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Denice Morán Ramirez on the edge of a career in STEM

Astronaut's Daughter
Recent college graduate and budding neuroscientist Denice is proof that change is constant but persistence brings your fate closer.
Show transcript
00:00
Hi, I'm Vanessa Hernandez.
00:01
Welcome to the last episode of this season's astronaut's
00:04
daughter.
00:04
Today I sit down with Denise More Ramirez who is a current researcher
00:09
and future neuroscientist.
00:11
We talk all about her experience in school, her passions that
00:15
led to this field and we talk about our moms and how influential
00:18
they are in our lives and it's really nice and I hope you enjoy
00:21
this episode.
00:40
Hi, Denise, welcome to astronauts daughter.
00:43
I'm so happy to have you on the podcast.
00:45
I'm gonna have you introduce yourself a little bit before
00:48
we get started.
00:49
Hey, thank you so much for having me.
00:51
So my name is Denise.
00:53
I am the daughter of two immigrant parents from Mexico.
00:56
My mom came over from Mexico when she was only 15 years old.
01:00
Um um So I was born and raised in New York.
01:02
I got interested in science pretty early when I was in middle
01:05
school, but I wasn't really, I didn't really know about research
01:08
Um I learned more about research once I got into college when
01:11
I transitioned from premed to um research.
01:14
So that's like another story.
01:16
That's awesome.
01:16
What's your main area of study?
01:18
In stem.
01:20
So currently my research is in neuroscience and Neuroscience
01:23
is where my interest really is just a study of the brain.
01:26
And there's different aspects of neuroscience.
01:28
I like like behavioral neuroscience, which I studied with
01:31
Stanford last summer.
01:32
Um and then also molecular neuroscience, which is just a study
01:36
of like the different cell types in the brain and in the eye
01:39
system, which is also part of the brain.
01:41
So yeah, that sounds so cool.
01:43
That sounds very complicated, especially since like our
01:46
brain literally is the powerhouse of like our entire being
01:51
I was tempted to say powerhouse of the cell because of the mitochondria
01:55
but it literally powers us.
01:57
So that's so cool that that is your like main field field of
02:00
study.
02:01
And I think it's really unique having you on the podcast because
02:04
you're you have so much to accomplish in your field.
02:09
And so we get you at like this really unique spot of where you
02:12
just finished school, you just graduated, you are undergrad
02:16
right?
02:17
And then you have all of these new plans to kind of continue
02:21
your education, continue your research.
02:23
So I'm really excited to just like talk about the very beginning
02:28
Like what inspired you from the very beginning to get into
02:32
studying, you know, all of these different things that have
02:35
to do with neuroscience.
02:37
Yeah.
02:37
Yeah.
02:38
It's definitely another transitionary period in my life
02:40
right now.
02:41
I just graduated and I'm hoping to apply to phd programs in
02:45
Neuroscience this coming cycle.
02:47
It really is a transitionary period for me right now.
02:50
Um And neuroscience, I didn't really get into it until I was
02:53
in college.
02:54
But science in general, I've just had different inspirations
02:57
Like throughout my life when I was in middle school, I took
02:59
an advanced regent or science course.
03:01
And my professor was like the definition of a wacky scientist
03:06
But in the best way, like he loved what he studied and he was
03:10
so passionate about it that it made us passionate about it
03:12
He liked Bill Nye the science guy.
03:14
Yes, but like the most respectful way, like bald but fun.
03:19
He was so fun.
03:20
Like his name was Dr Shout out to him, but he was like a really
03:23
good professor.
03:23
He was very involved with us and that was the first experience
03:27
I ever had in a lab.
03:28
He would take us to the lab.
03:29
Like that was the first time I ever used a microscope.
03:32
And so that was really my introduction to science.
03:35
And then after that, when I went to high school, I went to what
03:38
they call an international Baccalaureate school where you
03:41
take like world level classes.
03:42
So like the curriculum is uh matches the like the curriculum
03:46
around the world.
03:47
Um And so we had a biology class that was like, really it was
03:52
like IB biology.
03:53
You take it during your senior year if you wanted to be a bio
03:55
student.
03:55
That's the class you took.
03:57
Um and then the pre for that was a chemistry class and then your
04:00
chem teacher had to recommend you for that class.
04:03
So um I was really excited to get into IB biology and my chem
04:08
teacher actually didn't recommend me.
04:10
Um she said that she actually didn't think I was like, cut out
04:13
for it.
04:14
She said I was a little too.
04:15
You're kidding?
04:16
I remember you telling me a little bit before that you had one
04:20
teacher that just did not support this idea of you going into
04:24
science?
04:25
Why was that?
04:25
Did she have, like, did she see something in you that was like
04:29
oh, you're not doing well.
04:31
I don't think this is for you or did she just, like, not vibe
04:35
with you?
04:36
I mean, maybe she didn't vibe with me.
04:37
But also I think it was like, I was a high school student and
04:41
my best friend was taking that class.
