In the US, women make up only 29% of scientists and engineers, 11.5% of which are women of color. One of the most striking statistics within this category is Latinas; more than 17% of the US population includes Latinas, and yet they make up less than 6% of scientists. The drastic representation gap is NOT a coincidence; around the world women, and especially women of color, face social and structural discrimination and challenges that make it difficult not only get into male-dominated offices, but also to be treated equally once they are working there. These unjust conditions have pushed many women passionate about STEM to speak out and advocate for radical change. One of these women is Ariana Castillo.
As a young, queer, and Latinx woman, Ariana sits at multiple intersections traditionally (and presently) marginalised in STEM – but it is precisely her experiences within these diverse intersections that empowered Ariana to become a powerful voice in the STEM community and share her incredible story. Beyond her impressive 3 internships at NASA, extensive research in atmospheric science, and acceptance into a PhD at Harvard, what we at The Bloom especially admire is Ariana’s vulnerability, and advocacy for mental health. Ariana doesn’t only use her platforms to share her successes; more so, she treats them as a space for vulnerability, sharing with her community the multiple “failures” and mental health issues she’s overcome and continues to face in her journey. Her presence online is meaningful, raw, and authentic, and through this, through this voice she’s established, she’s not only encouraging other young people to pursue a career in STEM, but also encouraging them to bloom into their best selves.
What is your relationship to failure?
Accompany your reading of Ariana's interview with this playlist she's created just for The Bloom with some of her favorite feel good music!!
Failure is a topic in STEM that isn’t really addressed; many folx strive for perfection. I finished my freshman year with a 2.6-2.7ish GPA and I felt like I did not have a place where I was, but I sat down and reevaluated perspective and realised I had set goals for myself that weren’t 100% unattainable. But reaching out and seeking help and resources was instrumental for me and helped me excel.
Mental health/failure intersection is also a huge topic of interest in STEM, where there is a culture that promotes lack of sleep and overworking like badges of honor. I, too, had this mentality. My lack of focus on myself and my mental health facilitated a drastic downward trend where I was diagnosed with multiple illnesses. They were debilitating to the point where I felt guilty for being tired and considered myself lazy for taking the night off from my studies. It got very serious to the point where it was severely life threatening - I was failing classes I would typically do well in and I had no hope. I think the biggest “failure” I’ve had was withdrawing from school to pursue mental health treatment, and when I put the word ‘failure’ in quotations, it is because I saw taking a break and graduating late as failures, because not being able to handle undergrad was a sign of weakness, at the time. When in reality, taking time to truly admit that I needed to seek help for my health and focus on myself actually took much strength and courage. For the first time in my life, I realized that I had to focus on my well-being over my career. I have brought that with me ever since. So these ‘failures’ are not really failures to me, they’re just events in my life that have brought me more growth and understanding of the world and have made me a better scientist. I still struggle with my mental health, especially given these current events, but I’m learning to be patient with myself and take things one baby step at a time.
What are 3 critical turning points in your life so far?
Receiving the phone call from my former boss that I was accepted into NASA’s Student Airborne Research Program (SARP) for my first internship for Summer 2018. That was the moment when I realized that all my hard work and perseverance had paid off, especially since I was struggling that semester.
Graduation! Receiving my undergraduate degree was a huge milestone in my life. There was a point where I did not know if I could do it, but once I walked across that stage I realized that I did - I proved myself wrong. It was a proud moment for me.
My first graduate school acceptance and where I am going to attend to start my PhD this fall. There were a lot of obstacles throughout my application process but that email changed my life forever. All the work and time I had invested for years led me to that point and it made me so grateful.
Ariana's milestones in a TikTok!
You’ve held an impressive three internships at NASA: what have been some of the most exciting projects you’ve worked on, and what was a typical day like for you at the internships?
