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Celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month: Kathy Santos

Kathy SantosKathy Santos has always had a passion for science. Growing up in a small town in Puerto Rico, she couldn't get enough of her favorite subject and worked hard in school to earn opportunities to study it further. She was handpicked for special summer programs and went on to pursue a degree in microbiology from the University of Puerto Rico's Mayagüez campus—well-known for its science and engineering programs.

While her love for her Puerto Rican heritage is evident when she speaks of her childhood, she knew there would be better career opportunities stateside. "I left Puerto Rico to go to graduate school at the University of Rochester School of Medicine in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, which was a reality check in many ways," she says. "I hadn't been exposed to a lot of things in Puerto Rico, so it helped me with the transition culturally and professionally. I even had a colleague in Rochester who helped me shop for my first winter coat!"

Santos joined APL in 2009 (at the urging of her husband, Carlos Alfonso, of the Asymmetric Operations Department) and currently, she is the Laboratory's project manager in support of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency Chemical and Biological Defense 24-Month Challenge and the Geospatial Information Superiority Testbed (GIST) project. GIST seeks to identify, develop, and advance technologies that will significantly improve the Department of Defense's ability for more rapid diagnostic testing and disease surveillance in places where public health functions either don't exist or operate with extremely limited resources.

Carlos also grew up near San Juan and came to Rochester for work after college. While they had never met in Puerto Rico, the two were introduced by friends in Rochester and married soon after. Today, they are the parents of 19-month-old twin boys.

"Carlos and I speak Spanish at home all the time, but we are careful to speak English too," said Santos. "We want our kids to learn both languages. Right now they are a little confused, saying some words in Spanish and some in English, but we know they will eventually get it."

The family listens to Caribbean music—one of the main things that Santos says she misses most about living in Puerto Rico. "When my mom visits, she brings me CDs from Puerto Rico since she knows how important music is to me because my dad was a musician." The twins eat traditional Puerto Rican foods daily. Rice, beans, and plantains (sometimes baked and sometimes fried) are staples that Santos grew up on and her boys enjoy.

"Someday, Carlos and I want [our sons] to go back to Puerto Rico to really learn about their heritage and the mix of cultures there," says Santos. "We want them to know the history and where their family came from."

Santos takes great pride in her Hispanic heritage and offers sound advice to younger Hispanic men and women as they launch their careers. "My advice to others has always been to open their horizons to things outside of where they came from to continue their hopes and dreams, but always carry with them their culture, values, and traditions."