04:43
So me and her would like, you know, kind of chat sometimes in
04:45
class, but we got good grades.
04:47
So, um, but I think that she thought that maybe I wasn't serious
04:51
enough.
04:52
Um, and I guess that's why she didn't recommend me when I did
04:55
ask her.
04:55
She just said like, something along the lines of like, I wasn't
04:58
cut out for the workload.
05:00
Um, even though I had done well in her class, I mean, I wasn't
05:03
like the top student, but I wasn't, like, doing bad either
05:06
Um, and yeah, that was pretty discouraging because that was
05:10
like a class you would take in your senior year and then having
05:12
that would cover like biology credits in college.
05:15
So it was like a really good transition.
05:17
It was important.
05:19
And so what did you do?
05:20
Did you did that?
05:22
I mean, you know, and you remember exactly what she said to
05:26
you, like, that's super discouraging.
05:27
But what did you do to like, pivot and be like, no, I'm still
05:30
going to do this or did you end up taking that class?
05:34
No, I honestly, now looking back, I should have definitely
05:37
got my parents involved.
05:39
Like I should have definitely had somebody come in like, you
05:41
know, like, because it kind of felt unfair.
05:43
I was doing well.
05:44
I didn't really see any other reason besides kind of like a
05:46
personal reason why I wasn't recommended.
05:48
But I, I just ended up going through my senior year.
05:50
I was like a little passive about it.
05:52
I was like, ok, I guess I'm not gonna go to IB bio and then my senior
05:55
year, I was hoping that I would eventually like, figure out
05:58
what I wanted to do in college.
06:00
Um If science wasn't gonna be it without IB biology, I felt
06:03
that I wasn't gonna be able to get into a biology program in
06:06
undergrad.
06:07
So I thought that maybe my senior year, I would just like discover
06:10
something and my senior year came and it was time to start applying
06:14
to college and I was like, I still want to do science.
06:17
I haven't found anything else that I'm really interested
06:20
in.
06:20
Um And I think that I can do this and also a little bit also stemmed
06:24
from just that idea in our head where our parents tell us, like
06:26
you know, you kind of have to, it's only lawyer doctor, like
06:29
actor or something like that.
06:30
So I was like, ok, well, I know I like science and maybe I can
06:34
become a doctor.
06:35
So this is the path I want to pursue.
06:37
And so I kind of just like whatever my teacher said the previous
06:41
year, I just kind of let it go and I was like, I'm gonna apply
06:43
anyway.
06:44
Yeah.
06:44
So I applied to biology programs anyway.
06:47
Like, they had advised a bunch of seniors, like, you know,
06:49
if you can't decide, apply undecided.
06:52
Um, and not that anybody told me that.
06:55
Exactly.
06:55
But I kind of felt like they wanted most of us to apply undecided
06:58
just to keep our options open.
07:00
But I felt like I knew like I was like, I want to get into biology
07:03
program.
07:03
I know that when you select your major before you get in, it's
07:06
a little harder to get into those schools.
07:08
But I did it anyway.
07:09
I was like, no, I'm gonna, I know what I wanna do.
07:11
I know I wanna be a bio major.
07:13
So I applied as a biology major to all these different schools
07:16
and, um, like city college accepted me as a biology major.
07:20
And I remember finding out and just crying so much that my mom
07:24
couldn't even get a word out of me.
07:25
She's like, what's wrong?
07:26
Are you?
07:26
Ok.
07:27
She thinks the worst thing in the world ever happened.
07:29
And you're in shambles, you was into a program.
07:34
That's, yeah, I had gotten in as a biology major.
07:36
They accepted me into their, um, it was thinking it's like
07:39
the biology and the arts program that they have at City College
07:43
And that's really what set it off for me.
07:45
Like, I was like, if City college saw my, like, like, you know
07:48
they saw my essay, they saw my grades and, like, they think
07:51
that I'm a good candidate for this program, I must be, you know
07:54
and so that really just, like, set it off for me and when I went
07:57
into college, that's like, what I, like, knew I wanted to study
08:00
I wanted to study biology.
08:02
And, um, I mean, I told you right about, like, the whole premed
08:05
thing.
08:05
I was pre-med and then I wasn't, do you want to talk about that
08:08
a little bit and kind of let people know, like, what track you
08:11
were on?
08:12
So you want, you thought, ok, premed, that is a good option
08:15
a safe option, you know, like you think of, like, the top jobs
08:19
lawyer doctor.
08:21
Um, you know, things like that, what changed, what made you
08:25
kind of pivot a little bit.
08:27
Yeah.
08:27
So, I got into city college.
08:29
I was in the biology program.
08:31
Um, they have a premed program and you have to apply to be part
08:35
of the program.
08:36
Um, and you apply, like, your second semester, freshman year
08:39
So, I was, like, already, like, a one semester into college
08:41
and I was like, ok, well, I'm gonna apply for the premed program
08:44
Like I wanna do premed and like, you know, that was what I really
08:47
thought was my kind of only option.
