Faculty member’s Hispanic heritage is a big part of her desire to help students succeed.
Jaclyn Cañas-Carrell holds many positions: associate professor of analytical toxicology and environmental chemistry in the Texas Tech University Department of Environmental Toxicology and the Institute of Environmental and Human Health (TIEHH); faculty adviser to the Texas Tech chapter of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS); associate director of the university's STEM Center for Outreach, Research and Education; wife, mother, sister, daughter and granddaughter.
But for the proud third-generation Mexican-American, the role closest to her heart is that of mentor.
“When I got my Ph.D., I did not realize I was a number – that it was such a significant accomplishment for a Hispanic female to finish a STEM degree with a Ph.D.,” Cañas-Carrell said. “The minute I looked into that and saw the numbers were so low and realized I had earned the Ph.D. without many major hurdles other than what a typical grad student goes through, nothing related to my heritage, I instantly felt like I had to give back to other Hispanics and to help other Hispanics earn those post-graduate degrees, to become Dr. So-and-so. That instantly became a passion of mine.”
Rocio Rodriguez, who graduated in May with bachelor's degrees in microbiology and anthropology, has worked with Cañas-Carrell in SACNAS since 2010.
“She was a role model right from the start,” Rodriguez said. “Her personal story speaks leaps and bounds of her character and love for research in STEM. Her excitement levels for advocating and supporting underrepresented minorities and first-generation college students is maintained at sky-high levels throughout the year. It's amazing watching all she does throughout the year, over five years, and it's impossible to not also be enthused with STEM education and research.”
Cañas-Carrell was born and raised in El Paso after her parents moved from South Texas. Her grandparents, who worked as migrant farmers, traveled back and forth from Texas to California each summer and fall to pick crops – a life in which her father was raised.
“It was never a question in my family whether or not I was going to college because my parents are both college-educated, but my grandparents, the furthest any of them went was maybe eighth grade,” she explained. “So to finish a high school degree was important, to go to college was important, and then to get a Ph.D. I feel like I was given that opportunity because of all my grandparents did and suffered and the lives they had that made it possible for my parents to go to college and then for me to achieve even more than just a bachelor's degree.”
Even with the parental support she enjoyed, Cañas-Carrell said her decision to take the route laid out before her was influenced heavily by her brother.
“I give my oldest brother a lot of credit because when he first got out of high school, he was like, ‘I'm not going to go to college,'” she said. “He spent a semester just working and quickly realized it wasn't fun and he didn't make very good money, so he went back to school. I think if he had not gone, we might have all followed suit.”
So now she works to be the example for her students that her brother was for her. It's not always an easy task.
“A lot of our students are first-generation college students,” she said. “Some of them have parents who didn't go to college but support them 100 percent. And then we have some students who have parents who didn't go to college so they don't understand it and just tell them they're wasting time and need to get a job. Or, ‘you can go to school but you're going to have to support yourself,' and so those students really just need the moral support of ‘you can make this happen, you can do this, I see the potential in you.'”
Cañas-Carrell said these are the most frustrating situations for two reasons: first, because family is so important both to her and to the students, and second, because these situations are out of her control.
“If a student is struggling in a class, we can say ‘OK, we've got to get you tutoring.' I can advise them on ‘maybe you should drop that class' or ‘you need to retake that' or ‘don't take this before you take that' – those kinds of things are easy,” she said. “But the family thing, all I can do is tell them I understand. ‘These are some ways you can try to attack it or deal with it or overcome it,' but in the end, they have to be the one to make the decision to either stand up to their family or not. Some of our students have said ‘I've got to move away or else I'll never get out.' It's tough when you see a really good student who just gets trapped in a family situation that doesn't allow them to flourish or grow.”
Even with the stress and frustrations of those situations, she knows her role is important.
“When I became a faculty member, I sought out service opportunities that allowed me to work with students who were Hispanic or even just underrepresented students in general,” she said. “Being the faculty adviser for the SACNAS chapter was really important to me. When the opportunity came around to apply for funding that could support students like that, I jumped on the chance and said, ‘I'm there whatever I can do to help,' and before I knew it I was leading it and then we got the funding. It's a huge passion of mine and so I really focus my energy on it. Whatever I do, besides the teaching that I have to do or the lab research that I have going on, is focused on trying to help underrepresented students to make it through college and then hopefully push them to go on for either a master's or a Ph.D.”
And she admits she has been successful.
“The program I run is going into its seventh year, and we have students who are finishing bachelor's degrees, going on to get Ph.D.s,” she smiled proudly. “I've seen a lot of students in the SACNAS chapter who started out as little freshmen with me, and I've watched them grow into these amazing young adults who are going off to graduate school. So I feel like I've been successful in helping a lot of students, even if I'm just there to encourage them they can do it. A lot of them have told me it's huge for them, just to have somebody support them.”
Cañas-Carrell wrote multiple letters of support to help Rodriguez, who applied to various academic conferences as a student.
“It felt great having an adviser who celebrated your victories and supported me through my rejections,” Rodriguez said. “She does this for every SACNAS student. It's amazing how much dedication she has to us and our success. I admire her not only for her work ethic and integrity in her personal achievements and goals, but also for helping us achieve ours.”
That's a role Cañas-Carrell intends to fill as long as she's able.