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Cinthia Mena-Durán in front of a tree
Dr Cinthia Mena-Durán

Funding her way through education by working all hours, Cinthia works to improve the teaching system in Mexican public schools.

Making sacrifices

Cinthia was born in Pebá, a small rural area of Mexico. Her interest in chemistry started when she was seven and wanted to create perfume from flowers, which she managed to do by experimenting with water and alcohol extractions.

Once she’d finished primary school, Cinthia faced barriers to continuing her education, having to travel further away from home at every stage. Although she was academically capable, she was not granted scholarship funding and her parents asked her to drop out of school, as the fees were 40% of her father’s wages. But then her aunt found her a position as a nanny in Merida, where she went to school. This meant that she could continue her education, but had to give up her co-curricular activities.

Although she was able to continue her education, Cinthia’s life did not become easier. She attended school in the morning and then worked in the afternoon and evening: cooking, cleaning and looking after the children. She would go to sleep early, waking up at 2am to study before going to school again. Cinthia felt uncomfortable around the family she worked for and felt discriminated against because of her race and social background.

Paying off

Cinthia Mena-Durán graduatingAt the end of her second semester of high school, she had the highest marks in her year and a local paper publicised her story. This made school staff aware of her case and she was awarded a scholarship. The story also caught the attention of an old man, her “Magic Granddad”, who offered her financial support to continue studying, which meant that she could stop working.

Because of Cinthia’s interest in chemistry, she was asked to help with teaching the rest of her class, as her teacher was busy pursuing a governmental position. She had to learn the material very thoroughly, reading university level books, in order to teach her classmates. Cinthia enjoyed chemistry at high school and won the National Olympiad of Chemistry, which convinced her to continue studying it at university.

“At high-school, I was fascinated by the subject itself; it was the discovery that everything is chemistry.”

Cinthia went on to study for a PhD in York, UK, which she says was her biggest challenge as she had to adapt to a new culture and language (and the weather!). She had to adjust to working in a more independent environment, but the memory of how much effort it had taken to get there kept her going.

Giving something back

Cinthia is now back in Mexico, working as a chemistry academic advisor to improve the teaching system in public schools. She supports teachers through designing teaching programmes and materials and is currently looking to create a travelling science programme, so that even people in remote communities can get involved. 

“I do believe the way chemistry is taught can make a difference in a society's development.”

Cinthia Mena-Durán with school children in PebaAlthough improvements are happening, Cinthia is aware of the ongoing problems for people with low incomes and in developing countries trying to work in science. 

 “For people with low incomes, as in my case, you may not be exposed to science at an early age – it may not be possible to get a “science kit”. They are not able to develop their skills or curiosities like people who can get this exposure. Although they can develop their scientific skills in different ways, most of them won't do it.” 

For scientists from developing countries, the main barrier is lack of resources. Reduced access to journals, specialist equipment and investment in research can all limit scientific advancement. Cinthia says that networking and collaboration can make things easier, advising people to work together to create a better future for the next generation. 

Words by Debbie Houghton
Images courtesy of Cinthia Mena-Durán
Published August 2015

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