Creating my niche in grad school
How diversity and outreach initiatives helped me find my place in MIT
Imagine being in a roller coaster that’s on fire, adrift, going full speed. That was my first year at MIT. Coming straight from an undergraduate institution in Puerto Rico, it was difficult for me to get used to the fast pace in which topics were taught in a different language and to the amount of work we had to constantly do. Recognizing these struggles, I convinced myself that I had to work even harder. However, towards the end of my first year, I couldn’t help but feel like something was missing. While struggling with that inner voice, I stumbled one day upon my personal statement for graduate school applications. I remember thinking, “who wrote this?”. One sentence in particular felt completely foreign to me: “I wish to provide a voice and an example that encourages minority students to pursue a career in science.” How was it that one year into my PhD program, I had completely lost the drive to start paving the path for people that looked and felt like me?
Being in STEM, it is quite easy to feel that if science isn’t the most important thing in your life, you are probably doing something wrong. For me, however, although science is definitely an important part of my life, it surely isn’t my entire life. I realize this isn’t a popular view among my peers, especially at a place like MIT, and it took some time for me to even embrace this mentality. I knew I appreciated my science more when I started doing things that fulfilled me outside the lab. This was clear in my mind, but I didn’t know where to start. How could I begin creating my niche in grad school?
While talking to a friend of mine about my interest in getting involved in diversity initiatives, I learn about a graduate student group called the Biology Diversity Community (BDC). The main mission of this group was to help foster networking amongst underrepresented graduate students in the biology community and connect students to resources that may be helpful. As it turned out, they were looking for volunteers to help plan out activities for the upcoming academic year. I reached out to the organizers, who listened to my ideas on how to create a healthy environment for students with a diverse array of backgrounds. They must have liked those ideas, since they then allowed me to carry out some activities for the semester including one for the MIT Summer Research Program (MSRP).
The MSRP is a summer program that enables undergraduate students from all over the country to conduct cutting-edge research at MIT, especially those from disadvantaged or underrepresented groups. My idea was to host a BDC-MSRP mixer to encourage summer students to interact with the greater MIT Biology community. A few days into the planning of the event, I started having doubts and worrying that very few people would actually show up. In between sending emails, ordering food, and publicizing the event, this thought kept haunting me. I wanted the mixer to be a success, not only because this was my first time planning an event of this magnitude, but also because this was part of fulfilling my major goal at MIT. I wanted to give back to the community that allowed me to be where I am today.
When the day of the event came, I was happy and reassured to see roughly 50 people show up, including post-docs, graduate students, and faculty! Many interns thanked me for the event, saying it made them feel like they were part of the community. I had a chance to speak with people from my program that I didn’t even know, and learned more about their lives and their experience in the department. Overall, I was genuinely excited my event was helpful for both the interns and the department.
Enabling the bonding between upper year grad students and prospective students led me to become an organizer for BioPals. BioPals’ main goal is to increase communication amongst biology graduate students from all levels. First-year graduate students get paired with upper-year students (aka, “Pals”) to meet on a monthly basis and interact with other pairs during social events. I was part of the kickoff year as a BioPals mentee, which made my first semester here more bearable. My biopal was a fifth-year student that gave me all the pointers I needed to survive my first year. She went the extra mile to ensure I was ok, from giving me a gift after I passed my first round of exams, to staying with me for over an hour when I was having an anxiety attack. She really inspired me to become a resource for incoming first-years. I currently work on organizing BioPals along with 4 other students from my year. BioPals is now starting its second year, with more social events and roughly an 80% participation rate from first-year students.
With all these activities, I feel a sense of purpose by doing something that matters to me. That sentence in my personal statement doesn’t feel that foreign to me anymore. I can safely say that I have “provided a voice and an example that encourages minority students” to pursue a career in science. I feel happy I am able to do the two things I love during my graduate school trajectory: helping others and doing science!
I could continue talking about my niche forever, but I want to take some time to address yours! I have found that diversity and outreach are some of the things that keep me sane and happy in graduate school. If your niche is mentoring, policy, or startups, (or anything), make some time for that! Graduate school is long. You can run your experiment the next day or troubleshoot that equipment piece later. Make your graduate experience one that is worth looking back on. And I hope in no time, you’ll create your own niche in grad school!
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