“Try a bunch of stuff, and see which avenue you like the best.“
Priscilla San Juan is a PhD candidate in Tad Fukami’s lab in the Biology Department at Stanford University. Priscilla is interested in the gut microbiome of wildlife and the impact that human activity is having on those microbial communities and the health of the animal host. She has had an appreciation of nature since she was young, but was unsure what career she should pursue since her interests were so varied. She explored the different topics and opportunities available at her community college and soon realized how fascinated she was with environmental science, the specialty she eventually pursued at UC Irvine. She has continued to explore the different facets of biology, from antibiotic resistance in environmental microbes to her current work in New Zealand where she is exploring the effects of captivity on the native kiwi’s microbiome and health.
Some of things we talk about in this episode include the value of testing out different types of research so that you can find something that you really like, and the huge impact that having a support network of peers and mentors can have on battling feelings of imposter syndrome that underrepresented minorities in STEM may feel.
“I can’t count on validation to come from someone else, it has to come from myself.”
Nia Walker is a fourth year PhD candidate in Steve Palumbi’s lab at Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station. Nia has been interested in marine science since doing a fourth grade squid dissection. Nia’s love of marine science continued on through college and a gap year working at the Maritime Aquarium in Connecticut, and now she studies stress tolerance in corals in Palau.
Some of things we talk about in this episode include how to identify a good mentorship network, the importance of prioritizing your own well-being, how being the first Black graduate student at Hopkins has influenced Nia’s experiences in grad school, and how creating one’s own definition of success can help us not compare ourselves to others as much, and thereby lead to greater satisfaction and more happiness.
“You are your own most important advocate – you’ve got to be on your own team.”
Rebecca Hwang is an electrical engineer working at Anello Photonics. Rebecca started at Stanford as an electrical engineering PhD student, but isn’t totally sure that a PhD is for her, which is something we talk about quite a bit in this episode. She got her masters and is currently taking a break from Stanford to get some experience working in industry and spend some time thinking about whether she wants to come back to finish her PhD.
In this episode we talk about how grad school isn’t all just about the research – you learn lots of soft skills along the way too. We also talk about how to reframe your perspective when facing tough situations and the fact that you can do anything you want as long as you’re willing to fail and get back up again.
For anyone out there wondering whether a PhD is for you, this episode will be especially useful as Rebecca is thinking through a lot of those things herself.
“Start early, pick your friends wisely, [and] identify mentors.”
Chris Perez is a fourth year graduate student in the NanoHeat Lab (PI Kenneth Goodson) in the Mechanical Engineering Department at Stanford University. Chris started his engineering journey many years ago, helping his dad fix things around the house, and when he realized he might want to pursue something like this as a career, he went to community college to take some classes to become an auto technician. While there, his professors saw all sorts of promise in him and encouraged him to go to UCLA for his bachelor’s degree. Chris excelled at UCLA as well, and was encouraged by his undergraduate research PI to pursue graduate school. Chris eventually made his way to Stanford, where he now studies nanoscale heat transfer. In this episode, we talk about the importance of community, the value of good mentorship, and how it’s super necessary to have some good self care practices in place as a PhD student.
Aurora Alvarez-Buylla is a fourth year graduate student in the Laboratory of Organismal Biology at Stanford University, studying how poison frogs take up toxins from their diet to become toxic themselves. In this episode, we talk with Aurora about how she transitioned from wanting to be an astronomer as a kid, to doing computer science in college at MIT, to eventually finding her way to pursuing a biology PhD at Stanford. We talk about how to figure out the difference between not liking something because you aren’t good at it and not liking something because you truly don’t enjoy it. Aurora is really passionate about using community building in order to make all students in her department feel welcomed and included, and in this episode she shares some of her unique insights into identity, inclusion, and diversity.
Mentioned in the episode:
Aurora is an HHMI Gilliam Fellow! Find out more about that here.
“This gives you a unique perspective as a scientist that’s actually really important…it’s not you overcoming these challenges, but more like you make science better.”