08:49
Um My mother never told me like, you have to become this.
08:53
Like she was never one to say, do this.
08:55
Like she always said, do what makes you happy but just like
08:58
do it well, so I never felt pressured to go into it by anybody
09:02
but really just myself.
09:03
Like I was like, ok, well, now that I'm studying science, I
09:05
know I like science, which means I must like premed, like that
09:08
must be the next step for me.
09:10
Um I was just kind of thinking about it like logically like
09:12
what's the next step?
09:13
So I applied to the premed program.
09:15
I got into the premed program and then my first meeting with
09:18
the pre-med advisor, she was like the sweetest woman, like
09:20
I still speak to her now and she had told me, ok, this is what
09:24
you need you need clinical hours, you need this, you need that
09:26
you need to go to a hospital.
09:28
And I was just kind of like, ok, like, whoa, that's a lot right
09:32
back up.
09:34
And so I did try to go to a hospital and volunteer and it ended
09:39
up falling through.
09:40
It was way too far and I just wasn't feeling that passion.
09:43
Like what I was learning in my classes, like the science I was
09:46
doing in my classes was really interesting to me and then the
09:50
premed portion of it wasn't really interesting to me.
09:52
So, like, I wasn't into it.
09:54
Like I saw the other students, like we would have like these
09:56
premed seminars where all the premed kids would be there and
09:58
I would see their energy towards their clinical, like towards
10:01
their volunteer at the hospitals and they just seemed so passionate
10:05
about that.
10:06
I just couldn't relate and I felt like, really discouraged
10:10
again, like, man, maybe I made the wrong decision again.
10:13
Like, maybe this isn't for me.
10:15
And so I was like, really in a crossroads about like, what I
10:19
was going to do with my life.
10:20
Did you ever feel like, because you were starting your junior
10:24
year?
10:25
You're like, oh, I'm already this, yeah, this much in, into
10:29
my college education.
10:30
Like it's too late.
10:31
Like I'm just gonna grind or where you're like, no, this is
10:35
important.
10:36
Like, I really don't feel connected with this field.
10:39
Like I need to figure out something else.
10:42
I was definitely, like, on the sense of, like, I have, I might
10:45
have to stay here and, like, see it through.
10:47
And then I had a lot of worry because I would see the other premed
10:50
kids at the same stage as I was.
10:51
And they had already worked at like, two hospitals and they
10:53
had a job as a scribe and I hadn't done any of that stuff.
10:56
So I was like, in a point where I was like, OK, I've done it this
10:59
long, but also I haven't done that much towards it.
11:02
So maybe like there is some sort of place I can like another
11:06
route I can find, but I didn't know what that rot was gonna be
11:10
And so I always really say that it was like fate what happened
11:13
So one day I walked into my biology two class and my professor
11:18
used to put up announcements um at the beginning of class,
11:21
just announcements that were going around the biology department
11:23
And so one of the announcements was a posting looking for um
11:27
freshmen.
11:27
Actually, they were looking for freshmen to join a lab to do
11:31
research with the lab, but also do an outreach program with
11:34
middle schools.
11:35
So um they would go to middle schools and do experiments with
11:38
them and this was all detailed on the flyer.
11:39
And I remember looking at it and being like, oh, I wanna do that
11:42
like, I wanna apply to that.
11:44
I love that.
11:45
You're like, I'm going to ignore it.
11:47
I may be a sophomore but I'm still going to apply because what's
11:50
the worst they can do is say no.
11:51
Right.
11:52
And they didn't say no saying yes to you.
11:55
Right.
11:56
Yeah.
11:56
It was a second semester.
11:57
Sophomore.
11:58
I typed out my application that night.
12:00
I put, I put so much effort into it because I was just, like,
12:03
really excited And I kind of felt like this is, this could be
12:07
my next move.
12:07
Who knows?
12:08
So I applied and they interviewed like 20 something students
12:12
and they chose three and I was one of them and, and I was like
12:17
oh, that moment in my life was such a pivotal moment.
12:21
Like when I got accepted, I was like, OK, this is, this is a legit
12:26
like research institution.
12:27
They told me like, you're going to be getting your own pass
12:29
to swipe in like, this is like a state of the art lab.
12:33
Like, it wasn't just like a lab that I had seen in class.
12:36
Like this was a real research lab that I was going to be a part
12:39
of.
12:39
And I was gonna be working with like research students and
12:42
like a, like a doctor who was like a doctor of research.
12:45
And so I um I got accepted in the spring, I started in the fall
12:50
and during the fall, we did, I did research where I worked under
12:54
a mentor who was a grad student and I worked on a project with
12:57
her.
12:58
And then in the following spring, we did the middle school
13:01
outreach.
13:02
Um and that middle school outreach is what really like, like
13:04
change, like my perspective on what science could be and what
13:07
learned like being a student of science could be.
