10 Game-Changing Hispanic Scientists You Didn’t Learn About In School

Ellen Ochoa, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Ellen Ochoa, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Many of the greatest Hispanic scientists are people you never learned about in school. From groundbreaking biologists and physicists to innovators in the fields of medicine, botany, and environmental studies, here are 10 game-changing Hispanic scientists you should know about.

1. CARLOS JUAN FINLAY

Today, the world recognizes Cuban doctor and scientist Carlos Juan Finlay as a pioneer in the study of yellow fever. But back in 1881, when Finlay first presented his extensive research suggesting that mosquitoes transmitted the disease to Havana’s Academy of Sciences, he became a laughingstock. According to Finlay’s son, the speech was greeted with initial silence, followed by “universal ridicule.” It took another two decades before Finlay’s hypothesis became widely accepted. During that time, Finlay didn’t give up on his research. Instead, he spent those twenty years refining his theory, breeding mosquitoes, and conducting hundreds of tests to support this theory.

2. MARIO J. MOLINA

The first Mexican-born scientist to win a Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Mario Molina discovered the serious environmental threat posed by chlorofluorocarbon gases (CFCs). Along with fellow chemist Sherwood Rowland, Molina found that CFCs—chemicals commonly used as refrigerants, and colloquially known as Freon—released into the atmosphere were contributing to ozone depletion.

3. ELLEN OCHOA

In 1993, astronaut Ellen Ochoa became the first Hispanic woman to go to space. She first served on a nine-day mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery, where she and a team of astronauts studied the Earth’s ozone layer, then returned to space three more times, spending nearly 1000 hours in orbit. Today, Ochoa, who holds NASA’s Distinguished Service Medal, serves as the director of the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

4. CÉSAR MILSTEIN

Nobel Prize winning biochemist César Milstein opened new doors in the diagnosis and treatment of disease with his 1975 study on monoclonal antibodies. Milstein and his team developed a technique for the unlimited production of monoclonal antibodies, a type of antibody made by identical immune cells. Thanks to Milstein’s work, monoclonal antibodies are now used in everything from diagnostic tests to the treatments of several autoimmune diseases.

5. FRANCE A. CÓRDOVA

Astrophysicist France A. Córdova is the director of the National Science Foundation, a federal agency that develops programs to advance all fields of scientific discovery. She was nominated for the position in 2014 by President Barack Obama. Before she spent her days overseeing America’s science and scientific education programs, Córdova conducted important research on x-ray and gamma ray sources, accretion discs, and black holes, publishing more than 150 scientific papers. Back in 1993, she also became the first woman to hold the position of NASA Chief Scientist.

6. YNES MEXIA

Mexican-American botanist Ynes Mexia discovered two new plant genera and 500 new plant species—and she didn’t even start collecting plants until she was 51 years old. Born in 1870 in Washington D.C. to a Mexican diplomat father, Mexia spent many years as a social worker before enrolling as an undergraduate at the University of California Berkeley and discovering her passion for botany. In the 1910s and 1920s, she traveled thousands of miles around Mexico, South America, and Alaska, collecting some 145,000 plant specimens in just 13 years. Today, 50 plant species are named for her.

7. JUAN M. MALDACENA

Born in Buenos Aires in 1968, physicist Juan M. Maldacena studies the relationship between quantum gravity and quantum field theories. Currently a faculty member at the Institute for Advanced Studies, he has been awarded the Fundamental Physics Prize (2012) and appeared on the “Einstein’s Dream” episode of PBS’s Big Ideas. Maldacena’s research on the duality of conjecture was so groundbreaking, the participants of a 1998 string theory conference wrote a song to honor him called “The Maldacena” (sung and danced to the tune of “The Macarena.” It was the 1990s, after all). While much of Maldacena’s work is tough reading for non-physicists, he has also written several explanations of his work on quantum theory for general audiences, including a popular 2007 Scientific American article tantalizingly entitled “The Illusion of Gravity.”

8. ALBERT BAEZ

Father of singers Joan Baez and Mimi Fariña, Mexican-American physicist Albert Baez was the co-inventor of the X-ray reflection microscope. Though he created the device, which allows scientist to examine living cells, in 1948, it’s still considered a crucial scientific tool to this day. A pacifist, he refused a series of defense industry positions during the Cold War arms race, instead conducting research and teaching physics at the University of the Redlands, Baghdad University, MIT, and Harvey Mudd College. 

