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09/28/2020 Mia A. Garchitorena

MSK Celebrates Hispanic Heritage Month | Spotlight On Yaihara Fortis-Santiago


Since 1988, the United States has recognized National Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15 to October 15) as a time to celebrate the histories, cultures, and contributions of Americans with roots in Mexico, the Caribbean, Central, and South America, and Spain, and to honor the accomplishments of Hispanic Americans.

This year, the Black, Latino, Asian and Multicultural (BLAM) Employee Resource Network is privileged to highlight a few members of Sloan Kettering Institute (SKI), who share what the month means to them as well as their thoughts on the importance of representation in academia.

Yaihara Fortis-Santiago, PhD, Associate Director of Postdoctoral Affairs and Trainee Diversity Initiatives at Sloan Kettering Institute (SKI), has always seen the connection between science and making the world a better place.  

She grew up in Puerto Rico. After earning her PhD, and spending time in government and not-for-profit arenas, Dr. Fortis-Santiago was recruited by Ushma Neill, PhD, to come to MSK and use her leadership experience in science to assist and advance the careers of researchers – especially those from underrepresented communities.

"It makes me feel incredibly honored, day in and day out, to be connected to the community and be able to help people when they're struggling with their career, help them find their passions or regain their love for science, and come up with cool ways to support their time at MSK," Dr. Fortis-Santiago says.

Shaped by a Chance Meeting

Dr. Fortis-Santiago is the youngest of four children. She and her two brothers, Gadiel and Joel, and sister, Azarhí, grew up in Orocovis – a mountainous area in central Puerto Rico. Their father, Héctor ("Papo"), was a businessman who owned a farm, a hardware store and served as a food distributor for federal programs. Their mother, Miriam, taught Spanish literature for over 30 years.

The Fortis-Santiago family enjoyed traveling; they vacationed throughout Central and South America and the Caribbean, and even explored the Amazon rainforest in Venezuela. One trip to Cuba in 1993 had a lasting impact on young Yaihara, who was 10 at the time. During the 1990s, Cuba experienced an economic crisis and a famine after the fall of the Soviet Union.

"I remember we were walking on the waterfront, and a little girl my age ran up to my dad to ask for food," she explains. "That experience changed how I saw the world. It made me think about my privilege and after that, I wanted to be of service to society and solve problems for underserved and marginalized communities."

Finding Science

Dr. Fortis-Santiago's older sister, Azarhí, was an inspirational figure in her life. They were three years apart but shared the same birthday. After high school, Dr. Fortis-Santiago followed in her sister's footsteps and pursued science in college. Both sisters attended the University of Puerto Rico in Río Piedras where Dr. Fortis-Santiago majored in biology and Azarhí studied chemistry.

While Azarhí navigated a health condition, Dr. Fortis-Santiago assisted her by filling out her application to do research as an undergrad in a lab on campus. As it turned out, Dr. Fortis-Santiago laid the groundwork for her own career while helping her sister. Filing the application on her sister's behalf led to her meeting the lab's Principal Investigator (PI), who ultimately became her mentor. Eventually, both sisters were hired to work in the lab and got to collaborate in projects together.

Dr. Fortis-Santiago graduated from college in 2005 and entered the graduate program at Brandeis University.

She realized quickly that graduate school would be extremely challenging as she was still learning English. "I'm an extrovert and always want to talk to people, but I had to adapt to a new language," she says. "I was able to get around, but I had a hard time trying to communicate."

Fortunately, Dr. Fortis-Santiago quickly became proficient in English and stayed at Brandeis for six years, eventually earning a PhD in neuroscience. She went on to become a Science and Technology Policy Fellow for the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences at the National Science Foundation and later joined the New York Academy of Sciences, first as Science Alliance Program Manager, then Director.

A Life-Changing Meeting

In the fall of 2017, a new position was created in MSK's Office of Postdoctoral Affairs (OPA) in SKI. Ushma Neill, Vice President of Scientific Education & Training, who was introduced to Dr. Fortis-Santiago through a mutual colleague, suggested they meet for coffee to discuss the new role.

"I came to the meeting thinking I didn't want a job," says Dr. Fortis-Santiago. "Everything was low-stakes, but by the end of the meeting, I was inspired to join Ushma's team. The connection we had was undeniable."

Dr. Neill's ideas and vision for OPA, particularly her passion for helping postdoctoral students and young researchers advance in their careers, resonated with Dr. Fortis-Santiago.

"She's a powerhouse and many people know who she is, but they have no idea just how much she cares about her work," she says. "It was reassuring to know that we could do things together and she was in it for the long-run. Ushma makes sure that magic happens at MSK."

"From the first conversation to our most recent, Yaihara has been bursting with ideas and constructive thoughts on postdoc-related initiatives, diversity issues, grants we could go after, and new programs we could start," says Dr. Neill. "She is the whirling dervish of academic administration, and it is a pleasure to work with someone so driven, focused, and forward-thinking."

Dr. Fortis-Santiago joined MSK in September 2017 as the Manager of Postdoctoral Affairs and was later promoted to Associate Director. She has co-led many initiatives with Dr. Neill, including Postdoc Appreciation Week, the Postdoc Slam, and much more.

In early 2020, Dr. Fortis-Santiago was named a fellow of the 92Y Women inPower program, which elects a group of female leaders in New York City each year and provides them with executive and peer mentorship opportunities, educational training and workshops, networking events and more to assist them in their career paths. 

Among other initiatives, Drs. Fortis-Santiago and Neill have been developing the ground work for a gap-year research program at MSK for students who have graduated from college and have been historically underrepresented in science; building a new framework for paying postdocs and supporting them during their time at MSK; and launching various mental health initiatives for postdocs.

Most notably, Dr. Fortis-Santiago is involved in the development of a new program, called the Maximizing Excellence in Research, Innovation, and Technology (MERIT) initiative, which will serve as a pipeline for researchers  from underrepresented or marginalized communities to apply for positions in science at different career stages in MSK labs. She also serves on MSK's newly formed institutional diversity council and has convened one group specifically focused on the scientific community.

The Meaning of Hispanic Heritage Month

For Dr. Fortis-Santiago, Hispanic Heritage Month is about representation in science.

"I use this month to elevate the voices of people from Latin America," she says. "We cannot expect to do the best science if we don't have different perspectives on the table. The voices of Hispanic, indigenous, and Black people, as well as people with disabilities.

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