13:10
Can you like, give me a little bit of like information inside
13:14
of like one of the projects that you worked on or maybe something
13:17
in the very beginning before you like got your own projects
13:20
Just so I understand like what this whole thing in the lab is
13:25
about as you know, I know nothing, of course.
13:29
So I want to tell you about my first project, but it's been a
13:32
little while.
13:33
So I don't want to give any wrong details.
13:35
So I can tell you what my project that I'm doing now.
13:37
It's still with the same lab.
13:39
Um So I'll just give you a little background on the lab itself
13:42
So Dr Emerson's lab works on basically like the cell types
13:46
in the retina.
13:46
So our retina has seven different cell types and all these
13:50
cell types derive from one cell type called the multipotent
13:53
progenitor cell.
13:55
So it's like kind of like a stem cell.
13:56
So it's just this pool of like all the same cells and then just
14:00
over time or like as through development, they differentiate
14:04
into these different specialized cell types of the seven
14:06
different cell types.
14:07
What's really cool is like, they become specialized and they
14:10
differentiate, but they're all the same cell type when they're
14:13
born right at the beginning.
14:15
And so we study the mechanisms of how these seven different
14:18
cell types.
14:19
Um so that if we can learn how to or we can learn the pathway for
14:26
a specific cell type, maybe we can recreate that cell type
14:29
Um And we can help people who have like retinal degenerative
14:31
diseases who who may have like not, may not have all the cell
14:35
types.
14:35
So therefore, like they have vision imperative and stuff
14:38
like that and like they have problems with vision acuity.
14:40
If we can learn how to re generate those cells through gene
14:46
therapy, maybe we can fix those retinal degenerative diseases
14:50
And so that's what the lab focuses on.
14:53
Um And so everybody has like different projects involved
14:55
with that.
14:56
And so, for example, my project right now is on transcription
15:00
factor binding sites and there are sequences of DNA that are
15:04
next to the genes that they regulate.
15:06
And so basically, they sequences of DNA that attract different
15:10
proteins that allow them to transcribe and regulate the genes
15:14
they're next to.
15:15
I know it's like a lot of stuff me following.
15:18
Yeah.
15:18
OK.
15:18
But basically, um my study focuses on how transcription factor
15:23
binding sites are different in vitro versus in vivo.
15:27
And so what that means is that in vitro is in the lab and in vivo
15:30
is like living.
15:32
Um So in vitro, they notice that these transcription factor
15:36
binding sites that are made up of different base pairs like
15:39
a TGC, right?
15:40
Like our DNA is all made up of four different base pairs.
15:42
A TGC.
15:43
And in vitro, what they've seen is that these base pairs can
15:48
change letters and still attract the same protein.
15:52
But when we look in vivo, when we look in like animals, and we
15:55
look at their DNA sequences, we don't see those changes.
15:57
Like we don't see the all these different possibilities of
16:00
sequences, we just see one conserved sequence that keeps
16:03
popping up and popping up and popping up and popping up.
16:05
So what my project focuses on is well, why like why don't we
16:10
see all these different possibilities?
16:12
I mean, technically what the lab is showing us in vitro, what
16:15
we're seeing when we do these studies in the lab is that that
16:18
protein would still come and the gene activity would still
16:21
be the same even if you change a few of those base pairs or one
16:24
of those base pairs.
16:25
So how come in the actual animal?
16:27
We don't see these different base pairs taking their place
16:31
right?
16:31
If it doesn't change activity, then why is it not happening
16:34
You know, why is there this conserved sequence?
16:36
Why is it the same exact sequence across multiple species
16:39
Like we, we looked at a lot of species and we saw that it was the
16:43
same, the same sequence.
16:45
And so what we wanna test is whether maybe those specific base
16:49
pairs have a job like, do they have a function like?
16:52
Is that specific sequence in that specific order due to its
16:56
functionality?
16:57
Like not only does it attract the protein, but is there an importance
17:01
in that, that specific nucleotide not changing?
17:04
So, um we do a lot of wet lab experiments where we test like DNA
17:09
um and we mutate DNA sequences and then we put them into like
17:13
chick retina.
17:14
So like our model organism is a chick.
17:17
So we'll change base pairs like in the lab, like we'll like
17:20
be able to design the new sequence, um like mutate the sequence
17:26
and then insert it into a chick retina and then test the activity
17:30
to see if it's actually still driving the same activity, less
17:34
activity and more activity.
17:36
And then that can tell us about its functionality.
17:38
Like does that sequence up the functionality, does it lessen
17:42
the functionality or does the functionality stay the same
17:44
That is really interesting.
17:45
And I, I feel like a lot of hard work goes into that.
17:49
How long have you been working on that specific project?
17:52
So um this specific project I've been doing probably for over
17:56
a year now, but I have taken breaks in between.
17:59
So um just like due to personal reasons, so it hasn't been moving
18:03
along as fast as I'd like it to.
18:04
But honestly, in science projects can go from like couple
18:08
of weeks to like a couple of months.