9. HELEN RODRÍGUEZ TRÍAS

Born in New York City in 1929, Puerto Rican-American pediatrician and healthcare advocate Helen Rodríguez Trías helped improve access to public health services for women and children in both the United States and Puerto Rico. She was the first Hispanic president of the American Public Health Association as well as a founding member of the Committee to End Sterilization Abuse, an organization that fought against the practice of forced sterilization. In 2001, she was awarded the Presidential Citizen’s Medal for her work on behalf of people with HIV and AIDS. 

10. TED TAYLOR

Nuclear physicist Ted Taylor worked at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in the 1940s and 1950s, where he helped design small nuclear weapons and reactors, as well as the Super Oralloy Bomb, which was the largest pure fission bomb ever detonated. While detonating a test bomb in the Nevada desert, Taylor once suavely lit a cigarette off of the blast using a parabolic mirror.

After observing the damage nuclear weapons could do, Taylor ultimately had a change of heart. He went on to serve as a consultant to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, where he worked to develop safeguards against the use of nuclear weapons. “He was ten or twenty years ahead of the rest of us,” Freeman Dyson, famed physicist and Taylor’s colleague, once said. “I think he is perhaps the greatest man that I ever knew well. And he is completely unknown.”

10 Reusable Gifts for Your Eco-Friendliest Friend

Disposable tea bags can't compete with this pla-tea-pus and his friends.
Disposable tea bags can't compete with this pla-tea-pus and his friends.
DecorChic/Amazon

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

By this point, your eco-friendly pal probably has a reusable water bottle that accompanies them everywhere and some sturdy grocery totes that keep their plastic-bag count below par. Here are 10 other sustainable gift ideas that’ll help them in their conservation efforts.

1. Reusable Produce Bags; $13

No more staticky plastic bags.Naturally Sensible/Amazon

The complimentary plastic produce bags in grocery stores aren’t great, but neither is having all your spherical fruits and vegetables roll pell-mell down the checkout conveyor belt. Enter the perfect alternative: mesh bags that are nylon, lightweight, and even machine-washable.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Animal Tea Infusers; $16

Nothing like afternoon tea with your tiny animal friends.DecorChic/Amazon

Saying goodbye to disposable tea bags calls for a quality tea diffuser, and there’s really no reason why it shouldn’t be shaped like an adorable animal. This “ParTEA Pack” includes a hippo, platypus, otter, cat, and owl, which can all hang over the edge of a glass or mug. (In other words, you won’t have to fish them out with your fingers or dirty a spoon when your loose leaf is done steeping.)

Buy it: Amazon

3. Rocketbook Smart Notebook; $25

Typing your notes on a tablet or laptop might save trees, but it doesn’t quite capture the feeling of writing on paper with a regular pen. The Rocketbook, on the other hand, does. After you’re finished filling a page with sketches, musings, or whatever else, you scan it into the Rocketbook app with your smartphone, wipe it clean with the microfiber cloth, and start again. This one also comes with a compatible pen, but any PILOT FriXion pens will do.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Food Huggers; $13

"I'm a hugger!"Food Huggers/Amazon

It’s hard to compete with the convenience of plastic wrap or tin foil when it comes to covering the exposed end of a piece of produce or an open tin can—and keeping those leftovers in food storage containers can take up valuable space in the fridge. This set of five silicone Food Huggers stretch to fit over a wide range of circular goods, from a lidless jar to half a lemon.

Buy it: Amazon

5. Swiffer Mop Pads; $15

For floors that'll shine like the top of the Chrysler Building.Turbo Microfiber/Amazon

Swiffers may be much less unwieldy than regular mops, but the disposable pads present a problem to anyone who likes to keep their trash output to a minimum. These machine-washable pads fasten to the bottom of any Swiffer WetJet, and the thick microfiber will trap dirt and dust instead of pushing it into corners. Each pad lasts for at least 100 uses, so you’d be saving your eco-friendly friend quite a bit of money, too.

