Marysol Luna Ph.D. ’20 graduated from her five-year program in mechanical engineering in August. But it wasn’t until a couple of weeks ago she discovered, through University records, that she was the first self-reported Latina to do so.
“As a first-generation student, who grew up in a low-income immigrant family, earning a Ph.D. was beyond my wildest dreams,” Luna wrote in a post on her LinkedIn shortly after finding out. “I am here to tell you that fighting for minorities and women in STEM makes a difference, and this is proof of that.”
Luna first became interested in STEM in middle school, when she would compete in science competitions. She ultimately fell in love with biomedical engineering after joining a lab, which studied cartilage and bone, at the University of Arizona.
While an undergraduate, Luna spoke to Prof. Christopher Hernandez, engineering, at a Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers conference after presenting an abstract. At the time, graduate school wasn’t part of her plan, or even on her radar.
“He started talking to me. And at this point, I’m a first-generation student, I didn’t know anything about graduate school,” Luna said. Hernandez ultimately convinced her to attend a summer program at Cornell following the conference, and she applied to the University, which awarded her a Sloan Fellowship.
Living thousands of miles away from her home of Nogales, Arizona — a town split between Mexico and the United States — Luna was able to find another support system on campus within her first day at graduate school during a lunch hosted through the Office of Inclusion and Student Engagement.
“They’re still some of my closest friends, and even one of them was my roommate,” she said. “Finding friends that very first day to keep for the whole road of my Ph.D. and beyond was a very lucky thing for me.”
Starting at this lunch and continuing throughout her five years of study, Luna found the mechanical engineering department to be fairly supportive and sensitive to diversity. But, according to Luna, this isn’t always the case in other departments, where “they don’t even acknowledge things going on around the world,” she said.
Out of the 25 people who joined the program as part of her cohort, Luna was only one of five women — a number that dropped to three by the time she graduated. Luna said this helped her recognize the issue of retention, although she added that she saw programs on campus, such as the Diversity Programs in Engineering, attempting to address it so future women engineers would have the support to stay.
“I know that’s something that is on [the program’s] mind, so it has to go beyond the groups that are fighting for diversity and, so everybody else in the department also has to consider that,” Luna said.
Extended support outside of her department through mentors and friends were also crucial to her success, especially when she faced difficulties with her projects.
Luna said she enjoyed the freedom she had to explore different projects within the program. Her dissertation focused on the influence of humans’ gut microbiome on bone disease, studying how strains of microbes can be linked to susceptibility to osteoarthritis.
However, due to the pandemic, Luna had to finish her dissertation from home, causing delays in retrieving information that led her to complete the last chapter of her research post-graduation. Although she spent the final months of her program away from the lab and friends, Luna still recounted the highlights of her five-year-long experience.
“The main highlights that stand out to me is like really being surrounded by people that always support me, and having that community there is really the key, like surrounding myself with people that helped me succeed,” Luna said. “Whether it was in the lab or outside of the lab.”
Luna now works at an engineering consulting firm, which draws from the expertise of engineers like herself to investigate biomechanics related to body motion and injury potential. But even with a busy work schedule, she still remains passionate about mentorship, because of the impact it had on her.
Having mentored eight undergraduates during her Ph.D. program, Luna stressed the importance of guidance, encouraging young women in STEM to pursue their passions.
“[Speak] up, stop doubting yourself and don’t be afraid to stand out, especially in a field, school or department full of men,” she said. “Don’t be afraid if you feel like you want to present your work, set something up and have people come see your work and things like that.”
Noticing the ways in which she grew with her mentors — who pushed her to exceed her own expectations and step outside of her comfort zone — she started to ask more questions, meet more people and find her seat at the table.
“The biggest thing for me is I’ve always been lucky enough to find a mentor and have a mentor or multiple mentors. Even so, my goal in the future is to really be that person for somebody or several people, and have people ask me any question or rely on me for information or support,” Luna said. “So that’s kind of my, my goal in the future is really to promote … higher education among minority groups.”
Recognizing the difficulties students face with financing their education, Luna wanted to assure students that it is possible to mitigate the costs and cover it through fellowships, aid and scholarships, just as she had done for her graduate program.
“I always say, believe in yourself, is the one thing and don’t be afraid to go for it,” she said.