Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
gROWTH MEDIUM MOTIVATOR: September 2018
Third-year PhD candidate, Molecular and Integrative Physiology
Hometown: Buffalo, MN
“Despite struggling immensely with a learning disability throughout my years in school, I am the first person in my family to graduate from college.”
Tell us about yourself!
“I was born and raised in a small, conservative rural town in Minnesota called Buffalo with my parents and older brother. Despite struggling immensely with a learning disability throughout my years in school, I am the first person in my family to graduate from college. For undergrad, I attended an all-women’s college, an experience that both deeply shaped my sense of self and sparked my commitment to social justice and DEI. Although I started with the intention of majoring in Art and Literature, instead I completely fell in love with biology during a genetics course my first semester. Art is still a huge part of my life though, and I keep a dedicated studio space in my home where I work on projects almost daily. Although it was intimidating because of my conservative family/hometown, I came out in college and met my wonderful partner there. She decided to get a PhD in Aerospace Engineering here at Umich and I moved here with her, discovering that Umich had a lot to offer me as well. During the day, I spend my time on my research and advocating for diversity initiatives in STEM, while at night, I make art at home with my partner and two cats.”
What three words would you choose to describe yourself?
“Curious, weird, friendly”
What do you like to do in your spare time?”
“Art! I minored in Studio Art in college and it has continued to be an extremely important part of feeling balanced in my life. I tend to switch back and forth between oil painting and leatherworking. Currently, I have been creating and selling handmade leather bags and I’m in the process of designing my own backpacks and carry-on bags..”
What is your favorite thing about your current program?
“That it truly values the education and health of their students. I’ve heard of grad programs in the past (and sometimes still today) that don’t value their students beyond the work they do, provide no support, and have little to no consideration for developing a student’s career. My department is not like that; I am consistently impressed and grateful for the effort my department makes to ensure that I will leave this program a capable scientist. It’s so clear that they value their students both as who we are now and as future colleagues.“
Tell us about a challenge you ran into in your educational training and how you overcame it.
“In general, the education system is challenging at every step of the way for people with disabilities because the reality is that the education system and academia isn’t made for us to be a part of it. Before realizing that, I blamed myself for struggling so much with certain aspects of my education that many of my peers did not. Although I often still struggle, I now know that since the system isn’t made for me, neither are most of the conventional solutions for overcoming challenges. Instead, I’ve overcome many of these challenges by reaching out to people like me for help and thinking creatively to come up with solutions that fit a neurodivergent brain.“
What factors or interests led you to choose your current program or field?
“I ended up in biology because living things are incredibly interesting. I’ve never had anything capture my attention more than biology, likely because living things are just a bunch of diverse black boxes. Lots of my specific areas of interest in biology comes from comparison to other animals and my background in evolution. For example, if a newt can regrow limbs, then what is different about the signaling in our cells that prevents us from regrowing limbs too? Organisms thrive in such diverse places and ways that it seems to stretch the limits of what’s possible in every direction, and I’m interested in knowing how those limits are set and created.“
How did other people help you get to where you are today?
“During undergrad, my professor Dr. Laura Katz looked me in the eye and told me that “it would be a damn shame” if I didn’t do research. Over the next two years, she created opportunities for me to demonstrate that I was a good researcher and pushed me outside my comfort zone whenever I thought I wasn’t capable. Without her guidance and encouragement, I certainly wouldn’t be here at Umich getting a PhD, let alone in biomedical research.
Outside of biology, Dr. Chris Smith (UC Davis) and Dr. Sharla Alegria (UC-Merced) have been mentors for me both personally and academically for over two decades. Without their wisdom, I wouldn’t have had the skills to advocate for myself in graduate school and beyond.”
What is your greatest source of inspiration to keep pushing toward completing your goals?
“For science-related goals, what drives me most is a deep and relentless curiosity. For goals not related to science, I am inspired to complete them because it brings me happiness and satisfaction in life. “
Advice for Current Grad Students and Aspiring Scientists
What advice would you give to an aspiring scientist?
” Your primary objective should be to find a mentor that will make you into the best scientist you can be and fully support you through that process. Advisors are the people who you will be working perhaps the most closely with and they can have a profound impact on your career. Even if you LOVE the research, an unsupportive advisor can sink a PhD. During your rotation, I suggest making sure you can answer the following questions:
- Can you say “no” to this potential advisor without backlash? For example, would you feel comfortable telling this advisor, “No, I don’t think I have the time to take that project/experiment on right now” or “No, I don’t think that is something I am interested in pursuing.”
- Does this advisor respect your boundaries (or the boundaries of others in the lab)? It should go without saying that they should respect your physical space, but do they also respect other people’s lab space, organization, and experiments? Do they respect the social boundaries established by yourself or others?
- Have you and this advisor frankly discussed their workload and schedule expectations for their students? Have you discussed YOUR expectations for them?
- Does this advisor show genuine interest in ALL your future career goals and try to help with those goals? Is this advisor committed to lending their support to the best of their ability to your career goals, regardless of what those goals are?
- Do you feel comfortable disagreeing with this advisor on something scientific (a result, data interpretation, idea, etc) without repercussions? Do you feel like this advisor actually considered your perspective?
- Would you feel comfortable admitting that you have failed a task to this mentor?
- If you have a disability or previous/current mental health issues, I strongly suggest talking about it and the worst case scenarios associated with it during your rotation. Are they supportive and interested in learning more on how they could help? If the worst case scenario happens, could you still count on their support?
- Is this professor available to meet with me enough? (This requires knowing your needs as well.)
- Does this advisor behave like the kind of scientist/researcher/PI you would like to be?”
What’s the best advice someone gave you that you still use today?
“Everything in moderation, including moderation.”
What’s your secret for time-management and being productive?
“I keep track of my tasks and goals in a two-tiered system:
- To keep track of big-picture ideas, thoughts, potential future experiments, and possible directions, I use a free online web app called WorkFlowy, which has a really unique and dynamic list/outlining system.
- For day to day work and tasks, I carry a pocket notebook! I use the dash/plus system to create to do lists every day and keep track of tasks from one day to the next. I go through about one pocketbook a month and seldom go anywhere without one.
Every week or two, I check back in on the big picture for my research and copy new tasks into my pocketbook, which means I usually get started on them.”
Can students and trainees contact you directly?
Yes! Feel free to contact me about being LGBT/disabled/a woman in STEM. Alternatively, we can discuss biology and evolution and research. I also really enjoy picking apart the themes of modern television drama series. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.