In the early 1960s, a group of 13 women underwent and passed the same rigorous tests as male candidates for astronauts.

Yet the women, who became known as the Mercury 13, weren't among the nation's first astronauts. It wasn't until 1981 that the first American woman flew in space, says Tasneem Syeda, a project officer at NASA.

"The numbers are bleak and that's history ... we have the opportunity today to change that, " Syeda said.

Syeda was speaking Thursday during a small group discussion of women in math and science as part of the national Summer Institute of Mujeres Activas en Letras y Cambio Social (Women Active in Letters and Social Change) held at the University of Utah.

The conference, which ends Saturday, brought together Chicana/Latina and Native American women who work in academia and the community on women's issues.

While just over two in five of the nation's working engineers and scientists were women in 2003, according to National Science Foundation statistics, only about one in 50 were Hispanic woman. And, Syeda points out that many specific fields remain dominated by white men.

Syeda described the challenges she's faced in a field which remains largely dominated by white men. Syeda says she's faced a sometimes hostile work environment in which she's had to file sexual harassment complaints.

"It is going to get better as more young women start working there," Sayeda says. "More people with a broader mind-set of what's OK and what's not OK."

To boost those figures, Syeda suggests women in science, math and engineering fields need to bring more visibility to themselves as role models so young women will see they can succeed.

Challenges also exist in higher education, where at many institutions a male-dominated culture remains, said Lisa Justine Hernandez.

Hernandez found an uncomfortable environment while studying engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. So, she changed her major.

Now, as a 42-year-old liberal arts professor at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas, Hernandez recently completed her computer science degree and will soon start studying bioinformatics, which combines biology, computer science and information technology.

The first time, Hernandez said she felt isolated. The second time around, she said she learned to ask others for help and to find ways to make the studies relevant to her own world.

"Something very important is a connection to other people," she said. "Learning to make your own world smaller and safe."


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