Buy it: Amazon

6. SodaStream for Sparkling Water; $69

A fondness for fizzy over flat water doesn’t have to mean buying it bottled. Not only does the SodaStream let you make seltzer at home, but it’s also small enough that it won’t take up too much precious counter space. SodaStream also sells flavor drops to give your home-brewed beverage even more flair—this pack from Amazon ($25) includes mango, orange, raspberry, lemon, and lime.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Washable Lint Roller; $13

Roller dirty.iLifeTech/Amazon

There’s a good chance that anyone with a pet (or just an intense dislike for lint) has lint-rolled their way through countless sticky sheets. iLifeTech’s reusable roller boasts “the power of glue,” which doesn’t wear off even after you’ve washed it. Each one also comes with a 3-inch travel-sized version, so you can stay fuzz-free on the go.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Countertop Compost Bin; $23

Like a tiny Tin Man for your table.Epica/Amazon

Even if you keep a compost pile in your own backyard, it doesn’t make sense to dash outside every time you need to dump a food scrap. A countertop compost bin can come in handy, especially if it kills odors and blends in with your decor. This 1.3-gallon pail does both. It’s made of stainless steel—which matches just about everything—and contains an activated-charcoal filter that prevents rancid peels and juices from stinking up your kitchen.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Fabric-Softening Dryer Balls; $17

Also great for learning how to juggle without breaking anything.Smart Sheep

Nobody likes starchy, scratchy clothes, but some people might like blowing through bottles of fabric softener and boxes of dryer sheets even less. Smart Sheep is here to offer a solution: wool dryer balls. Not only do they last for more than 1000 loads, they also dry your laundry faster. And since they don’t contain any chemicals, fragrances, or synthetic materials, they’re a doubly great option for people with allergies and/or sensitive skin.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Rechargeable Batteries; $40

Say goodbye to loose batteries in your junk drawer.eneloop/Amazon

While plenty of devices are rechargeable themselves, others still require batteries to buzz, whir, and change the TV channel—so it’s good to have some rechargeable batteries on hand. In addition to AA batteries, AAA batteries, and a charger, this case from Panasonic comes with tiny canisters that function as C and D batteries when you slip the smaller batteries into them.

Buy it: Amazon

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Scientists Come Closer to Understanding COVID-19 'Cytokine Storms'

Science is closer to understanding what prompts severe COVID-19 illness.
Science is closer to understanding what prompts severe COVID-19 illness.
Photo by Artem Podrez from Pexels

Researchers are one step closer to understanding the mechanisms behind "cytokine storms," an immune system reaction that can cause severe COVID-19 symptoms in patients infected with the coronavirus. In a new paper published in the journal Cell, scientists from St. Jude Children's Research Hospital describe their identification of the specific cytokines, or small proteins, that are produced by the body in an effort to fight the virus but sometimes overreact and wind up causing damage, including inflammation, lung injury, and organ failure.

After examining the many different kinds of cytokines in the body, researchers determined that no single cytokine caused this inflammatory response. Instead, it appears to be a combination of two specific cytokines, dubbed tumor necrosis factor (TNF)-alpha and interferon (INF)-gamma, that work in collusion to cause inflammatory cell death.

By identifying these proteins as the culprit, researchers suggested that administering neutralizing antibodies and disrupting the protein pathways that promote cell death might present a new treatment method for COVID-19.

COVID-19 can prompt a "cytokine storm" that can cause severe symptoms.St. Jude Children's Research Hospital

"Understanding the pathways and mechanism driving this inflammation is critical to develop effective treatment strategies," co-author Thirumala-Devi Kanneganti, vice chair of St. Jude's department of immunology, said in a press release. "This research provides that understanding. We also identified the specific cytokines that activate inflammatory cell death pathways and have considerable potential for treatment of COVID-19 and other highly fatal diseases, including sepsis."

Thus far, this theory has only been tested in mice, which received neutralizing antibodies and were protected from severe COVID-19 symptoms. But in isolating the exact cytokines involved, it will likely be easier to locate an effective treatment, either from an existing drug or one developed specifically for the task. In time, researchers hope clinical trials of select drugs can be another tool in the fight against the virus.

[h/t PennLive]