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In ninth grade, Karelly Ramirez-Wade’s chemistry teacher in Monterrey, Mexico, picked her up while he was handing out quizzes to students. She had let someone copy her work and he caught it. Instead of punishing Ramirez, he encouraged her to take pride in her work and told her something she didn’t hear very often: “You’re good at this.”

It was a confusing time for Ramirez, who was unaware then that she had learning disabilities, including dyslexia. She had been made to feel stupid in math class for mixing up numbers when answering questions. Instead of enrolling in the science electives she craved, Ramirez pretended she wasn’t interested because science, according to her peers, was only for boys.

“I felt weird already, I didn’t want to feel weirder anymore,” Ramirez, 26, recalled.

Mr. Romo’s comment, at a time when Ramirez felt like so many teachers doubted her, was a comfort. This sparked a love for science that eventually led her to pursue a double major in chemistry and physics at Portland State University, and continues to fuel her efforts to make science more accessible.

Ramirez is among nearly 4,000 undergraduates graduating from Portland State this summer, many of whom will take to the stage early next week. She wants to open the door wider to women, neurodivergent students, and students of color who come behind her in science — and supports this next generation by mentoring underprivileged middle school students interested in STEM.

“Science is for everyone,” Ramirez said. “The thought of access control that’s just not OK.”

FROM MEDICINE TO SCIENCE

Ramirez planned to attend medical school in Mexico before heading to the United States.

Reflecting on the decade of intense schooling ahead of her, the 19-year-old then decided she wanted a short break. She planned a trip to the Pacific Northwest in the fall of 2017 and, on a whim, applied to the University of Oregon. She entered. But on her trip, Ramirez fell in love with Portland instead.

Growing up, Ramirez pasted pictures of pine trees on the walls of the bedroom she shared with her mother in Monterrey. She wasn’t a fan of the sappy teen drama Twilight, but while other girls indulged in fantasies on the vampire love ship Edward Cullen, Ramirez instead dreamed of the misty forests of Twilight, far from her desert home. .

So when she got lost in Forest Park on her first trip to Portland, Ramirez knew she was in the right place. Alone and somewhat scared in the middle of the woods, she felt something like the lyrics of a Smiths song – at least if she was lost, she had found a “heavenly way to die”.

“I was like, ‘This is awesome. This is so beautiful. This is literally what I’ve always wanted,'” she said. made me decide that I wanted to move here.”

Ramirez decided she preferred Portland State’s city-centered campus to the Eugene school. She applied and after saving money and securing a visa, Ramirez returned to Oregon for school in 2018.

Ramirez does not come from a wealthy family. She attended a Mexican private school on a scholarship and is the first in her family to pursue a college education. In the United States, Ramirez decided she could not afford the long and expensive process of studying medicine and instead chose to return to science.

She remembers the day the interest started. While watching a documentary on local Monterrey channels, Ramirez became captivated by the idea that matter could neither be created nor destroyed. On monthly trips to the bookstore—a rare splurge for the Ramirez family—she began buying books on Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking, and thermodynamics.

“Even though I couldn’t quite understand it, I was like, ‘Wow, that looks so cool,'” Ramirez said.

But mathematics was an obstacle for the aspiring scientist. After failing calculus several times, Ramirez connected with a professor who noticed that she understood the calculus process, but wrote incorrect answers to the problems. He asked if she had been tested for dyslexia.

Tests confirmed his suspicions.

“When you have something like this, but you don’t know about it, how can you improve it?” said Ramirez. “I like solving problems. I’m good at that. And once I was able to understand what was going on, it was easier for me to do things that would help me.

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Ramirez learned techniques to overcome her learning quirks, like saying numbers out loud to make sure she got them right on the page, or using highlighters to help her focus on the readings. With a diagnosis, she could also receive accommodations like extra time for tests to make sure her answers were correct.

Portland State professor Andrew Rice first met Ramirez when she was taking her thermodynamics class and was impressed with her plans to pursue a tough double major in chemistry and physics.

Ramirez has a natural ability to connect with people and an ease in communication, Rice said, a unique skill set for a scientist. During the COVID-19 pandemic, she helped build team spirit within her research group by fostering scientific and social discussions on the Discord communication platform.

Ramirez said she wanted to be a good representative of her country and the “warm, open and inviting” Mexican culture. “That’s what I hope to express to people,” she said.

Ramirez has also participated in the university’s Cleantech Challenge where students build creations to solve environmental problems. In 2021, his team built an ethanol fuel cell that could provide an alternative to lithium batteries.

“I want to know what she will do in the future,” Rice said. “I think she will be a leader.”

Currently, Ramirez is considering graduate school in applied physics. She wants to help the semiconductor industry become more environmentally friendly.

PRESS OPEN DOOR

Ramirez spent several summers helping mentor middle school students at the Verizon Innovative Learning STEM camp at Portland State. Abigail Van Gelder, who oversees the program, said Ramirez stood out as a leader.

She has a great ability to capture student interests — like their fascination with the mission to Mars — and incorporate them into projects that engage young people, Van Gelder said.

“She continually uses her own life experience to help inspire young students,” Van Gelder said. Ramirez has helped the side be more adaptive and responsive, she said.

Ramirez’s favorite memories of camp include meeting young Spanish speakers who are thrilled when she is able to connect with them in their own language and helping students with unique learning needs feel at home. easy.

Last summer, Ramirez noticed a boy who was struggling with some of the same things she did growing up. He got angry when too much happened in class, so Ramirez saved him a table where he could have his own space when other students were doing group work. After a while, the boy felt comfortable enough to join the group tables, Ramirez said, and became so committed to projects that he did additional research at home.

“Showing students that whatever they feel is difficulty is not a disadvantage for you or the group, it can mean a lot,” Ramirez said.

Its aim is to help break the stereotypes that scientists are cold, unapproachable and human. She wants her students to know that opportunities in science fields are vast and open to everyone, and to honor the encouragement she received from her own chemistry teacher years ago.

“It’s important to provide a good experience for children early on about what science is,” she said. “Giving them a glimpse of what it’s really like and what we’re really doing can maybe open up some kids’ imagination or perspective on what it could be for them.”

This story is brought to you through a partnership between The Oregonian/OregonLive and Report for America. Find out how to support this crucial work.

Sami Edge covers higher education for The Oregonian. You can reach her at carex@oregonian.com or (503) 260-3430.

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