For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to be a doctor. The road has not been easy, but I am proud to say I am months away from achieving that dream. I grew up in a small country, Venezuela, which is towards the Northern part of South America. Despite the socioeconomic and political crises that my country has faced over the last decades, I was able to receive an education and graduate high school. More importantly though, I was able to find my passion early on in life. I remember sitting in my 6th-grade Biology class, completely amazed by every concept I learned and, lucky for me, that feeling has never gone away. My Science teachers always sparked my curiosity, encouraged me to question things around me and inspired me to want to learn more. Before I even started high school, I knew I wanted to work in healthcare and contribute, in some way, to the wellbeing of others. At the same time though, I have always wanted to study Biology and eventually become a professor.
I have always thought that it is important to be exposed to the field you want to pursue. It allows you to get a sense of how things actually work, the skillsets required and whether you are actually passionate about it. In high school, I volunteered with the Venezuelan Red Cross and was exposed to a side of healthcare I didn’t know much about. The increasing food, medicine and basic necessity shortages in Venezuela posed a challenge for healthcare providers, who often had to do their best to provide care with the resources and tools they had access to. Through this volunteering experience, I met some incredibly passionate students and healthcare professionals. I learned that regardless of the field you go into, you will have ups and downs and you will face some challenges, but passion and enthusiasm is key to truly help you thrive.
After finishing high school, I moved to Canada to pursue postsecondary education. My family did not move with me right away, so I spent my first couple years in Canada without them. I started my academic career in 2012 at Ontario Tech University. At this point, I was still interested in going to medical school and, in order to do that, I had to complete a 4-year undergraduate degree first. I ended up majoring in Biological Sciences, which I had always been passionate about. Despite my excitement, I experienced a lot of culture shock during my first year in Canada. As many international students, I had a hard time adapting and getting used to the educational system and culture. It seemed like others were always able to cope better than I could, and I started doubting my ability to thrive at the university. Luckily, I decided to reach out for support and connecting with a group of senior international students. An important lesson that I have learned is that although sometimes it feels like we are alone, there are always people out there who have experienced similar challenges and who are willing to support us as we navigate our own. With a lot of support, I was able to thrive and succeed academically. I faced many challenges along the way, including being diagnosed with a chronic pain conditions called trigeminal neuralgia back in 2015, but I was lucky to be able to always turn to my support system to help encourage and empower me.
Against all odds, I graduated with Bachelor of Science in Biological Science, with a Minor in Chemistry, at Ontario Tech University in 2016. I also had the opportunity to complete an undergraduate thesis project in the field of Chemical Biology. I had never considered scientific research as a career option, as I was more interested in going to medical school at the time. However, this experience showed me that there are many ways to contribute to the healthcare industry, other than becoming a medical doctor, and it inspired me to pursue graduate studies in this field. I started a MSc degree in the Fall of 2016, investigating new ways to deliver nucleic acid therapeutics to cancer cells. In 2018, I transferred from the MSc to the PhD program and am now getting ready to graduate this summer. It turns out I will end up being a doctor after all. For now, I am focusing on creating content for my STEM and education website and blog called STEMthusiast.net! Here, I share academic resources and tools for current and future STEM students, and I also document part of my academic journey.
I’ve learned many great lessons throughout my journey that I want to share with you today. First, do not compare your story to someone else's highlight reel. In our society, we are often pushed to compare ourselves to others. It is easy to look at people and their accomplishments and think that they are smarter or more competent that us, and this can lead to a lot of self doubt and insecurities. Keep in mind that people often share the best version of themselves and do not often talk about the daily challenges they face. Do not let yourself think that your struggles make you less worthy or capable of success. We all start somewhere.
Second, you do not have to be “smart” to pursue a career in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). We often think that scientists and engineers are inherently smart, but that is certainly not the case. If we knew everything, there would be no point in doing more scientific research. That is the exciting part; there is always more to know and learn! When I started my PhD, I had limited knowledge of Organic Chemistry even though most of my research involved exactly that. You may be wondering why I decided to pursue graduate studies in this field then. The answer is that I got a great opportunity to learn something new, and I was really interested in the topic despite not having much experience with it. Sometimes you just have to say ‘yes’ to opportunity and learn as you go. Being open to studying challenging topics has led to a deep fascination in my work. I see limitless potential in my work and my abilities to contribute to advancements that can make the world a better place. The important thing to note is that my knowledge at the time did not define my intelligence or my capability. I had several more relevant traits: I was curious, adaptable, willing to learn and take feedback. These are the skills and traits that will help you in your studies and career. You just have to believe in yourself and keep working hard.
Third, do not be afraid to reach out for help when you need it. Pursuing an academic career in STEM can be challenging, and we can’t always deal with everything on our own. It is important to know that there is support available, whether it is a family member, a role model or a support specialist from your school or community. I come from a very close family community, so moving to a new country where I didn’t have access to that right away was really tough. I was happy to learn, however, that there are many resources available for international (and domestic) students at most universities as well as various opportunities to connect with others who share your culture and/or interests. Asking for help will lead to making new friends and understand academic content much deeper. Finding the right support system can help you navigate through life and school, and there is absolutely no shame in needing help. We all do.
Last, always give 100% but recognize that your version of 100% may look different every day. I want to encourage you to try your best and work hard, but do not forget to be kind to yourself. I have lived with a chronic pain condition for several years, and every day is a bit different for me. Nevertheless, I am equally proud of the woman who can get up early, mark assignments, teach for a few hours, collect some data in the lab and write a paper as I am of the woman who can only manage to get out of bed and answer a couple emails. They are both the same woman, and I know that every day she is doing the best that she can with the resources and circumstances she has. As you embark on your journey, remember to take care of yourself and be proud of each version of yourself along the way because at any given point, despite the highs or lows, you were doing the best that you could do.