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Young Latina trailblazing the way for the next generation of scientists

By Alain Castillo

Samantha Marie Marquez was only 4-years-old when she noticed bugs walking on the water on a pond. Those bugs triggered in Samantha a life-long curiosity of nature that sparked a journey from inquisitive child to a rising young leader among women and Latinos in science — and she’s only 16-years-old.

Samantha Marquez

At first glance, you wouldn’t know Samantha is not like most high school students. The attractive teen is busy with her classes, extracurricular activities and home responsibilities, but Samantha juggles three unique roles: as a junior at Richmond, Virginia’s magnet high school Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School for Government and International Studies; as an over-achieving teenage scientist who has already traveled the globe giving lectures to university audiences from China to the United States, and as an award-winning inventor.

Samantha is the first Latino inductee into the National Gallery of America’s Young Inventors for her invention of Celloidosomes®, a growth process used to create two-dimensional tissue with the potential to treat burn victims, help in bone reconstruction and patching damaged organs and brain repair.

It’s an accomplishment that has not only attracted worldwide attention but has inspired her, because of her global travels, to embark on a secondary mission — dispelling longstanding stereotypes and assumptions.

“We need to establish tolerance to end stereotypes of ethnic groups, cultures and religions,” she tells Latina Lista.

In science, Samantha is fighting the assumption that the field is “only for guys and nerds.”

So far, she’s been effective in this endeavor as her numerous awards the past year testify: First place winner in engineering and the Grand Prize Winner at the Metro Richmond Science Fair; First place for Engineering: Materials and Bioengineering at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair; First place in research during the International Space Olympics (ISO) in Korolev, Russia.

At the ISO, Samantha became the first-ever Hispanic, and one of a few women, to win first place.

Next month, she will travel to San Diego, California to be presented with the 2013 National Neuroscience Research Prize through the American Academy of Neurology.

“We need to show young students and Hispanics that we are dreamers, visionaries and activists and that we love serving others,” she said. To prove her point, Samantha created the Neuroscience & Psychology Club (NeuroPsi Club) at her school, which she serves as president.

But for all her accomplishments, Samantha is like any other teen who enjoys going to the movies and jamming to Pitbull, Gloria Estefan and Queen on her iPod. Yet unlike most of her peers, she is already aware of the world around her and strives to put into action a famous quote by Mahatma Ghandi: The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.

“The quote implores us to go to our communities and, by helping others, discover within ourselves our personal identity and community identity,” said Samantha.

One example of her dedication to uplifting communities is her work with the American Christian International Foundation, where she is the youth ambassador for ACIF and worked with other bioengineers to solve agricultural problems in Mexico and Nigeria.

Samantha’s pursuit of scientific achievement and philanthropy is reinforced through her upbringing by her parents, both PhD graduates from Yale, Drs. Manuel Marquez and Carolina Marun, who have stressed the importance of working hard and helping the community.

“We need leaders in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and medical) fields so they can inspire other people from there,” Samantha said. “The ultimate goal is for everyone to be global citizens to reach a better future.”

“Using the term [global] citizenship means a global citizen is beyond borders or constitutions,” explained Marquez, Samantha’s father. “If you care about others, you become less arrogant and instead of having a position where you’re always right, you exercise tolerance on any position. Diversity is a necessity, not a luxury,” he said.

Marquez said that he’s also stressed to Samantha and her younger sister the importance of his and his wife’s families’ roots that stretch from Spain to Venezuela, and that his kids, and other Latinos, don’t have to change their last name to be successful.

“I need to look at myself as a service to my community. I speak with an accent, but I don’t think with an accent,” he said.

With Samantha, the older Marquez has mentored her to become the role model she is today.

“Our necessity is to have real role models to say ‘if she did it, we can do it,” he said, noting that today‘s kids need to know that success is something personal.

“It’s our responsibility as a family, as a community, as a country, as a whole, to promote a role model,” he said.

Freelance contributor Alain Castillo is based in Dallas, Texas.

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