18:10
Sometimes something may work one week and the next week you
18:13
do the same exact process and it just suddenly doesn't work
18:16
Like I'm trying to think about me back in like middle school
18:19
science class.
18:20
I'm doing an experiment.
18:22
I'm in the lab and I see a result and like, honestly, that feeling
18:26
is really good.
18:27
It's like an exciting thrilling feeling.
18:30
Do you feel like that?
18:32
Because I know a lot people kind of like stray from research
18:35
or stray from like being in the lab because they may kind of
18:38
think it's boring.
18:40
They don't really know what's going on on the inside before
18:43
they try it.
18:44
What is it like from your perspective?
18:46
Like, do you get that excitement?
18:48
So you definitely have to be passionate about the project
18:51
first in order to really feel that excitement because if you're
18:54
not passionate about the project, any results won't really
18:56
mean much to you.
18:57
Um But like, personally, I have been working with my lab for
19:01
for a long time.
19:02
I'm really passionate in what we do and when I get the results
19:05
that I'm expecting, oh my God.
19:07
It's like I can't wait to show my P I like what I got.
19:10
Um And I've always had pretty good luck.
19:12
My experiments have always gone pretty well.
19:14
Um But just, you also have to learn to just deal with failure
19:18
It's like, sometimes you're not going to get at all what you
19:20
have and your week's worth of work is basically, like, trashed
19:24
kind of like, I just spent this whole week working on this
19:26
DNA and my colonies didn't grow or something like that.
19:31
And so you could kind of lose a whole weeks of work.
19:33
So you really have to learn to just keep it pushing, just be
19:36
like, OK, you know what, it didn't work, going to meet with
19:39
my P I, I'm going to tweak some things and I'm just going to figure
19:41
it out, figure it out and keep a step off.
19:43
But it's really exciting like when you do get what you expect
19:46
oh my God.
19:47
It's like a rush like, oh my God, yay.
19:49
It's so cool.
19:50
It feels like a little accomplishment.
19:51
It's the little goals, you know?
19:53
Awesome.
19:54
So you're passionate about lab work research.
19:57
I know you're also passionate about outreach to kids and,
20:02
and sharing, you know, what it means to be in the stem field
20:06
Can you talk a little bit about that and what you do for that
20:09
outreach?
20:10
Yeah.
20:10
So I started outreach with Dr Emerson's lab through like joining
20:15
his lab.
20:16
Um He actually had gotten a grant um and this grant allowed
20:20
us to go to middle schools and do outreach with students.
20:24
So it was like a couple of weeks and it was three different middle
20:27
schools and we would go teach them about like what DNA is and
20:30
then we would allow them to actually do uh DNA extractions
20:34
from fruit.
20:35
So they would take strawberries and bananas and mash them
20:38
up and extract the DNA and then actually visualize the DNA
20:42
in the tube.
20:43
Um And that, when I started that it was like, really eye opening
20:48
to see that there was a lot of kids who didn't really know what
20:51
a scientist could look like or the scientists could be, you
20:54
know, they knew scientists were coming to their classroom
20:57
But then when they walked in and saw, you know, three young
21:00
girls, two of them being girls of color, I think it really did
21:03
like, struck them differently because these were schools
21:06
from underrepresented communities.
21:07
So these were a lot of black and brown students who were in the
21:10
school and a lot of them are from either Harlem Queens or Brooklyn
21:13
Those were the three schools we went to.
21:15
Um and a lot of them just had never seen a scientist who looked
21:20
like that.
21:20
And so I could see how much more engaged they were when we were
21:23
working one on one with them.
21:24
And they would ask me stuff like, oh my God or they would say
21:27
things like I love your shoes, which Jordans are those, you
21:30
know, and it made them more interested in what we were learning
21:34
and it made them want to ask more questions, not just about
21:36
what we were doing, but like about me, like they were asking
21:39
questions about me like, oh, they were like, what grade are
21:41
you in?
21:42
Like, they just wanted to know more about me and I knew that
21:44
it was because they saw me standing up there teaching them
21:47
But like I was saying before I saw you as a person first and then
21:51
be like, oh, she does science, I'm interested.
21:54
And like I was telling you before they were like, oh my gosh
21:56
she could be my cousin like something like that.
21:59
And so that really showed me that more students needed this
22:03
and more students needed to see that there was people in stem
22:08
who looked like them then that they could eventually do that
22:11
too if they wanted to, you know, if they were interested in
22:13
that they could follow path and do this as well.
22:15
After we did that for about three weeks to about a month, the
22:19
out portion was done, I went back to the lab and continued my
22:22
research.
22:22
But that really stuck with me.
22:24
And I really from there realized that I wanted to do something
22:27
like that myself.
22:28
Like I wanted to also go to schools or even in my community,
22:33
like back home, I wanted to have a program at the library to
22:37
do experiments with students at the library.
22:39
And so that was my idea.
