DANIEL J. SALAS-ESCABILLAS

2nd-year PhD Student, Cancer Biology

Hometown: Mangilao, Guam


Tell us about yourself!

I am a first generation Pacific Islander college student born and raised on Guam. I got my Bachelors of Science in Biology at the University of Guam and did a postbac program at the Medical University of South Carolina. I have one younger brother who I grew up with in Guam with my mom and two older brothers that I found out about a few years ago who were raised by my dad in California. I am the first person in my entire family to pursue a degree after high school. I learned to cook native dishes from my grandmother and learned to be better in the kitchen as I became a better scientist. I love to watch shows like British Bake Off, Star Trek, Fullmetal Alchemist and Rupaul’s Drag Race. I am a proud Gay, Pacific Islander Scientist married to a wonderful husband and I’m all about Outreach and Diversity. I speak at least two languages fluently, English and Chamorro (Native Language of Guam) and try to practice my culture in any way I can. This includes food, social customs and sharing my language and experiences with people. My motto for life is “Chamorro Yu’ ” which translates to I am Chamorro. Meaning “I can do this because I am Chamorro”.

What three words would you choose to describe yourself?

“Different, Curious, Chamorro”

 

What is your favorite thing about your current program?

I think the best thing about my current program is that I can feel like I belong. I am very social with everyone in my cohort and in my program in general. We are all from different backgrounds but we get along really well. I also love the faculty in the program because they do everything they can to help you with anything you are struggling with. This includes going to conferences, finding labs to rotate with and eventually join and even to collaborate with each other.

The PIBS program is one of a kind. Scott is one of the most open and involved directors I have ever seen in terms of programs I interviewed for and universities I have visited. The two Michelle’s are also amazing in that they do everything they can to give students what they need and have an enjoyable experience. The career and professional development team, Shoba and Maggie, are always willing to sit down and talk with you about your future and how they can best help you achieve your goals. I also applaud the dedication and celebration of diversity through the efforts of Reggie and the work put together for admissions via Jim. The program also provides the best professional support as well as mental health support required for students by having specific people available for any problem.”

What factors or interests led you to choose your current program or field?

“There were a few things that led me to choosing the PIBS and the Cancer Biology Program at the University of Michigan. My time at the Medical University of South Carolina really helped me understand what kind of program I wanted to be in and what was important to me as a PhD Student. I wanted a program that listened to its students and did everything in their power to help their students succeed in the best way possible. The University of Michigan was one of my best interviews that showed me that they cared about the student’s well-being during and after their PhD careers. From the Cancer Biology program I got a sense of collaboration and happiness from the students and faculty in the program. I also was looking out for my family and what was available to them. University of Michigan provides a great healthcare plan that covers myself and my family at no cost to me. I can also get really great Dental and Vision care for very little per month. This was important to me as I was bringing my family with me to Michigan. They also provide a lot of resources and support for professional development even outside of academia or “non-traditional” careers.”

What’s your secret for time-management and being productive?

I always use online calendars and to do list apps to remember what I need to do and plan out how to do things in a productive manner. I check it every day to know how to prepare for what is coming up.”

 

What is your greatest source of inspiration to keep pushing toward completing your goals?

My greatest source of inspiration will always be my community. I came from a very small island in the pacific and resources are not always abundantly available. I was given a full scholarship to complete my undergraduate education from my island and I will always have a debt of gratitude to my community for this. My family and friends also provide a great source of support and understanding of how my work can help the community.

In Guam, the cancer mortality rates are steadily increasing even though, in the US cancer mortality is going down. One explanation for this is the lack of resources and treatments available to my island as we are disconnected from a lot of the world, in terms of healthcare available to my community. We do not receive the same healthcare as our brothers and sisters in the continental US and a lot of our people move off the island to pursue better opportunities and in some cases better care for loved ones afflicted with diseases such as cancer. I hope to bring back what I learn to the community and to work on improving current treatments and providing new options for care while also mentoring students to find ways to give back to our community in many different ways.”

 

Tell us about a challenge you ran into in your educational training and how you overcame it.

“After high school, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. I wasn’t even going to go to college as my family couldn’t afford it and no one else in my family had ever even thought of education after high school. However, I got a full scholarship for being a valedictorian, even though I dropped out of high school to take care of my grandmother before going back in to finish my degree. With this new chapter I needed to know what I wanted to major in without even an idea of where to start. So, I tried everything and I took classes in Economics, Theatre, Psychology, Education and even English. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life until I took my required Biology credit. I have always been good at science, but I never saw it as a career option because I didn’t know anyone who was in this career. Dr. Timothy Righetti saw something in me and asked me to try out a summer research program and from there I was hooked on science for life. It wasn’t easy majoring in science. There was a lot of requirements such as high level math and physics courses, but I found people who I could connect with and talk to. Finding people who you can talk to, even if they don’t agree with you, is the best thing you can do for yourself. Everyone had different career goals and interests, but that helped us learn more from each other’s different point-of-views. Now they are some of my best friends and are all doing different things, but we will always be there for each other.”

How did other people help you get to where you are today?

“There are a lot of people who I can thank for helping me throughout my journey to where I am today and to where I plan to go. One of the most important people I can thank is my mom. She has always been there for me and most of my life she was the only one who was there raising me and my brother. Everyday I think about my mom and what I can do to make her proud. My dad was also a strong supporter of my journey and was one of the reasons I received my full scholarship by pushing me to finish my education. I would also like to thank Dr. Timothy Righetti. He has been a very good mentor to me during my undergraduate years and I know for a fact I would not be here without him as he started me on this journey by making sure I had everything I needed to further my education and pursue my career goals. Dr. Lofdahl also helped me throughout my undergraduate career. Drs. Kasman, Wright and Hennigan from the Medical University of South Carolina helped me during my postbac program in preparation for my PhD Program. Dr. Chrystal Paulos and everyone in the Paulos lab have been a great help in getting me into a great PhD program and preparing me for my PhD Career. Chrystal helped me become a great scientist and I am eternally grateful for everything she has done for me.”

What’s the best advice someone gave you that you still use today?

“The number one advice I have received is to remember what you like and dislike about every situation as well as what you’re good at. If you can find something that you like and are good at, you will be happy to do it as a career.”

What advice would you give to an aspiring scientist or first-year student in your program?

“My best advice is to find someone who can be a good mentor to you and be there to give you what you need to grow. This person can be someone who has a similar background as yourself such as your ethnicity or cultural upbringing. This goes into networking and finding people who can help you grow as a person and as a scientist.”

What do you like to do when you have free time?

“I love to hike and Kayak when weather permits. I’m also a certified scuba diver and like to go on diving trips around the coasts. I also love to cook/bake in my spare time. To me it’s like science that you can eat and share with others. Food is also a big part of my culture to share who you are and show what you can literally bring to the table. I also enjoy doing outreach and celebrating diversity.”

 

Can students contact you directly?

“Yes. I don’t mind being contacted about anything. If for some reason I can’t help, I’m good at connecting people with someone who might be able to. Also, if you want to try some Chamorro food, let me know! My email is salasd@umich.edu.

Connect with Daniel on LinkedIn

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Spotlights are created with the help of Nnamdi Edokobi, third-year PhD candidate, Pharmacology Department.