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Latinas are at the forefront of the medical fight against COVID-19. Photo: Shutterstock

Meet the three Latinas at the forefront of the COVID fight in D.C.

Monica Mann, Elizabeth Zelaya and Connie Maza are hard at work tracking the spread of coronavirus and its variants.

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In the nation’s capital, three impressive Latina scientists are on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Monica Mann, 32, Elizabeth Zelaya, 36, and Connie Maza, 33, put on their lab coats every day to analyze COVID-19 samples, tracking the spread of the virus, and more recently, identifying variants. 

The three medical technologists are part of a small team in Washington D.C as part of the Department of Forensic Sciences' Public Health Laboratory Division.

Zelaya told NBC News that the work they’re doing sometimes feels surreal. 

“Every day I reflect and I'm like, ‘Wow, this is probably going to be in a history book,’” she said. 

The field of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) has been, and often still is, dominated by white men, making the journey from student to professional very difficult for women — especially for women of color. 

“You know what used to be the medical field, the science field, laboratory field being run by white males? Now, it has turned into this beautiful rainbow of colors,” Mann said.

Zelaya, Mann and Maza, who refer to themselves as “las tres mosqueteras,” or “the three musketeers,” started working together at the start of the pandemic in early 2020. 

For years, their colleagues at the lab were quietly working behind the scenes, but when their team tested and reported the first positive coronavirus cases in D.C, their lab was thrust into the spotlight. 

Maza, who is typically very calm and composed while in the lab, started feeling the pressure right away.

“I’m normally pretty calm when I do testing, and I mean, my manual dexterity skills are pretty good. But at that moment when I was testing Covid, I have to admit it was nerve-wracking. ... It was scary at first. I was very nervous,” Maza explained. 

Their lab is still very much under a microscope even over a year later. The stakes have grown higher and the goals have shifted slightly, as the medical technologists are hard at work identifying and analyzing COVID-19 mutations. 

"There's little to no room for error, so that makes the job that much more stressful," said Zelaya. "But we take pride in the service that we provide and the results that we give to the public because we know that there's a human on the other side of that specimen."

Women comprise half of the total U.S. college-educated workforce, but they still face glass ceilings, a wage gap that varies by race, and other obstacles such as sexual harassment and condescending co-workers. 

In the STEM field, the representation is less than ideal

Women make up roughly half of the U.S. population, but as of 2017, only 30% of women made up the STEM workforce, according to the National Science Board

For Latinos, the representation is even smaller. They make up over 18% of the U.S population, but only 8% of professionals in STEM jobs. 

Although this is an unfortunate norm, it’s in the nation’s best interest to engage more women and girls in STEM pursuits. According to the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics, there is an economic need for 1 million more STEM professionals. 

Growing up, Mann, Zelaya and Maza did not envision themselves working in a lab, especially not working on something so significant. 

Maza, who grew up in Texas, told NBC News that she didn’t expect a lot of women to be in the science field. 

“I probably just didn’t think that that was an option,” she said. 

Mann grew up in Uruguay in a low-income family. Her mom’s dream was to become a nurse, but “life didn’t give her that chance.” Mann’s mother got married at 18, she had her first child at 19 and then four more after that. 

But her mother never lost her passion for and interest in medicine, and is very proud of her daughter now. 

Maza said that her mother, who hails from Mexico, had similar experiences. She put her career aside to raise Maza and her siblings. 

"She wanted to finish school here in the U.S. but wasn't able to," Maza explained. "So she dedicated all those years to us for us to have a better life."

Zelaya’s mother actually did pursue the sciences, but never got the chance to work in the field. 

“My mom does have a bachelor’s in biology, so she did grow up loving the sciences and having a passion for the sciences, but she never got to fulfill a career in it,” said Zelaya. 

Zelaya knew that she wanted to have a different life. 

“I wanted to get out and get a career and work full time and be a professional,” she said. 

When asked to give advice to young women, particularly Latinas that may want to follow in their footsteps in the same field or another, Zelaya stressed the importance of dedication and hard work. 

“If you like it, master it. Know everything about it,” Zelaya said. 

Maza emphasized that persistence is key. 

“Lots of mistakes are going to happen, and try not to let that get to you,” she advised. 

Mann also spoke about perseverance and taking every single opportunity that comes your way. 

“Fortunately, we live in a country where you can start again from zero, career-wise, at any point of your life," she said.

Maza echoed these statements, saying that sometimes rejection is inevitable, but it doesn’t mean that giving up is the right choice. 

"It’s actually more motivating," Maza said, "if they do in a way say something like that, it makes me even work harder. It's like, I'm going to prove them wrong."

Although the pandemic appears to be nearing its end by the end of 2021, these busy Latina lab scientists are far from done making their mark on the world. 

"I think we're going to continue to just keep this forever," Zelaya said.

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