22:41
Um and the following summer I think was the summer of 2020 that
22:46
was the summer that I had put in an application to get a summer
22:49
program, but obviously nobody could leave.
22:51
And so that kind of got put on the back burner.
22:54
But my plan was to start an outreach program in my hometown
23:00
at the library.
23:01
Like an after school program.
23:02
Have students come from like the ages of like like middle school
23:06
to like early high school.
23:07
Have them come do fun experiment.
23:10
Now, like two years later, I submitted an application again
23:13
So hopefully now I can get that going.
23:16
And um I, I just, it's so important, especially where I'm from
23:19
There's a lot of Latinos and when I was in middle school, there
23:23
was only like maybe my middle school had like one science program
23:26
after school.
23:27
But like, I don't really remember it being anything more than
23:31
like homework help, like science, homework help.
23:33
Um And so I really wanted to bring to my hometown and I want to
23:37
bring to my hometown, like fun experiments to do after school
23:41
Um That can just get students interested and then also connect
23:44
it back to like actual research.
23:45
So that was like one thing that I wanted to like be different
23:48
about my program with like other like science programs that
23:51
exist, like not just a fun aspect of it, but how can, how does
23:54
it connect to research that's actually going on?
23:57
Um And then show students like this is the research associated
24:00
to what we just did and if you're interested in this, you can
24:03
research it too.
24:04
So that's something that I, I like passionate about.
24:07
But because I couldn't do the summer program that summer,
24:12
that's when I really started the scientists and that's when
24:16
I really, like, switched up my page to like, encompass like
24:19
my science identity.
24:20
That's awesome.
24:21
Well, first off, I wanna say, I think it's such a great idea
24:24
that you're starting outreach again and that hopefully it
24:26
like picks up and you get it going.
24:28
And I love that you're connecting it to research because those
24:31
are two things that you're very, very passionate about.
24:34
It's so amazing that when you started that outreach and you
24:38
were going to these um classes and talking to these students
24:41
and they saw something in you and they lit up and got excited
24:46
and not only was interested in science but interested in you
24:48
as a person, it just reminds me how important it is to like show
24:54
up in our fields no matter what field that is because it's like
25:00
I don't know, you're giving back and you feel this responsibility
25:05
of like, you know, like you said, when you were in school, you
25:08
don't really remember any science programs that were anything
25:13
more than like homework help.
25:15
And I look back at my elementary middle school, I don't think
25:19
I ever had any programs like that either.
25:22
So it's really cool that like now it's like, ok, what's missing
25:26
and how can I fill that and help that?
25:29
So I think that's awesome and moving towards like in what other
25:33
ways are you, you know, sharing your story, sharing your voice
25:37
kind of giving an insight on your day to day life as you know
25:41
you and you started an Instagram page called D the scientist
25:46
Can you tell me about that?
25:48
What do you share, what do you like talking about?
25:51
I stalked your Instagram and I've already seen all of it but
25:54
like tell us a little bit more.
25:56
Yeah.
25:56
So d scientist was actually just my regular Instagram before
26:00
It was like, Denise M and I wanted to start a science page because
26:05
I had like, you know, done my research with Dr Emerson.
26:09
I had done the outreach and I wanted to then share this with
26:12
my, with my peers and with the people who I had on Instagram
26:16
And so I told a couple of my friends, like I want to start a science
26:18
page and one of my old friends gave me some good advice.
26:21
She was like, well, like why start a separate page when this
26:26
is just a part of you?
26:27
Like this isn't, this isn't a separation of who you are.
26:31
This is just a part of, of your individuality.
26:34
So why start a separate page?
26:36
Why don't you just just like me?
26:38
Yeah.
26:39
So I was like, OK, I'll do that.
26:41
And so I started to post science stuff and then around the same
26:45
time I changed my name to the scientists.
26:47
Like a little play on my name, my name is Denise.
26:50
So the scientist um and I would just, my first post was just
26:55
let people know about my research.
26:57
I also posted one where it was like me in front of my research
27:00
lab.
27:00
And I was like, hey MTV Cribs, welcome to my lab and just stuff
27:05
like that showing people like what I was doing little by little
27:08
um like just like sharing my research and sharing my experience
27:12
And then it turned into sharing videos of me doing science
27:15
experiments, like especially during the pandemic when I
27:17
was just home, I was like buying these funny little kits and
27:21
I would upload videos of me doing those little kid videos.
27:25
No, I love that because I saw this video of you unboxing a microscope
27:30
and you're like, honestly, this is for kids, but I'm still
27:33
scientists and I'm going to do that.
27:34
And it's, it's fun because it's, it also encourages people
27:39
who aren't in science that it's OK to explore like these things
27:44
and, and play with these kits and explore what it means to get
27:48
involved in science.
27:50
And I just thought it was really cool because I saw that video
27:53
and I was like, wait, I want one, I want, I wanna be a scientist
27:59
right?
27:59
No, I love, I, I love those toys.
28:02
They, I find them all the time.
28:04
In the kids section, but you can't play with them.
