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From Shy Student to Award-winning Professor - Dr. Silveyra

As aspiring students, we often ask ourselves important questions about finding our passions and future careers choices. As a shy student who also had those same questions, I often struggled with clear answers. We resort to contemplating endless possibilities, but because we don’t find certainty, we simply go with what’s around us. Early on my father thought I would work in an office setting somehow or go into finances. Initially that was the simple plan, but gradually progressed into staying true to my own interests. Looking back, I can clearly see the tremendous impact that experiences outside the classroom had on my academic and career trajectory. I liked learning inside the classroom, but what was going on beyond those walls also directed my path. Growing up in Argentina, I didn’t have STEM role models who could direct my interests, but I’d say that many of my questions were answered along the way as I gained meaningful experiences alongside people who could encourage my curiosities.

A PhD and becoming a professor were not part of the plan at all. My mother was an educator, but it was her persistent introduction of new books, games, and activities that may have cultivated the future scientist in me. I was not the type of student who asked questions during class, but I was dedicated and had no problem over preparing and studying. What helped me greatly was that I was always reading. Curiosity and endless hours of reading cemented a strong foundation inside the classroom. But my introduction and endless fascination to science came during high school as I worked on a project. At the time, a sheep being cloned was being talked about everywhere. It was worldwide news that I found intriguing, which led my friend and I to explore a college two blocks from my high school to learn more about cloning as part of our project. We found the biochemistry department and literally started knocking on doors. This experience was significant because it was the very first time I met a scientist.

My questions were welcomed, which only added to my curiosity. We didn’t exactly talk about cloning, but our conversation was more about cell division, DNA, and how it all leads to the creation of a living organism. I was hearing words that I’d only seen in biology books. Their work was groundbreaking as they worked on something that had never been done before. Although it was not happening inside the classroom, they were implementing what I was learning during lectures. It was the perfect link that explained why we, the world, knows the things we know. Their simplified version of research and trial and error started to make sense to me. This initial experience was the beginning of directing me toward better understanding questions about my passions and future career choices. I don’t think that asking questions in my head alone, could have ever given me such important insight.

I was lucky. The following year I was walking down a hallway as I noticed a sign on the wall. A teacher posted a flyer for students who may be interested in doing a biotechnology project. Without a doubt I noted the room, day and time, and showed up. The students who were there were in their last year, while I still had another year to go, but that did not deter me from wanting to take part in yet another project. Our teacher was also a graduate student who decided to take us to his lab where we isolated some fungi from tree leaves that we picked. I was looking through microscopes to see changes and perhaps better understand why those changes were occurring. Interestingly, all of this was related to the DNA book that the scientist had given me the year before. The significance of this experience was that it was my introduction to a lab environment. I was sold on the first day! For the first time in my life, I saw myself working in a lab, rather than an office. I was slowly refining my career plan, while also getting a better sense of what I wanted to study in college.

The most challenging subjects were actually the ones I liked, which is why I chose Biology as my major in college. I often found myself reading something that I did not understand but it was my curiosity that pushed me to want to figure it out and learn more. Nonetheless, college did not come easy because I had to make important adjustments. For example, high school is a very structured environment where much is done for us. There is much more freedom in college that allows us to make choices for ourselves, which also meant that time management was an important skill to develop. Time management was extremely important to plan for due dates and exams, which also helped with minimizing anxiety. Initially college was also challenging because no one around me was reading or interested in my interests. This meant that I could not ask for help or develop ideas with someone who understood what I was studying. I was still very shy and was not very talkative in class. I had to become strategic by adding movement to my study habits. This meant audio recording the entire class and later taking additional notes aside from the ones I’d already taken in class. I even transcribed the recording to make sure that I didn’t miss anything. Movement also meant that I was drawing, creating diagrams to help with memory and new layers of understanding. They became concept map that helped me visualize complex models as pictures rather than just words. One of the most important lessons I learned in college was that listening in class was simply not enough!

