Tatem Rios working in a laboratory during her internship.

Tatem Rios faces adversity—and finds her calling in CSE while overcoming it

Chemical engineering student uses her experiences to inspire others

Tatem Rios was a PSEO student with eyes set on the College of Science and Engineering. But, she didn’t know what to study, and as a Hispanic woman and first-generation student, she wasn’t sure she belonged in STEM. After realizing there are no gender or identity requirements to becoming an engineer, she decided to major in chemical engineering—and teach others what she’s learned.

Rios, a recipient of Crystal Group Inc.’s 2020 Innovation Scholarship and 2021-2022 Ed and Cora Remus Scholarship in the Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science, has worked multiple internships and co-ops. She found two internships through SciTechsperience, a state-funded program that connects college students studying science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) to small Minnesota companies looking for help.

Outside of work and class, Rios participates in University of Minnesota student groups such as the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE), the nation’s largest association dedicated to fostering Hispanic leadership in the STEM field; and local organizations like People for PSEO, a nonprofit that raises awareness of post-secondary education opportunities.

Rios, who is entering her senior year in Fall 2021, plans to seek a master’s degree after graduation and pursue a teaching role in the future. In this Q&A, she discusses her college experiences and what motivates her.

Why did you choose to study chemical engineering?

At first, I had no idea what I wanted to study. I really liked chemistry and I always did well in math. One day I met with the engineering professor, Joan Carter, from Inver Hills Community College, and she asked if I’d ever thought of pursuing engineering. While it was something that I had thought about, it wasn't something that I thought I would be able to do. I believe that this thought stems from the fact that I'm a first-generation college student. I didn't grow up with STEM influence in my life. I'm a Hispanic female, and I just didn't really think that I’d fit in. Joan listened to my concerns and she encouraged me to take her introductory engineering course. I ended up taking the class, and I loved it. After that, I knew I wanted to become an engineer.

What is it like to be a first-generation student? 

Being a first-generation college student is tough because neither of my parents went to four-year universities, so navigating the whole process was difficult. But, I was able to figure it out as I went on. I started college as a PSEO student during my junior and senior years of high school. I didn’t have any money for school, so this was my opportunity to get a free college education. During that time, I was able to figure out what I wanted to pursue as a career.

What are you passionate about? 

I'm really passionate about STEM and helping other people. I want to mentor others and help guide students to get through what I've gone through. I’ve learned a lot during these past five years as a college student and I want to share the knowledge I’ve received. My mentors, professors, supervisors, friends, and family all supported and believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. Because of this, I want to become a leader in STEM and use my voice to make a positive impact on those around me. 

How has mentorship influenced you?

My first engineering professor Joan Carter definitely changed my life. She played a huge role in my decision to pursue STEM and engineering. I'm a firm believer that you have to see it to believe it, and because she is a female engineer and teacher, it made me believe that I could be one too.  Another person who made a positive impact on my life is Briana Murphy, my previous supervisor at Innovative Surface Technologies, Inc. I really struggled with imposter syndrome for quite a while, but Bri saw something in me that I didn't see in myself. Having a successful female scientist believe in me and my abilities changed the way that I perceived myself. I want to be that role model in someone else's life. Knowing I can use my voice to help other people is what drives me and pushes me to continue forward. I wouldn't be where I am today without the people who have given to me, so it's my goal to give back.

What was your experience like with SciTech?

I got my first internship with SciTech with a company called Innovative Surface Technologies, Inc. (ISurTec). They make lubricious coating solutions that are used to coat medical devices such as catheters and guidewires used in surgery. During my first internship, I spent a lot of time in the lab doing quality analysis using various analytical chemistry techniques, as well as developing new quality analysis methods.

During my current internship with ISurTec, I formulate experimental batches of coating solutions, dip coat & friction test substrates, and write python protocols to coat cell plates with a pipetting robot. I am super grateful to have received these internships through the SciTech Internship Program. What’s really great about SciTech is that the companies it works with are small. In my opinion, it's great to work an internship at a small company because you get more responsibilities and great hands-on experience. I feel like my work is more valued knowing that I'm making a bigger contribution to the business.

What’s your experience in the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers?

I recently got involved with the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers on [the University of Minnesota Twin Cities] campus, and it's a really great community. They do a lot of stuff for professional development and also have general meetings where the members just get together and chat and play games. It’s nice to talk to people who understand and just experienced the same things as you. 

How are you involved with People for PSEO?

People for PSEO is a growing nonprofit whose mission is to work with families, students, education institutions, and lawmakers to promote, defend, and expand opportunities for Minnesota students via the Postsecondary Enrollment Options (PSEO) program, which allows public and nonpublic students in 10th, 11th and 12th grades to earn college credit while still in high school. I am a huge supporter and advocate of this organization and program. Doing PSEO allowed me to get my foot into the door of college and figure out what I wanted to pursue as a career. Many times when people graduate high school, they don't know what they want to do. With PSEO, you can figure that out while you're in high school and you don’t have to pay for it. Ultimately, the goal of People for PSEO is to reduce student debt and break cycles of poverty for Minnesota students via increased enrollment in the PSEO program.

What advice do you have for first-generation students?

My best advice is to stay persistent and ask for help. There have been multiple times where I wanted to give up and didn’t think I was cut out for STEM. But let me tell you, that wasn’t true. When things get tough, stay persistent and most importantly, ask questions. I used to dislike asking for help, however, I quickly learned that when you’re stuck, it is essential to seek help in order to succeed. A lot of times people think things are difficult only for them, but it’s difficult for everyone. If you stay persistent and ask questions, you’ll get through it. Work with your classmates and go to office hours. It makes a big difference. 

Story by Kathryn Richner

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