28:06
I'm healing my inner child, healing your inner child.
28:09
And I just, I love the way that social media plays a part in just
28:13
you furthering, communicating what you're doing and what
28:16
you're up to and kind of making it more human and more accessible
28:21
because I think science as a whole is a very daunting, very
28:26
intimidating subject for some young people who know nothing
28:31
about it.
28:31
And then you get those teachers, you get those professors
28:34
who are like, well, I don't know if this is for you and as a young
28:37
impressionable person, some people listen to those voices
28:42
and walk away, walk away on my page.
28:44
Like it's also not just science stuff.
28:46
Like I like to also just share my life like what I'm doing like
28:49
a Saturday night with my friends or like a vacation with my
28:53
boyfriend, like things like that to humanize, you know, that
28:57
I am also still living my life.
28:59
And then I'm also doing research and I'm also progressing
29:02
myself as a scientist.
29:04
And I think that's a really important point to see like that
29:08
crossover between reality.
29:10
Like yes, I'm a boss.
29:11
I'm working, I'm grinding.
29:15
I am doing all of these things to further my career.
29:18
But I also know how to have fun and I know how to live my life in
29:21
the way that I feel comfortable and confident.
29:25
And I think that's so cool Yeah.
29:26
Yeah.
29:27
So I really try to, like, find some duality and that like sharing
29:31
who I am, but also sharing like, you know, my career path with
29:35
my followers and I always try to be really transparent about
29:38
like, even just what I'm going through.
29:39
Like, I was like, um yeah, my last semester, I actually don't
29:42
think I like told you this.
29:43
I wasn't able like, just like mentally to sit down in a, like
29:48
at a computer and do my work because I had already been so accustomed
29:51
to like, being a hands on learner, being there active in class
29:54
taking my notes in front of the professor asking my questions
29:57
Like, and so being that all school went online, my senior year
30:01
my last semester was so difficult for me.
30:03
I just couldn't find the focus to just sit there and like, finish
30:08
the semester.
30:08
So I actually had to ask for a, um, a, like an extension kind
30:13
of for two classes.
30:15
And I wasn't able to finish until the following spring.
30:18
And I only say this to really, like, show that, like sometimes
30:22
like, you might seem like, oh, you know, like I graduated
30:25
I had a high GP and all these things, but I still had moments
30:28
where I felt like I couldn't even finish.
30:30
Uh just because of how, like, overwhelmed I was and like, the
30:33
pandemic was really affecting me.
30:35
Like my grandma got really, really sick.
30:37
Um, she was in the hospital, luckily, you know, she made it
30:40
out and she's back home with us now.
30:42
But like, all that stuff was so mentally heavy that I couldn't
30:46
even focus on my classes.
30:47
And I had to ask for incompletes and I had to, during my last
30:51
semester and I had to ask for time to finish those assignments
30:55
those last final assignments.
30:57
Um, and again, just to say that, like, this is all part of my
31:00
journey.
31:00
And I tell my students is to like, now that I'm a ta I tell my students
31:04
like, setbacks are normal.
31:06
Like you can be, you can like see someone and think like, oh
31:09
my God, that person has it all.
31:10
You don't know, know what setbacks they've been through.
31:12
And so I always share my setbacks with them because I have students
31:15
who are like, Denise, how do you remember all this stuff or
31:17
like, and it's just like, you know, it might seem like I know
31:21
like all this science stuff, but I've also had moments where
31:24
I have felt doubtful or moments where like, I honestly just
31:27
couldn't like.
31:28
So that was also like a really, really challenging time for
31:32
me.
31:32
Um And then I was able to finish the following spring and that
31:35
was the the the year I graduated.
31:37
So I graduated spring 2021 but I text finished fall 2020.
31:42
Um But because I completed them officially the spring, that's
31:46
why I graduated just like recently but awesome.
31:49
Yeah.
31:49
And that's a hard thing to do, right?
31:51
It's like recognize, OK, I'm not doing so well right now.
31:55
What can I do to ask for help to know that I will make it on the
32:00
other side because right, it's ok to have those moments of
32:05
ok, not everything is going well for me right now, but it doesn't
32:09
mean I'm like giving up or that I'm a failure.
32:13
I it's ok to ask for help.
32:16
It's ok to ask for extensions, it's ok to ask for extra support
32:20
and extra time.
32:22
I feel like we put so much pressure on ourselves, especially
32:26
because college there's a set time frame of when you're supposed
32:30
to start and when you're supposed to finish and if you don't
32:34
finish within that time frame, it's like looked down upon
32:37
and that's so upsetting because it makes people stressed
32:42
It makes people make decisions quicker than they're comfortable
32:46
with.
32:47
And, and because of that, they feel like failures if they fail
32:51
a class or if they need extra time.
32:53
But this is such a prime example of like, you know what it's
32:56
ok to ask for that help.
