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THE STEM ISSUE science | technology | engineering | mathematics

Green Guardian


By Almeera Anwar

Yolanda Sanchez fights to protect environment, inspire girls

ROWING UP A CHICANO WOMAN IN Arizona, Yolanda Sanchez never imagined she’d work in environmental health—in fact; she didn’t even know the field existed. “As a brown woman, STEM fields are not really what people usually pigeon-hole you into,” says Sanchez, ’07, who earned a joint master’s degree in public health and public administration from the UW. Today, she works as an environmental public health scientist for the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, D.C. Her office assesses the health and ecological risk of hazardous waste sites and then works to clean these sites and reduce the effects of hazardous waste. As an undergraduate at Arizona State University, Sanchez saw local residents fighting to protect the environment. That inspired her to pursue environmental science and get involved with summer programs, do lab work and find mentors who could help her reach her goal—graduate school. She applied to eight schools but ultimately chose the UW because of its Graduate Opportunities and Minority Achievement Program (GO–MAP). That provided her mentorship and financial support during grad school. She also met her husband through the program after

he was told to be nice to her so that she would pick the UW. Sanchez worked as a research assistant at UW with the Well-Being Project, which evaluated environmental and health issues as they related to Hispanic farm workers in Eastern Washington. Now that she’s working in the discipline, she’s learning just how renowned the UW’s environmental program is. “I’ll be in a workshop or seminar where they are talking about a research project,” she says,” and I get to say ‘Oh, I worked with them at UW.’ That’s pretty rare.” When asked how her perspective differs from her colleagues who are not from underrepresented minority communities, she says being a woman as well as a person of color allows her to relate more easily to people. As her career progresses, Sanchez sees herself becoming a technical adviser for community activists. “I think that by design, people of color are often the ones with the burden of environmental health issues, such as living in places that have more toxic release industries,” she says. “I want to be there to help them in their daily lives.” Despite being one of only a few women of color in the STEM fields, Sanchez doesn’t see herself as a role model—yet. In her opinion, she needs to do more in the field but she’d love to be someone young girls look up to. “I was a girl that took the tough courses in hard math and science,” she says. “Maybe they’ll see that and think they can do it, too.”—Almeera Anwar, ’12, is a Seattle freelance writer

the story of diversity at UW


Viewpoint - Fall 2012  
Viewpoint - Fall 2012  

Science Project - Getting students of color to blossom in STEM fields