Billie Goolsby is a second year graduate student in the Laboratory of Organismal Biology at Stanford University, studying how poison frogs co-parent their offspring. Before going to college, Billie knew she enjoyed the open-ended question asking that science allowed, but wasn’t sure exactly what being a scientist looked like. In college, Billie participated in the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) program at Boston University and through that, found a lab studying neuroethology in ants. Billie’s love of understanding animal sociality and the neuroscience behind it has led her to where she is now, studying neuroethology in poison frogs. Billie is hard of hearing, and in this episode we talk about how this has impacted her experiences as a scientist, as well as how we can make science more inclusive and welcoming for people of all abilities. We also talk more broadly about how to talk about disability, and how to be a good advocate and ally for others.
“This was actually the second time I was going abroad for more than a week – the first time was that three month internship, the second time was interviews, which was a week long, and then the third time is living abroad for my PhD for 4, 5, 6 years.”
Eduardo Tassoni is a third year graduate student in the biology department at Stanford University, studying cellular stress mechanisms in Onn Brandman’s lab in the biochemistry department. Eduardo is from São Paulo, Brazil, and in this episode we talk about how this has influenced his trajectory as a scientist, and how being an international student impacts his experiences as a grad student in the US. Eduardo tells us about how difficult it can be to live so far away from family and friends, especially during this time of COVID-19, when there is lots of uncertainty about when he’ll be able to travel home again. Even with challenges like these, Eduardo encourages all international students who want to come to the US for grad school to apply, and to not feel like it is outside the realm of possibility. We also talk about how Eduardo got started doing research in his undergrad, and how simply being bold and asking for what he wanted has opened up lots of opportunities for him, including the internship that would ultimately start his journey to Stanford.
“Therapy is a tool that I use that actually helps me both feel better and excel at my work.”
Nora Moskowitz is a third year PhD candidate in the Laboratory of Organismal Biology at Stanford University, where she studies dietary preference in poison frogs. Nora is a huge proponent of mental wellbeing both in her department and in her lab, so in addition to hearing Nora’s story into science, we also spend a lot of this episode talking about mental health. Nora tells us about her experiences with mental health in grad school, including having to leave a field season early in order to prioritize her mental health. In this episode, Nora gives us a lot of really practical advice for how to maintain mental wellbeing in grad school, along with some recommendations that Principal Investigators (PIs) could implement in order to help their students.
“I think the other lesson I learned was that science needs good storytelling as part of it.”
Daniel Shaykevich is a third year graduate student in the biology department at Stanford University and a talented filmmaker who incorporates science into his art and art into his science. Daniel tells us about how he has gotten from his early stages of experimenting with plants in his bathtub to where he is now, studying the neurobiology of spatial navigation in cane toads as a PhD candidate at Stanford. He has had lots of fun along the way, including an internship at a Hollywood production company and lots of close encounters with all sorts of wildlife in the tropical rainforests of Ecuador and French Guiana. This conversation with Daniel reminds us all to take advantage of the tools and resources right around us to accomplish our goals, whether those goals are conducting experiments, making films, or anything else.
“It doesn’t matter what your background is or who your parents are or what the color of your skin is, you can do whatever it is you want to do.”
Magdalena (Maggie) Warren is a third year PhD student in the biology department at Stanford University, and also the co-host of this podcast! Maggie tells us the story of how she went from being a straight-A student in high school to failing classes in college, taking a few years off and working, then going back to school and getting her degree from Cal State Dominguez Hills. Now Maggie is at Stanford, studying the microbiota of honey bees as a graduate student in Tad Fukami’s lab. In this episode, Maggie talks about situations where she has been discouraged from pursuing her goals and the mentality that she has that helps her carry on despite those obstacles. We also discuss the importance of having mentors and advocates to help us advance in our educations and careers. Maggie is so full of amazing advice, so prepare for an episode full of inspiration and motivation.