Cecilia Aragon

With a career spanning academia, government and industry, Cecilia Aragon has also distinguished herself as an aerobatic competition pilot and flight instructor. Photo courtesy Cecilia Aragon

Award-winning computer scientist opening doors for fellow Latinas

Data scientist and University of Washington professor Cecilia Aragon co-founded Latinas in Computing, an international professional association that mentors Latinas working in technology, because she believes in numbers. For Aragon, who earned an undergraduate degree in math from Caltech and a Ph.D. from Berkeley in computer science, the numbers reported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) about Latinas in STEM underscore a deficit. A big one.

According to 2012 NSF data, Latinas comprise only two percent of the science and engineering workforce, with less than half of one percent of that in computer science.

After working with big data at Berkeley Lab and NASA, Aragon joined the human-centered design and engineering faculty at the University of Washington. Aragon’s teaching and research efforts have been recognized with a Presidential Early Career Award, a UW Faculty Innovation in Teaching award and a distinguished alumni award from Berkeley Engineering.

Aragon traces the formation of Latinas in Computing to a 2006 workshop she attended at the Grace Hopper Celebration, the largest annual conference for women in computing in the country. During a workshop designed for Latinas in tech, Aragon was finally able to discuss common experiences with other women who had held positions in industry, government or academia.

Before that workshop, she says, “I always thought that any discomfort had to do with me personally. It was amazing to talk to other Latinas and to find out they felt the same way. We decided that we needed to get a group together. There might be students who are dropping out because they’re feeling the same things we’re feeling — because they think they aren’t cut out for technical work. There could be subtle cultural issues holding them back.”

She cites several examples: “My parents considered even the slightest form of self-promotion rude, and this became a disadvantage in some of my technical jobs,” says Aragon. “As a child, whenever I used advanced vocabulary in my small-town, Midwestern elementary school, I was accused of plagiarism by my teachers, who believed that Latinos couldn’t possibly speak English well. I became nervous about using intellectual language, which may have led to negative perceptions in the workplace. I eventually overcame these issues, and others can too, especially if they have a mentor to help them over the hurdles.”

Spurred from the conversations started at the Grace Hopper conference,  Aragon and Dilma da Silva of Texas A&M, Claris Castillo of the Renaissance Computing Institute (a North Carolina-based cyberinfrastructure think tank), Gilda Garreton of Oracle Labs, Patty Lopez from Intel and Raquel Romano at Google started Latinas in Computing (LiC). The group is now an international organization with more than 150 members.

Aragon’s favorite part of LiC is student mentoring. “There are a lot of societal pressures keeping women from going into computer science, and they’re worse in some Latin American countries,” says Aragon. “It’s hard to find someone who understands you, especially if you’re a Latina in computer science. We take mentoring very seriously.” 

Topics: EECS, Computing, Education & outreach, Alumni