town hall — a small yellow colonial building on the main street of Tixcacal — a dozen residents, including one male participant, gather around two tables and carefully follow the instructions of the researchers who assist “Doctor Soledad”. On this day, while the birds call out in the branches of the flamboyant tree in the garden, the women learn how yeast works in baking by making “pan de muerto”, a sweet bread typically made for the Day of the Dead, and whole wheat tortillas. “This is very useful. I’m going to apply everything we’ve learned to develop prepared food and sell it,” says Jamie Moo Euán, a young Mayan woman whose husband has just emigrated to the United States because of work shortages.
When another postdoctoral fellow, named Nancy González Canché, took a trip to her home county, she used the opportunity to participate in her colleague’s workshops. She also taught residents of Tixcacal about the options for recycling citrus fruits and coconut shells to make materials for harvesting solar energy.
The 38-year-old researcher comes from the small community of Tekit in the state of Yucatán, but she is completing her postdoctoral program at the Aguascalientes Optical Research Centre in central Mexico. She studied chemistry and designs solar thermal technologies. In her laboratory, citrus peels undergo a pyrolysis process to be transformed into light-absorbing pigments. These pigments are then used to manufacture inexpensive and sustainable coatings.
The daughter of a cleaning lady and a farm worker, Nancy González Canché was not likely to become a scientist. “My parents barely finished elementary school; I concentrated very hard at school to understand everything because I knew that no one at home could help me with my homework,” she says, emphasizing, however, the moral support her parents gave her to motivate her to pursue her studies. She also encountered teachers who were able to encourage her aptitude for science. She worked as a cleaning lady to pay for her university studies. Because of this job, she was able to buy her first computer after completing several trimesters at university.
Nancy González Canché also talks about the difficulty of getting through the academic and scientific world without a female adviser and with few examples of Indigenous students. “I wasn’t openly discriminated against, but I was considered an extraterrestrial,” she says, laughing.
Her story is similar to Soledad’s. She too has been fascinated by science since childhood, was encouraged by her parents, and she had to make her way by going somewhat against the grain. After completing her bachelor’s degree, Soledad was first hired as a production supervisor at a large soft drink company, where she was subjected to the prejudices of her colleagues. “The men didn’t respect me or my authority,” she recalls. When her boss suggested that she ask her husband for permission to attend a training session, the young woman left the corporate world to try working in research.
The path of these women is unusual; in Mexico nearly half a million Indigenous children between the ages of 3 and 17 do not attend school. As a result, for decades public efforts have been focused on including Indigenous people at the primary and secondary levels, but not at the university level, according to CIESAS historian David Navarrete, a specialist in Indigenous educational processes. “This sector of the Mexican population is the most excluded from all the benefits of development, and this is even more problematic in education, especially at the university level,” he states.
The gap is visible: 18.6% of Mexicans over the age of 15 have a higher education, compared to 7.2% of Indigenous people. If we take into account people over the age of 25 with a master’s degree, the gap widens further: they make up 2.5% of the general population, but only 0.8% of the Indigenous population.
“A key factor explaining the exceptional journey of these female Indigenous scientists is the support of their families. Despite their poverty and the fact that they are women, their parents encouraged them to study rather than become housewives,” says David Navarrete.
The example of 35-year-old Zoila Mora Guzmán is particularly significant. Raised in extreme poverty in a thatched house with a dirt floor in Chiquihuitlán, a town in the state of Oaxaca, this Mazatec biochemist completed her postdoctoral fellowship last year at the Centre for Scientific Research at Ensenada, Baja California, thanks to PEPMI. She studied the effect of a receptor protein, the transforming growth factor beta, in the prevention and treatment of breast cancer bone metastases.
Her four older brothers left home at a very young age to work in the city, but Zoila Mora Guzmán’s illiterate father always said that his daughter would have a great career. “When I was a child,” she remembers, “my mother taught me how to make tortillas, and I ran to greet my father when he came back from working in the fields to tell him about it. But he got angry and said, ‘There is no way my daughter will learn to make tortillas. She will be a brilliant professional!’”
Science, technology, engineering and mathematics are not the preferred sectors for Indigenous Mexican students, and even less so for women. “Most of these students go into education or the humanities and social sciences, then into careers that allow them to solve practical problems in their communities,” says Maria Antonieta Gallart, program coordinator at CIESAS. They become teachers, lawyers or translators and interpreters of Indigenous languages.
For the past 10 years, this anthropologist has also supervised a more comprehensive program of master’s and doctorate scholarships for both female and male Indigenous students in all academic disciplines. “There is a large disparity, even among Indigenous people,” explains Maria Antonieta Gallart. Some have stronger educational paths than others, especially the Nahuas, who are spread out across the central valley of Mexico, or the communities of Oaxaca. Unfortunately, we still struggle to attract students from major nations, such as the Huichol [midwestern Mexico] or the Tarahumara [north, in the state of Chihuahua].”
The three fellows we met all agree on one point: PEPMI represents a unique opportunity to strengthen their scientific careers. “The features of the program, especially its three-year duration — while postdoctoral fellowships are often limited to one year — offer us tremendous opportunities, including being able to propose our own research project, acquire equipment and carry out a community project,” says Nancy.
An effect of PEPMI is that it has enabled these researchers to proudly acknowledge their cultural background, which they have realized is one of their strengths. “As Indigenous women, we have a particular scientific vision, which is to seek solutions from the resources we have.”
A certain hotel doorman should hear that.
This article and the program described in it were made possible by the support of IDRC.
The original French version of this article was published in the September 2022 issue of Québec Science.