Senior Snapshot, Sophia Peña ’22: “Think Critically About the Science You’re Producing”

A student sits in the base of a tree with one hand grasping a branch and the other dangling behind her. She smiles at the camera
Image credit: Ayusha Ariana ’22
Author  Shannon O'Brien
Published on 

When Sophia Peña ’22, a biochemistry major, saw peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters being targeted with tear gas during the summer of 2020, she wondered why scientists didn’t speak out against the way this chemical was being used. “I started to think, why did scientists make this in the first place? Why did a scientist think that this was an OK thing to investigate and to market to the police or to the military?” she said.

As she thought more seriously about how and why science can be used as a tool of oppression, she began to see the importance of connecting the humanities and STEM. “You need to be able to think critically about the science you’re producing,” she said, which happens when you apply a humanities lens to STEM work. To acknowledge and teach about the social context of working in science, Peña and her fellow biochemistry majors Emiley Kim ’21 and Julie Bocetti ’22 decided to create classroom modules focused on building a supportive and inclusive community for students of all backgrounds in biochemistry and teaching about racism in STEM. “Instead of being offended or defensive, our professors were incredibly supportive,” she said, and they recognized the importance of making space for these conversations.

An important element of creating equity in biochemistry classrooms is teaching students that they each can contribute something valuable to the conversation, Peña said. She discovered this for herself during an internship in Cabo Verde as an Anchor Point fellow. Established by Amy Batchelor ’88 in 2009, the Anchor Point Fellowships in Global Leadership support students studying in a variety of disciplines.

Peña said she found her physics-based internship difficult as a biochemist, but the experience showed her that “no matter where I am, I will always have something very meaningful to contribute.” It helped her get past the notion that somebody is always the smartest, or that someone has to be the best—a concept that had caused Peña a bit of insecurity in the past. “I realized that my individual experience is different from other people’s,” she said. “Other people have a lot to learn from me, and I have a lot to learn from them.”

As Peña prepares to graduate, she has not only the Wellesley alumnae network as a support system, but also the Anchor Point Fellowship community. The fellows try to meet every two years. Peña said she has gained so much confidence through getting to know this group of alums. “Just knowing I have these women to rely on … is such a wonderful thing,” she said.

Peña said the College is one of the first places she has felt genuinely seen. “I think it’s because people saw themselves in me, and I saw myself in them,” she said—an experience she didn’t have in high school. “I made really profound connections to a lot of people.”

She wants first-years to know that they will come to college with a lot of wants and needs, but that those are universal. “You have so much more power when you recognize yourself as [part of] a community rather than an individual,” she said. “Once you do that, a lot of good things can happen for you.”

She also encourages students to come to Wellesley with a desire to leave it a better place. “Creating this content for biochemistry classes has been probably the biggest highlight of my time here at Wellesley,” she said, noting her gratitude to the professors who let her and her classmates take on the project, and who will continue implementing it after they graduate. “Next year, when a student goes to the biochemistry program, they will have conversations that I was never able to have at their age. I genuinely do feel like I have left the biochemistry program better than I found it.”