All three of my internship experiences have been so different. I love all of my projects so much. With SARP, I spent two weeks in Palmdale, CA at Armstrong and six weeks in Irvine, CA. Every day seemed different for me: I was able to ride on their DC-8 Aircraft that collected atmospheric data, collect data myself on an overnight mini field campaign on the Santa Barbara Channel, tour different NASA facilities… the list is honestly endless. I think going to the beach for research breaks was something to remember. With this project, I looked at ash deposition from a wildfire and analyzed the effects of ash on the biology of the ocean. It was very interdisciplinary and allowed me to utilize my skills in atmospheric sciences and meteorology and apply them to biological oceanography. Day-to-day (research-wise) in Summer 2018, I’d work 9-5 at home (living in a big house with other interns and my mentor) whether it be looking for data to use, analyzing different microorganism species from the ocean, running an atmospheric model, and analyzing my results via MatLab, I stayed busy for sure, but I took a lot of breaks too!
Last summer, I was privileged to intern at NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. This internship was different, because I was working in the office for the first time. That gave me a glimpse of what working at NASA would be like. I’d get to work at 8am, check emails and plan out my day, then I would mostly be analyzing data from a satellite called CALIPSO, where I would look at lidar data. Lidars give us a vertical profile of the atmosphere, so we were able to look at smoke from specific fires and backtrack the smoke using a model to analyze the characteristics of the fire such as the height the plume injects itself into the atmosphere. I would also go to lunch to chat with my other intern friends and my mentor quite often, it was good to have a break. In the afternoon, I would sip more coffee or tea and crank through the rest of my tasks which could consist of data analysis, organizational things, or sometimes intern events until 4:30. Sometimes the 21-and up interns would go to the on-campus bar called Afterburners for drinks and free popcorn after work. I got to meet so many wonderful and brilliant people, but I was also able to see old faces from the summer before, which was great!
And this summer, I am looking at volatile organic compound emissions from wildfires. It’s more atmospheric chemistry-based and definitely more technical. I don’t think I’ve coded this much in my life. But I get to do that from home on my couch ;)
Any advice to our readers interested in STEM / hoping to deepen their relationship to STEM?
I think one of the biggest things that I have learned is to not be afraid to reach out for resources or help. Being a Latinx woman with mental illnesses, this was something that was difficult for me, especially because BIPOCs and disabled folx often have to work much harder to get acknowledged and appreciated. I’ve reached out to other students, professors, and researchers along the way and they’ve guided me throughout my career. This has been pivotal to my career and why I am here today. Don’t be afraid to send a DM, Tweet, or an e-mail - you can also make a good friend along the way.
Twitter is an important space for you to be vulnerable and share what’s going on in your life, from feelings of dejection to your recent post on coming out as queer. What would you say what have been some of the most powerful posts you’ve shared?
I just tweet my thoughts and perspectives on things - whether it be science, social justice, mental health and inclusivity, my hobbies, life events, needing coffee, etc. Looking back on my posts, I think I receive the most feedback when I am genuine about my struggles in life, whether it be in school, work, relationships, mental health, etc. I often feel that social media can be this obscuring facade, where people tend to post things that tend to make them look good. This is not a bad thing, of course, but I spent many years of my life feeling alone with my depression, anxiety, struggles, being in multiple marginalized groups while being in STEM, etc. I find that when I talk about it, there are other people that are not only supportive, but are also struggling with me. Life is not necessarily sunshine and rainbows, there are moments of darkness, with strong, dark storms and I want folx to know that they are strong, valid, loved, accepted and that they are not alone.
And what advice would you give to our readers who want to be more vulnerable through their social media platforms?
I think the biggest thing is: post what you are comfortable with, take baby steps. When I first started being vulnerable, it was so difficult because I thought people would see me as weak. But… when there is vulnerability, there’s underlying strength, courage, and honesty that people are able to see. It’s not easy, and there are moments where people judge and stigmatize, but sharing my struggles with mental illnesses and even some traumas in life has started plenty of conversations. Because of speaking out on my mental illnesses, I’ve made close friends that I consider my family and people who love and accept me for who I am and it’s really beautiful.
Do it at your own pace, but also remember to keep learning and growing as well, listen to other folx and see their perspectives, reach out if you need to, but most of all make sure you’re also taking care of yourself in the process. Like I mentioned, I have received negative responses from folx (rarely), and that’s something I wish I could have prepared for.
Lastly, be unapologetically YOU!