STEPHANIE SANDOVAL-PISTORIUS

PhD Candidate, Neuroscience

Hometown: Concord, California


Tell us about yourself!

I was born and raised in the Bay Area along with my three siblings. It was great to be raised in such a diverse environment. Since moving away, I find myself being more and more proud to call myself Salvadoran. The lack of good Latin food in Ann Arbor has encouraged me to learn how to cook typical Salvadoran dishes like Pupusas. Growing up, I learned the importance and value of hard work from my parents. As a kid, all I wanted was to be like my parents, as an adult, I laugh when I find myself “turning into my mom/dad”, but I’m lucky to have inherited both my mom’s passion, my dad’s curiosity and, the desire to give. I am grateful for all that they have given me.”

What three words would you choose to describe yourself?

“Passionate, Determined, and Honest”

 

What is your favorite thing about your current program?

“I really like our administrators. From my first day on campus, I could tell that the staff in our program office care about us. Rachel, Valerie, and Carol have been an incredible support system and our program directors also show that they care about our well-being and training. I am especially grateful to have someone like our interim director, Audrey, as a mentor outside of the lab.”

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

“I discovered my interest in studying the brain while in my high school biology class, so I always knew that I wanted to study neuroscience. My father’s Parkinson’s diagnosis led me to work in the field of neurodegeneration.”

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

I’m pretty serious about using a planner. I even went so far to design my own planner and created a weekly layout that I felt would increase my productivity. Sometimes my intense planning doesn’t work out and you need to be flexible, but I once read that failing to plan was planning to fail and that really stuck with me. I see planning as a way of setting goals for what I want to accomplish in any given day and it helps keep me focused. I found that on days that I don’t plan out my day hour-by-hour, I’m less productive.”

 

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

“Explore Ann Arbor, read, or watch the Great British Baking Show”

 

How do you de-stress?

Netflix and sleep. I try to just shut off my mind and reset so that I can tackle whatever is stressing me out more efficiently.”

 

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

“I have two sources of inspiration and they both stem from my family. I’ve never thought of myself as a role model, however, when I graduated with my master’s degree, some of my family members explained to me that I am an inspiration to the young women in our family. It made me so happy to hear that, however, it also added new pressure to my success. I understand that my success or shortcomings will not affect my family members, however, as the first person in my immediate/extended family to pursue a graduate degree, I feel responsible to show them that they are capable of achieving their goals no matter the challenge. This is especially important to me because many of my cousins are first generation Americans, like myself. Then there’s my dad, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2011. I am dedicating my research career to better understand his disease in hopes that one day there will be a cure. I think of my dad and his hopes for a cure when I feel discouraged and remind myself that what I’m doing is about more than just my career plans and my education -it’s also about the people who are counting on scientists to one day find a cure for their diseases.”

 

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

As an undergraduate, I felt really out of place at my institution. For the first time in my life, I actually knew what it meant to be a minority. At this moment, I didn’t realize how much it affected me because I was aware that I selected an institution that was less diverse compared to average college campuses. In hindsight, I assumed I was prepared to take on the challenge. These challenges found their way into my academic performance which almost led me to transfer schools, however, I realized how far I had come and decided to continue the process. Once I decided to stay, I realized that I had to take control of my education and focus on my studies rather than my surroundings. It wasn’t easy, however, I was eventually able to appreciate my experiences. It’s one of the reasons that I’m so active in SACNAS and passionate about increasing diversity, I experienced first-hand how important it is for a student who is a minority.”

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

“There are so many ways that others have helped me get to where I am now. My family is an incredible support system. My parents have always pushed me to strive for my best. I also recognize that my parents and grandma sacrificed a lot to move to the U.S. and that their sacrifices have made my current position possible. My husband, Bryan, has also played a large role in helping me strive to accomplish my goals. He has always been supportive and chose to attend UM Law School over other programs, to remain connected. Furthermore, I had two amazing mentors during my undergraduate career and they both helped guide me in this direction. My first mentor, Scott Steffensen, introduced me to research. Scott and I met during church my freshman year in college, he suggested that I work in his lab. I had a pretty rocky undergraduate experience for a lot of different reasons and he never let me fall behind. In a lot of ways, I feel like I owe much of my career to him. My other mentor, Judith Walters, showed me the breadth of what a career in science could look like and exposed me to different opportunities. Both of these mentors still play an active role in my training and I know that I’ll always be able to go to them for guidance throughout my career.”

What book(s) would you recommend to the community? Why?

There are two books that have been inspiring and helpful. The first is “Advice to a Young Investigator” by Ramon y Cajal. I read it before starting at UM and it gave me perspective on how to become a successful scientist. There are some things in this book that are not as applicable, however, this book was written 1897 and it lists key principles that I appreciated. My second recommendation is “Becoming” by Michelle Obama. Reading about her life and how she overcame obstacles has been so inspiring. The way she tells her story is just so relatable and it has really made me think about my own life and goals.”

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

My advice would be to focus on yourself. It’s really easy to get stuck in the habit of comparing your accomplishments and goals to those around you but everyone is their own person and has had different life experiences, so there isn’t really any way to compare yourself to others. Focus on what you know you are capable of and what you want to do. If you have a goal that others don’t have or if you want to accomplish something a little earlier or a little later, that’s okay! Do you! Also, take care of yourself physically. Make sure that you are eating when you need to and eat healthy. You can’t succeed if you’re not taking care of your body. And, make sure that you’re taking care of your mental health. If that means that you can’t work 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, that’s okay! Take time for yourself, do the things that make you happy and refresh your mind, and you’ll be more productive and focused when you’re in the lab. I guess I’m trying to say, you should be true to yourself and take care of yourself because it’s easy to get caught up in the culture of academia and believe that working hard means working long hours at any cost and that’s unhealthy.”

Can students contact you directly?

“Yes! About pretty much anything. One thing that I have been thinking a lot about is my identity as a Latina scientist and how to navigate that. So if there is anyone who is struggling with figuring out how to succeed as a URM scientist, I would love to talk to them. I don’t have the answers, but I think it’s important to recognize that you’re not alone.”

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