32:58
It's ok to have extra time because even though we have the standard
33:02
it really should, you really should just like do things on
33:05
your own timetable, what you're comfortable with, what you're
33:08
able to handle on your plate and it's ok to take things off of
33:13
it too.
33:14
Yeah.
33:14
Yeah, definitely.
33:15
I actually finished in five years and, like, now again with
33:19
my students or even, like, my boyfriend has younger siblings
33:22
who are in college or about to enter college.
33:25
And I think that sometimes they feel like they have to take
33:28
18 credits to finish in four years and I try to stress to them
33:32
so much.
33:33
Like you don't need to over pack yourself like that because
33:37
spreading yourself thin actually causes you to perform.
33:42
Like, not as well as you would have if you would have just given
33:45
yourself that space to take less classes.
33:47
I never took more than 15 credits.
33:49
Like I always took 12 at most 15.
33:52
Um I never had more than like three, maybe four classes and
33:56
the fourth would always just be a lab.
33:57
So it was like an extension of a class.
33:59
So really no more than like three classes I took at a time.
34:02
And even though it took me like four years and I even took one
34:04
summer class that was so much more beneficial for me, I was
34:09
able to focus in my time and like ace all these science classes
34:13
and I've seen like even peers that I was going to school with
34:16
who were like, going along that journey with me and the biology
34:19
major who would bombard themselves with like two chemistry
34:22
classes, two biology classes and a lab.
34:24
And then like, they just couldn't handle it.
34:27
And like, anybody doing that would not be able to handle.
34:30
I know if I was in that position, I would not be able to handle
34:32
that.
34:33
And so like, I always try to tell my students and like, just
34:36
like my younger cousins or my boyfriends, younger siblings
34:38
like take less credits, like, do yourself a favor and focus
34:43
in on those few classes instead of trying to force yourself
34:46
to finish on time.
34:47
There is no on time and that's why I love phd programs like there's
34:51
no timeline.
34:52
Like you need five years, you need seven years you take Oh my
34:55
gosh.
34:56
Yeah, I know you have plans to do that.
34:59
Does it make you nervous?
35:00
Are you excited?
35:01
Like what are your future plans with your education?
35:04
Yeah.
35:04
So I want to apply to a phd in Neuroscience programs.
35:08
Um Most of the schools I want to apply to are in New York, but
35:12
I do want to apply to Stanford here in California.
35:14
Apply.
35:15
Um I did research with Stanford last summer as an Amgen scholar
35:20
Um It was supposed to be here in California, but again, they
35:23
were still like kind of on pandemic time.
35:24
So it was virtual.
35:26
But the research they did or the research I was able to do with
35:28
them was with Dr Jain's lab and it was in behavioral science
35:33
So the research I do now and the research of my previous background
35:36
before I did Stanford was Molecular Neuroscience.
35:38
So I was looking at different cell types, just really like
35:41
small molecular science um which is also super awesome, but
35:46
this was like kind of like a pivot so still neuroscience, but
35:49
it was like behavioral neuroscience.
35:51
So um it was really cool, we studied a specific region in the
35:55
brain called the BNST.
35:56
And it's where an and addiction is regulated.
36:01
And so we basically studied um how mice responded to stressors
36:06
and reward depending on like changing features of this part
36:11
of the brain.
36:12
So like there was one cell type called tack one and we ablated
36:15
it, which means like you kind of like surgically like kill
36:18
that cell type in the mice.
36:20
And then, so we like they like did surgery on them and then they
36:23
put them in these cages and then on one side, it's like an empty
36:28
like an empty little just space and then on the other side
36:31
it's either a reward or a stressor.
36:34
And so the stressor was like predator smell and then the reward
36:38
was like um like a female mouse.
36:40
So then we would test to see if the mice, after we ablated, this
36:44
part of the brain would approach or avoid more or less depending
36:49
So like if on the stress, it's obviously going to avoid it.
36:52
But once we ablate this part of the brain, is it going to maybe
36:55
approach it?
36:56
Does it change the way that it approaches these situations
37:00
Um And it was really cool, it also like had to do with addiction
37:05
Um And so I think like, that was really awesome, especially
37:08
coming from, yeah, and coming from the Mexican community
37:11
I think addiction is something that people don't really
37:13
talk about, especially like alcohol addiction.
37:15
It's like a really, it's a big problem.
37:18
And so I really felt like I could relate to that project, like
37:22
in that sense of like the community I was coming from, I know
37:24
struggles with addiction and knowing what part of the brain
37:27
it comes from, like anxiety, addiction.
37:30
Um All these things are from this one brain region that I was
37:33
studying.
37:34
I just really made that connection.
37:35
And so it Stanford like now has a special place in my heart.
37:39
So I want to apply to New York schools, but Stanford is so cool
37:42
Well, good luck.
37:43
I'm putting good vibes out there for you, manifesting this
37:47
for you.
37:47
Thank you again.
37:48
And I look forward to seeing what you do next.
37:51
Thank you.
37:51
Thank you so much for having me.
37:57
I never know how to end.