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Ana Sol Gutierrez: "I wouldn’t follow the role they attributed to me"

This profile on the Honorable Ana Sol Gutierrez, a Maryland STEM leader who broke barriers as a Latina woman in Computer Science and a Delegate in the state legislator, is part a month-long series of profiles on Hispanic STEM innovators in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month. The Honorable Ms. Gutierrez is also a member of Capitol Technology University's Board of Trustees.

Surrounded by the flora and fauna of her home in El Salvador, a Central American country, Ana Sol Gutierrez grew up with an inherent interest in biology. After moving to the United States when she was only 4 years old, Gutierrez’s interest in biology was further fueled as she compared the tropical environment of her home country to the surroundings of her new home. Gutierrez’s interest in the environmental juxtaposition she experienced fueled her exploration of other STEM fields through high school and into college, though not in an easily predictable manner.

“I studied chemistry because I felt challenged by the subject unlike any subject matter I had experienced, which in retrospect was a stupid thing to do because I think I would have enjoyed other STEM fields,” Gutierrez said, chuckling in a way that showed despite her numerous accomplishments, many of which were born out of her chemistry background, she didn’t take herself too seriously. “It’s enormously rewarding to work in the field of STEM. I think you’re allowed to be innovative and creative and make discoveries for yourself and for people around you which you normally don’t get in a 9-5 job.”

After earning a Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry from Pennsylvania State University, Gutierrez, like many graduates, began the job search process.

“With the bachelor’s degree I worked in analytic chemistry writing about the science, but there weren’t any jobs in actual chemistry labs,” said Gutierrez, of what was seemingly an unfortunate circumstance for someone who enjoyed hands-on work. However, this roadblock led her to her next big accomplishment.

"I had already started down the path of computer science in the job I held after graduating with my bachelor’s degree, which mainly involved database management and a lot of mathematics to calculate chemical forces and chemical strengths,” Gutierrez said. “From there it was very easy to transition into system engineering. I went on to get a master’s degree in scientific and technical information systems from American University.”

Due to her fearless attitude and experience with coding in the early stages of computer adoption, Gutierrez began a long career working for major private and public sector technology companies through government contracts such as National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and several national government departments including the US Department of Transportation (USDOT), Education, and State Departments.

“I actually wrote code in BASIC in 8k for the Hubble telescope,” Gutierrez said of her time working with NASA. “I wrote code that helped orient the telescope.”

Gutierrez was named among the “100 Most Influential Hispanics in the USA” by Hispanic Magazine, and named among Maryland’s Top 100 Women several times, and in 1994, Gutierrez’s efforts leading the developing field of computer science were recognized by President Clinton when he appointed her as the Deputy Administrator for Research and Special Programs (RSPA) at the USDOT.

Outside of her professional work, Gutierrez began a second career in local politics, which soon led her into state politics.

“My political career began when I noticed that the Hispanic community at my children’s school needed to be represented. So, I ran for a seat on the Montgomery County School Board and served there for 8 years,” Gutierrez continued. “Then, I ran for elected office not really knowing much about it, but I was very interested in providing fair access to Latinos and Latinas.”

In 1990, Gutierrez became the first Latina to be elected in Maryland and the First Salvadoran American elected into public office in the US, then in 2002 she also became the first Hispanic state legislator elected to the Maryland House of Delegates.

“When I first became involved in politics, I didn’t have the goal to become the first Latina or Hispanic person elected into a specific office, I just knew that it was very evident that Latinos did not have a voice, likely because their voice [the Hispanic community’s voice] was not tied to industry or academia,” Gutierrez explained. “The fact that I had a scientific background helped because people saw me as a credible candidate who was prepared academically. I knew it was time to be a representative of our growing community especially during a time when many Salvadorans and Guatemalans had come to the United States to escape civil wars.”

From her professional work in industry and government and her service work in the public sector as the former Maryland State delegate for District 23, which includes Capitol Technology University, Gutierrez has a plethora of advice to offer to students interested in a career in STEM.

“I’m proud of being Latina and I do think that we were not given as many opportunities, but I think that is changing now because the whole world is changing,” Gutierrez said. “You need to be given the opportunities to be prepared and challenged in school, but if you’re genuinely interested in STEM there are steps you can and should take–pay attention in school and take the hard subjects that you may have to work a little bit harder on because you don’t want to cut off your opportunities. Those are the ones that will move you forward.”

In addition to being a minority in STEM and politics as a Latina, Gutierrez was also one of very few women in these influential fields.

“I haven’t faced bias or prejudice as much for being a Hispanic or as a Latino person in STEM, it mostly came from being a woman in this career field,” Gutierrez recounted. “Many times I was the only woman in a room and men often assumed I was the secretary or there to get them coffee. No one ever discriminated against for being Hispanic, but I think because I was well prepared. As a woman, though, it took a longer time for me to get promoted and my salary was different from the men I worked with.”

For any minority, but particularly for women Gutierrez has some tried and true advice that propelled her through her STEM career.

“I wouldn’t take it. I wouldn’t follow the role they attributed to me. I got a reputation for being a feisty young woman,” said Gutierrez matter-of-factly. “You have to know your place, and my place was not what they were attributing to me, and I would correct them on it. You have to use your voice and your power that is inherent to you. Be assertive in your jobs and your lives.”

When it comes to career in STEM–or any passion–Gutierrez has a few final words of wisdom:

“Take advantage of the changing world and maximize your participation and educate through your example because prejudice and being looked down upon is simple a lack of education and awareness of the benefits brought by a person’s differences."