Jennifer Morales comes from a place where feminist role models are rare and detainees are prevalent. She’s from Mission, Texas, a city in Hidalgo County—one of the immigration epicenters in the United States. “Whenever you hear about families getting separated at the border, they’re probably talking about Hidalgo,” she said. It’s economically depressed, politically unstable, and, according to Morales, extremely traditional in regards to gender roles.
“Where I’m from, a woman gets married. The end. You don’t go to school. You aren’t expected to do anything,” she said.
No one, she said, expected her to get a PhD in the male-dominated field of bioengineering, an accomplishment she achieved at Northeastern in August.
Joined by fellow bioengineering PhD graduate Jaclyn Lock, she has provided support and guidance to dozens of women and girls during her time at Northeastern. And with every young scholar she counsels, Morales thinks back to her own role models, the educators who helped her become an example for young women who want to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and math.
‘Valued Student Leaders’
“When I came to Northeastern, it was the first place I was treated like a real person, a person with potential,” Morales said.
She felt validated during her graduate experience, she said, and wanted other women in her industry to feel the same. So she dedicated herself to mentoring young women.
Morales served as vice president of Northeastern’s chapter of Graduate Women in Science and Engineering, which helps aspiring female scientists and engineers reach their potential.
She first met Lock during the group meetings. Lock mentored girls from Boston who came to Northeastern to learn about science and spend time with women in the industry.
“Sometimes it takes strong women to tell other women that they’re strong too.”
“It’s really fun because my research project is not normal,” Lock said. “I look at the mucus layer in intestines, and I think most girls have an idea of what research is, but they don’t know what else there is out there.”
In 2015, Lock and Morales were recognized by Northeastern President Joseph E. Aoun as Valued Student Leaders for their contributions to the organization.
Morales and Lock said that they look to each other for support. They’re both minorities, as women in engineering, and they both enjoy mentoring young women.
Lock said their friendship helped her succeed in bioengineering. “Meeting Morales was really comforting because I could relate to her,” Lock said. “Sometimes it takes strong women to tell other women that they’re strong too.”
Faculty role models
Morales and Lock credited their PhD advisers with helping them achieve their academic goals.
Morales worked with Heather Clark, a chemistry and chemical biology professor whom, she said, “taught me how to have a powerful presence.” Lock worked with Rebecca Carrier, a chemical engineering professor whom, she said, showed her how to achieve work-life balance.
“Clark is so resilient when it comes to working in tough positions,” Morales said, “and there were a lot of times when she would tell us stories about how she was marginalized and how she dealt with it.”
Lock admired Carrier’s ability to juggle her personal and professional life. “My professor has three kids, so it was inspiring to see how she manages both her family kids and her school kids, her students,” Lock said. She was an example that women can be successful and have a work-life balance.”
‘When they succeed, I succeed’
Both Morales and Lock were encouraged to pursue science by teachers from their childhoods.
Despite the cultural expectations in Mission that Morales said dissuade girls from entering the science field, she found an exception in her hometown: a middle school teacher who inspired her to explore her academic possibilities.
“I didn’t actually like science, and then in middle school I had this teacher, and if it wasn’t for him, I would never be where I am today,” she said.
Morales keeps in touch with this teacher and often returns to Mission to inspire the next generation of female scientists. In 2015, she helped organize an outreach program called the Girl Power Rally where she spoke to an assembly of 1,700 middle school girls about her experiences in engineering.
“I think one of the important things about being a woman, especially a Hispanic woman, is that if I don’t stand up for girls who are like me and show them that they can leave and do more with their lives, they won’t know,” Morales said.
She dedicated her dissertation to the girls of Mission, Texas, because “when they succeed, I succeed,” she said.
Lock attended an all-girls high school in South San Francisco where the curriculum was mostly targeted toward the humanities, she said. During high school, she was interested in science but never had much exposure to it until one teacher provided her with resources to break into the field.
“It was the first time that I felt a bond with a teacher,” Lock said. “I would go to her after school and discuss my future plans with her, and she would suggest things that I could do to learn more.”
15 years later, she’s paying it forward by helping the next generation of women break into the science and engineering field.