Perseverance in Science: Sacrifices and Support for Young Scientists
Leaving one’s family and hometown to build a better life elsewhere can be a very isolating process. Both sets of my grandparents moved from ranches in the countryside of Mexico to the city of Tampico, Tamaulipas so that my parents could grow up surrounded by more resources for education and jobs. With the same motivation, my parents decided to go even further and move to Las Vegas, Nevada to provide more for my brother and I. I imagine my grandparents and parents needed to learn so much to adapt to their new lives, which can be overwhelming for even the strongest person. Similarly, with no scientists in my family, I’ve sometimes struggled to adapt in the scientific environment. However, I’ve persevered because I believe that my presence and achievements in science will open up opportunities for myself, my family, and future generations of Latinx going into STEM careers.
Feeling alone in science is often caused by the sacrifices we are expected to make to pursue it. The first sacrifice I made in my career was attending college at the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR), a 7-hour drive away from my hometown in Las Vegas, because they offered a major in neuroscience. That first year, I struggled to find a balance between studying for my classes and beginning scientific research studying sleep in fruit flies. I constantly had to remind myself that I could not find the opportunities I had at UNR in my hometown. I found myself carving out a second home within the lab as I gained more experience with research, but I also realized more and more that a life in science would be one mostly spent away from my family.
This hit me the hardest when I was awarded a summer research experience in 2016 at Columbia University in New York City through the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Exceptional Research Opportunities Program (HHMI ExROP). At first, I was incredibly excited and nervous at the idea of working in the lab of one of my scientific idols, Dr. Richard Axel. I prepared for my internship by reading every paper from his lab over the last twenty years. Once I arrived and learned more about the techniques and questions being asked in the lab, I felt even more passionate about a career in science. But at the same time, I realized how far away I was from my family and how isolated this made me feel. Nevertheless, I applied to graduate schools in the hopes of returning to New York City because of how impactful my summer in Dr. Axel’s lab had been.
Now, as a third year graduate student at Rockefeller University, I’ve reflected on the sacrifices I’ve made to be where I am and can imagine how a scientific career may be difficult for so many brilliant people. I’ve been privileged to have a family who understands the importance of sacrifice for a better future, but it can still be extremely hard to give up the comfort of family and friends to pursue something new and risky. This conflict often resulted in chronic self-doubt and excessive feelings of inadequacy in science, otherwise known as imposter syndrome. My mentors were critical in helping me stay in science, assuring me that my presence and contributions were important. While I was an undergraduate at UNR, my mentors gave me a lot of independence on my projects and treated me like a graduate student because they had faith in my abilities as a scientist. At the end of my summer in the Axel lab, I met with Dr. Axel to discuss graduate programs and he assured me that any program would be lucky to have me. I’ll never forget the profound sense of confidence in myself that I gained from that meeting and from my entire experience in the Axel lab. This is part of why I decided to go to Rockefeller University, because the junior faculty there brought out that same confidence in myself that has kept me in science, which makes me feel like I am prepared and capable enough to continue.
Another contributing factor to my scientific trajectory has been the support of institutions and scholarships dedicated to increasing diversity among the next generation of scientists. Most notable to me has been my summer research experience through HHMI ExROP, which transformed my scientific career by giving me an experience so different from the ones available at UNR. The annual ExROP meeting itself was impactful, bringing together all of the funded undergraduates of that summer at the HHMI headquarters in Maryland to meet each other and learn about the importance of diversity in science. It was the first time I critically thought about my identity and how it affects the way I think and approach science. Unfortunately, HHMI has suspended ExROP in order to fund their other initiatives to advance diversity in STEM, such as the Gilliam Fellowship for graduate students and investigators committed to HHMI’s mission. As a recent recipient of the Gilliam Fellowship, I continue to be inspired by HHMI and hope to be a testament to the importance of programs like ExROP and Gilliam.
The opportunities for scientists from underrepresented minority backgrounds continue to increase as more institutions fund programs dedicated to supporting us. There has never been a better time for us to enter and succeed in science. The investment in us will surely lead to great science, as countless studies have shown that innovative approaches to longstanding questions come out of diverse perspectives. Funding scientists whose perspectives are unique due to their race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and/or disability works directly to increase this diversity. When I first entered science, I prided myself on how objective my ideas were on the questions I was interested in pursuing. Now, I pride myself in how unique my ideas are due to my personal and scientific background.
Josue is a third-year Ph.D. candidate in the Graduate Program in Biosciences at Rockefeller University. His thesis work is focused on the brain processes that support flexibility in cognition. He is also co-president of the Rockefeller Inclusive Science Initiative (RiSI), a student group aimed to promote the presence and active participation and of underrepresented minorities at Rockefeller. He is a NSF-GRFP and HHMI Gilliam fellow. Feel free to reach out to him at email@example.com. Learn more about RiSI at rurisi.com.