Celebrating Women’s History Month: 6 Trailblazing Puerto Rican women in STEM

These remarkable Boricuas exemplify Puerto Rico’s rich legacy of scientific excellence. From left Olga González-Sanabria, top Nitza Margarita Cintrón, Amri Hernández-Pellerano, Dr. Helen Rodríguez-Trías, and Monserrate Román.

By Mivette Vega

March 8, 2024

Today there is a lot of talk about encouraging women to pursue careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). However, Women’s History Month is the perfect opportunity to remember the Puerto Rican women who have already excelled in these fields.

These remarkable Boricuas exemplify Puerto Rico’s rich legacy of scientific excellence and serve as an inspiration for future generations of women in STEM.

Dr. María Cordero Hardy

Born and raised in San Juan, Cordero had to adapt to a new life in Nebraska after relocating with her mother and stepfather when she was 15 years old. There she learned English and later was accepted to Fordham University, where she pursued a doctoral degree in physiology. Her research on vitamin E showcased its efficacy in treating chronic hepatitis B and protecting the liver from damage associated with hepatitis C. The scientist was also the Project Director of the program which studied the effect of supplemental antioxidants vitamin C, vitamin E, and coenzyme Q10 for the prevention and treatment of cardiovascular disease. Throughout her career, Cordero held important positions, including medical director of the Cedars-Sinai Integrative Medicine Medical Group and associate director of the Botanical Research Center at UCLA. Currently, she teaches medical technology at Louisiana State University. 

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Nitza Margarita Cintrón 

This San Juanera spent her childhood living throughout Europe, while her father served in the US Army. After he retired, the family went back to Puerto Rico, and Cintrón became an avid reader and excelled in science and mathematics classes. She earned a bachelor’s degree in biology at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR). She was then accepted into the biochemistry and molecular biology training program at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in 1972. In 1978 she earned a Ph.D. degree at that university. In 1979, Cintrón launched the Johnson Space Center biochemistry laboratory, where she was the project scientist for Space Lab 2 mission, which was part of the Space Shuttle Challenger mission in 1985. She held other prominent positions at NASA. Thanks to her career she has been a pioneer for both women and Hispanics. In 1988 she received the NASA Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal, the highest science honor given by the agency. She entered the Hispanic Engineers National Achievement Awards Conference (HENAAC) Hall of Fame in 2004 and was named one of the 100 most influential Hispanics in the US by Hispanic magazine in 2006.

Olga González-Sanabria 

A native of Patillas, González became interested in engineering, especially in chemical engineering during a career day at her high school. Despite being one of the few women in her field at UPR, she forged ahead and secured a position at NASA’s Lewis Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio. Her groundbreaking research focused on energy storage technologies for space, particularly nickel-hydrogen fuel cells. She is the co-patentee on a separator technology for alkaline batteries.  In 2002, the scientist was appointed to Senior Executive Service (SES) and put in charge of the Systems Management Office, becoming the first Latina at the Center to receive an SES designation. In 2002 she received the Outstanding Leadership Medal. A year later she was inducted into the Ohio Women’s Hall of Fame for her technical achievements and leadership. In 2007 she was awarded the Presidential Rank of Meritorious Executive and the Hispanic Engineer National Achievement Awards Conference’s Executive Excellence Award.

Amri Hernández-Pellerano 

Raised in Caguas, Hernández-Pellerano’s passion for science and mathematics propelled her towards a career in electrical engineering. Following an internship with NASA’s Cooperative Education Program, she joined the Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) as a power systems electronics designer. Her innovative work on solar batteries earned her the GSFC Engineering Achievement Award and positioned her as a trailblazer in her field. Additionally, Hernández-Pellerano’s leadership extends beyond her technical achievements, as she serves as chair for the Hispanic Advisory Committee for Employees (HACE) at GSFC.

Dr. Helen Rodríguez-Trías  

Shortly after she was born in New York in 1929, her parents moved back to Puerto Rico. Rodríguez returned to New York with her family when she was 10 years old, but then went back to the island to enter the UPR School of Medicine. As a college student, she became an activist for issues such as freedom of speech and Puerto Rican independence. After graduating with the highest honors, she established the first center for neonatal care on the island. She was the mother of four children. In 1970, she returned to New York, where she headed the department of pediatrics at Lincoln Hospital in the South Bronx. She lobbied to give all workers a voice in administrative and patient-care issues. She also got involved with the Puerto Rican community and encouraged healthcare workers at the hospital to become aware of the cultural issues and needs of the community. After attending an abortion conference at Barnard College she became interested in women’s rights and became an active member of the women’s health movement. She joined the efforts to stop sterilization abuse and advocated for free abortions and more widely available birth control for poorer women and women of color. She was a founding member of the Women’s Caucus of the American Public Health Association and of the Committee for Abortion Rights and Against Sterilization Abuse. In 1993 she became the first Latina to serve as president of the American Public Health Association. In 2001, she received the Presidential Citizens Medal for her work on behalf of women, children, people with HIV and AIDS, and the poor.

Monserrate Román 

With a passion for biology cultivated during her upbringing in Puerto Rico, Román graduated with a bachelor’s degree in biology from UPR. After earning a master’s degree in microbiology with a minor in chemistry at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, in 1989 Román was hired as a microbiologist by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC). She was part of a team that built the International Space Station (ISS). The scientist is also in charge of ensuring safe water and air for the crew of the ISS. In 2002 she won the International Latino Women Congress’ Silver Letter Award and in 2011, she received the NASA Snoopy Award.

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Author

  • Mivette Vega

    Mivette Vega is a seasoned journalist and multimedia reporter whose stories center the Latino community. She is passionate about justice, equality, environmental matters, and animals. She is a Salvadorrican—Salvadorian that grew up in Puerto Rico—that has lived in San Juan, Venice, Italy, and Miami.

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