It’s 2020 and this year has been full of surprises and lessons. In fact, one news site (The Atlantic) deemed 2020 as the “second-most traumatic year in American history”, and yet we still have months to go. While quarantining at home, attempting to get work done, I find myself reminiscing about simpler times, and reflecting on how I ended up where I am today. Having recently applied to graduate schools and the NSF GRFP, I have been forced to face my academic path in an analytical way. I’ve gone from feeling very proud of my work, to falling victim to imposter syndrome; from being on top of the world, to feeling like I didn’t deserve a spot in a program. I know I’m not alone in this. As anyone will tell you, these emotions are all common in the academic journey.
One particular day I was feeling quite down on myself, and when scrolling through my newly made twitter feed, I saw a question posed by one of my future lab mates, Lynea W.:
“When did you know you wanted to be a scientist?”
It’s a question that had been roaming my mind months earlier as I was working on my grad school applications. For some, the answer may not be clear, but as I read the string of replies from researchers across various fields, one thing became apparent: our personal life histories, the things we’ve loved, enjoyed, and the things we’ve been exposed to, motivate and inform what we do and how we perform in our professional lives.
Like many kids, my career aspirations were mainly based on what grabbed my attention at the time, but some things never changed. I loved science, loved animals, and loved learning. My family was quite poor, but what we lacked in wealth we made up for with exploration. My mom always kept her eyes open for free museum promotions. We lived close to a park so we could engage with nature. My parents also encouraged us to care for animals by surrounding us with pets including cats, dogs, rabbits, birds, tortoises, fish, frogs, and even chickens.
With the current administration’s attitude toward immigrants more disturbing now than ever, it makes me even more proud to talk about the greatest influence on my life and my work to this day. My father was only 19 years old when he immigrated to America from Mexico with his 9-month-old niece on his back. Speaking only Spanish and in the midst of adapting to a new life, he got his green card and immediately found work at a pet supplies distribution warehouse. He and others quickly learned he had a talent for designing and building fish tanks; thus, turning an interest in marine life into a career. Over the years, he went on to build the most elaborate and creative tanks; popular aquariums and even some celebrities commissioned him to build custom tanks. I remember flipping through his battered 19¢ notebooks; scribbled in them were sketches of tanks, filter systems, numbers, measurements, and equations. It wasn’t until later in life that I learned my dad had dropped out of high school. He was self-taught, which made him even more amazing in my eyes. At 11 years old, I spent my nights watching the soft glow of the computer across the hall, my dad quietly reciting the U.S. Constitution’s preamble, spending the only hours he had out of work to study for his citizenship test. When he had the chance, he took my siblings and me to his work. I’d sit in his office sorting through boxes of newly released dog toys and dog treats, sparking my curiosity further.
In middle school I was encouraged to enter a science fair. I reasoned if I were going to participate, I wanted to look into something I’d anecdotally observed and was genuinely interested in. So, I turned to my own home and devised my first research project. I asked two questions: given options, what toy did my dog favor and what treats did he prefer? Back then, it seemed like a fun way to learn more about what my dog liked, but I later learned in college that I had conducted (albeit not a very sound nor well developed) preference tests on my dog.
As an undergraduate, I found myself building on this initial interest. I worked with sows, analyzing videos of enrichment device preference tests. I also worked in a shelter, where I devised strategies to reduce anxiety in dogs by providing them with the toys and treats they preferred. I joined a team of students and competed in a national Animal Welfare competition. I worked with researchers examining cat’s usage of feeding puzzles. At 13 years old, I was a scientist, and as an undergrad, I had the same level of excitement and curiosity for animals as I’d had back then, always looking for ways I could relate my work to ideas I’d had about my everyday life. I carried that enthusiasm with me into new adventures, like when I designed a project based on a behavior in neonatal kittens I’d seen for years as a foster parent, and even when challenged to learn computer programming to carry out video processing.
I knew that research was something I wanted to continue doing even further forward in the future, so I contemplated the idea of going to graduate school. Being that I am a first-gen student with little idea as to how I might pursue this goal, I turned to my mentors for guidance. I was encouraged to join the McNair Scholars program where I not only met so many wonderful, like-minded students with the same background, but was also given many unforgettable opportunities. I was given the chance to travel and present my research at conferences, I was guided through the grad school application process, and I bonded with people who, like me, let their experiences and culture inform and guide their academic interests.
Now I embark on a new journey: starting graduate school during a pandemic. Luckily for me I have a good support system of family and friends (even some in grad school themselves) to help keep me grounded. After years of learning about marine life from my dad, and wanting to explore a new type of study species, my Ph.D. research will focus on the neurobiology of seahorse behavior. Though it’s daunting to join a brand research program in the Bales Lab and work with new a species, the freedom to start from the beginning is exciting all in itself. Similar to my earliest experience in research, I find myself once again conducting preference tests, though now social preference tests in seahorses.
Even if you’ve found the best possible field for yourself, some days it can feel like the current is against you, the current being stacked deadlines, extra commitments, confusing data, and rejection. On those days it might be more often you’re asking yourself: “Why am I here? Am I cut out for this?” But not every day is this dismal. Some of us have learned to cherish the good moments––like learning a new skill, acing a presentation, getting a paper published, capturing an adorable photo of one of your subjects, and even the smallest of positive feedback––and bottle them up to remember when the current is especially strong. I learned this type of resilience through my father’s journey and through my own, and it shapes the way I approach new opportunities or failures. My history and my curiosities make me passionate about my work, and that can look different for other people. It could be not minding waking up at the crack of dawn to feed monkeys, it could be hoping someone asks what you do for a living so you can talk about your work, it could be taking your quarantine time to catch up with other people in your field. Whatever inspires your passion, acknowledge it, appreciate it, and ask someone else what it is for them, even if it’s over Twitter.
Sabrina Mederos recently graduated with her B.S. in Animal Science and Neurobiology. She works with researchers at the UCD School of Vet Med studying the social behavior of neonatal kittens. She is a first-year graduate student in the ABGG working in Dr. Karen Bales’ lab. Her research will focus on the neurobiology of pair bonding in seahorses.
[Editors: Allison Lau and Alex McInturf]