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MY STEM Career: The Makings of a Neuroscience Researcher

Written By: KH

Edited By: Aishwarya Murthy

Blog Cover Designed By: Srashti


Science along with every other STEM discipline is considered male-dominated, unfortunately, this is true, women account for less than 30% of world researchers.

Strangely for me, my perspective is quite different. My experiences in studying and working in neuroscience and psychology have only been positive and the reason being that I have always been surrounded by influential women throughout my personal and professional life.

I was raised by a single mother, who started as a homemaker and became a business owner. She decided to leave my father’s security after the lack of equality and identity within the relationship and despite me being about eight/nine years old, she already taught me more than anything. Women are self-sufficient, with that, she took her very little savings and her two kids to begin a new life.

At that moment right there, I was taught by her that women can absolutely overcome any obstacles, it won’t be easy, but there’s nothing that a woman can’t do.

Although she never had any associations to STEM besides buying me my first science kit, I can confidently say that I would have not been in my current position if it were not for her endless support and for being my role model of a hard-working woman.

My studies at my university really made me realize that in science there is so much possibility. In my case, neuroscience is such a versatile field, which is what further intrigued me. Every different module taught me a different skill and gave me an understanding of the levels of organisation in the nervous system. I was taught to culture neuronal cells from rat embryos, use animal models and specialized pools to study behavioural neuroscience, and perform stereotactic surgeries to create a rat model of Parkinson’s diseases to further understand the neuroprotective mechanisms. Amidst all of this exposure, the most fascinating thing was that the most intimidating professor who not only taught that last dreaded module: systems neurobiology but would also teach us to do surgeries, was a well-respected female professor. In the department, she was the most influential person, and to see a woman in such a well-regarded position was very impressive to me, again, going against the stereotype.

This motivated me to strive to do my best, as I want to be as influential as her someday.

She would push all students and make exams absolutely impossible, but she was a phenomenal professor who believed in hard work and no excuses.

With the constant reminders from my sister, another influential woman in my life, who kept reminding me to get an internship. I got a position as a research intern at Columbia University Department of Psychiatry, which opened my eyes into the real lives of low-income families in New York. The main advantage I had was that I speak Spanish, and all thanks to my mom who constantly reminded me to practice my Spanish as it will “come in handy in the future”. Once again, she was right. Another center in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Columbia Medical Centre offered me an internship because of my bilingualism to work in a clinic surrounded by an incredibly hard-working team of paediatric neuropsychologists, who all happened to be female. With their constant guidance and mentorship, I was being trained to administer and score neuropsychological tests and sit in through cognitive diagnostic testing. I was so grateful that I had all these mentors to look up to as they have accomplished to great lengths.

I wondered, how is it that every mentor and supervisor I have had so far was always a female?

With the gender gap in mind, it should be rare, but it is thanks to these women that I was able to continue to grow in this field.

It was definitely not easy to complete my studies in neuroscience and psychology, which involved lab work while also being a part-time research assistant, research intern, and also doing an on-campus job. However, it’s all about hard work. I saw my mom build a business, I learned about my professor’s research and the amount of work they had to put in and the work clinicians have to do in their everyday life. This is life not just in science but anywhere, we need to work hard to create a difference. I look back at the time where I did not know I was going to study neuroscience and especially back in high school. My grades were just mediocre and although I took my studies seriously, I made sure that it did not occupy my whole life. I knew that I was capable of hard work but why not also enjoy life and focus on yourself. This is something that I really believe in and I did not let my grades reflect what I am truly capable of. From what I have learned, I cannot further emphasise the importance of internships; sure, grades are important but what are the chances of being asked about your grades in an interview? Very unlikely. Interviewers want to discuss your previous experiences and with that, what you can bring into the workplace. Thankfully, I could offer a lot of experiences when I had to come to Singapore back due to COVID-19 and lost both of my full-time job offers at Columbia Medical Centre.

My current position as a research assistant at NUS in the Department of Medicine has been very eye-opening, do I feel completely out of place? Absolutely. Am I the youngest employee in the office? Yes. Am I the least experienced in the lab? Completely. All of these questions, I immediately thought of on my first day but I didn’t doubt myself. I know that every person has to go through this passage, I heard from all my mentors that they had to do this as well. The fact that I am completely surrounded by professors, Ph.D. students, and research fellows is admittingly intimating. However, this is science, it’s a collaborative field, that requires the input of all individuals regardless of position. Interestingly, again my reporting officer is a female professor. One of the smallest women in the office with the toughest personality. She is absolutely not scared to speak her mind and a fantastic researcher who pushes me to do my best.

Although this position has been quite stressful in all aspects, especially in adjusting to the different work culture, the amount of exposure that I am getting to the scientific field is far more than I can ask for, which motivates me to do my best. Learning about concepts in class is nothing compared to actually applying them to the field and that is where the real work comes in.

Science being male dominated is notably known as the social norm, yet I have only been exposed to female researchers in this field and in no way and in no way does this statement reflect my personal experience. In my eyes, women are science and I cannot wait for the day that this “male dominated field” mentality becomes obsolete.

Nevertheless, my experiences were very rare. Not every woman gets to have female mentors constantly throughout their lives in this field, but I am very lucky that I was given a completely different perspective.

I thank all the women who have had to advocate for what they believe in and for them to have a voice.

If it were not for them, then the younger generation like me would not have made it this far.

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