The most challenging part about college for me was learning to trust my own abilities. The hours of dedication and effort were present and my strong grades were the result. However, developing a sense of confidence was a matter of learning to control my inner voice that created doubt. Looking back, I realize that influencing our inner voice takes time, but being aware of such destructive thoughts is important to learning to influence them in our favor. I had to learn to replace the seeping doubts with uplifting language that pushed me forward. Confidence also came as I continued to dive deep into reading. There was always a book or journal article in my hand. I wasn’t the best at writing reports, but I dedicated extra time to develop one paragraph at a time. Much changed once I met a group of friends that were part of my major. We chatted endlessly about complex topics to make sense of any difficult material we covered in class.

Halfway through college I met teacher assistants in my classes who were also PhD students. Hearing them talk to me about their projects was motivating. This was the very first time I contemplated pursuing a PhD. I formally applied my last year of college as I continued to refine my career plan. The transition into my PhD program in Biochemistry was positive because we went straight into the lab and we also took classes with other students who had similar interests. Hard sciences and experimental classes were very challenging, but as I look back, I can see that the preparation was exceptional. Ironically, it was the lack of resources that forced us to become resourceful. Often times we did not have the proper equipment because the experiments we did were very expensive. It pushed us to collaborate amongst professors, other classmates in labs all over the world. Anything we didn’t have, we had to create, cultivate, or find someone who could. Such shortages pushed us to adapt and find creative ways to learn deeply. I didn’t know it yet, but I was learning to become a problem solver and most importantly learning about the importance of connecting and working with people. I didn’t realize this until comparing how labs work within the American culture.

As the end of my PhD program neared, I wasn’t sure what was next for me, but a friend encouraged me to pursue a postdoc abroad. I applied for scholarships and was happy, and very surprised to learn that I was awarded a scholarship that allowed me to join a lab in Pennsylvania. The plan was to complete my postdoc and go back to Argentina, but opportunities slowly began to emerge and I decided to stay. I was a very popular postdoc because of the exceptional problem-solving skills I learned in Buenos Aires. I was offered a faculty position and began a career that I could have never imagined as a young girl in my country. There is no way I could have dreamt up all that I have accomplished alongside the many people who pushed me, and believed in me along the way. Going through graduate school is such a rigorous process. It was the supportive community around me that helped me along the way. For those reasons, I seek to do the same for this and the next generation of underrepresented scientists.

I started as a shy student with many questions about my career path and have become an award-winning professor. I’m humbled and proud, but also believe that such awards are evidence of what underrepresented scientists can achieve. In 2017 I was presented with the Penn State College of Medicine Distinguished Early-Stage Investigator Award. And in 2018 I received the American Physiological Society Respiration Section New Investigator Award. Such awards matter to me because I know that my work will make an impact on people lives. My work and such awards are for them and the many people who supported me along the way. I couldn’t have done it alone. As I look back, the experiences and the people within them were as important as the questions. I refined my plan many times and continued to ask important questions along the way, however, the experiences that I have shared left lasting impressions and guided my path. There were many doubts throughout many experiences, but I did not let them stop me from continuing.

My journey has been amazing. Currently, I am an Associate Professor at Indiana University, School of Public Health where I lead a lab that focusses on how sex and hormones affect our lungs and their responses to environmental exposures. I’ve become a leading expert in my field. Ongoing growth has continued because I’ve sought out joining groups such as the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS). They are a remarkable organization that taught me about leadership, community, and mentorship. They are an example of an entire community that will support students achieve their highest academic and careers aspirations. Recently, they awarded me the 2020 SACNAS Outstanding Research and Professional Mentor Award.

Aside from teaching, I also lead a remarkable group of young scholars who will change the world someday. Our future is filled with endless possibilities. Our goal is to significantly change how the world understands and treats lung disease or asthma. I’m proud of the work we do and look forward to future advancements. The world needs more underrepresented scientists. I am an example of what we can do. There are many more problems the world needs to solve. I’ve made mentorship an important part of my work because I understand firsthand the importance of guiding a developing scientist. I’m sure that there are many aspiring academics out there, looking to answer important questions about future career paths. It is my hope that you chose science because we need you. If you are one of them, believe in yourself and surround yourself with people and experiences who will stimulate your unique mind. Trust that it will all work out, and most importantly trust yourself. Science is waiting for you.


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