Josseline Steffi Ramos-Figueroa
PhD student, Chemistry, University of Saskatchewan
Be yourself, no matter what, be yourself.
WHAT DO YOU DO?
I do research working in a lab. I conduct experiments on a daily basis and I have a lab notebook where I describe the experiments in detail just like a journal. I also write reports yearly of my progress and do presentations at my university as well as in conferences elsewhere. I also train undergraduate students for summer projects: teach them how to use a particular instrument, troubleshoot techniques, and to think critically to discuss the results of the experiments. Lastly, as a graduate student I work as a teaching assistant leading undergraduate labs and marking their reports.
WHY DID YOU CHOOSE THIS FIELD?
During the last year of my chemistry undergraduate degree in Peru, I had the opportunity to meet a female professor who had done a doctorate program in Brazil. She was a role model for me as she got many students interested in going abroad to obtain a graduate degree. She was working on the area of bioinorganic chemistry using metal complexes (metal ion bound to organic molecules called ligands) as potential biological activity against diseases or conditions. She thought me about enzymes able to catalyze reactions in the human body and any other living system. This knowledge got me fascinated about the small world living underneath what we are able to see. I wanted to know more and decided to look online for free resources. It was then when took an online course from MIT from a website called edx.org which allows people to listen and watch classes from high profile universities. This course was about introduction to biology and expanded on the importance of enzymes and their relationship with DNA and RNA. I decided to pursue graduate studies on the area and looked for possibilities in Canada and in the US. I had taken English courses during my last two years as an undergrad and thought I should give this a try!
WHAT DO YOU LOOK AT & THINK, "I WISH YOUNGER ME WOULD HAVE KNOWN THIS WAS POSSIBLE?"
The emotional, cultural and knowledge barrier of starting a graduate program in a first world country such Canada was huge and at that time I did not know I was going to be able to overcome. I had studied English back home but being actually here and talking to native English speakers was not an easy time. I struggled speaking all the time because I was ashamed of my accent and because I would usually be asked to repeat myself several times to get me right. I felt dumb, thought I did not belong, and that I was not actually smart enough as I was not able to communicate well. I also struggle because being away from family is never easy but not having friends to whom I could talk my language made it worst. Lastly, my undergraduate degree in Peru did not prepare me for being able to grasp the new techniques, set-ups, instruments that I have seen undergraduate students using in the second year of their program. I had to learn a lot of things in four months because if I had not passed introductory courses I would have not been able to proceed with the program. I did it all. I passed the courses, I learned to communicate in English, and I learned to be away from my family. The process was not easy, it took me almost 2.5 years but I fought for it and I am proud of what I have achieved. I wanted to give up several times and I wish I knew I did not have to be too hard on myself sometimes or that I could belong here. I still struggle internally sometimes with the same things however I know how to approach those thoughts this time.
WHY DO YOU LOVE WORKING IN STEM?
I love the feeling of not knowing and searching for the information, of applying the information I had found to perform experiments, of being able to discuss and analyze the results, and of being creative along the way to modify things and create cool experiments. I love the feel when after an experiment is not working how things just click and I know what to do to make the experiment work. I love that I can also share this excitement in outreach opportunities and that I can be a role model for somebody else, someone who does not fit the typical look of a successful scientist but one that speaks with an accent, looks from another country, and is a woman. I also love the feeling of training students by supporting their interest and avoid them feeling intimidating in a field where it feels that one should know everything.
BEST ADVICE FOR NEXT GENERATION?
Be yourself, no matter what, be yourself. I think not being able to fully express oneself because of misconceptions or the thinking of what other would say is the biggest barrier. Being able to not express oneself can led to feeling of not belonging. Feelings of not belonging to the STEM community will cause opting out. Scientists are humans, they do not just read all the time or work 24 hours a day or know everything. They make mistakes, they have hobbies outside the field, they can enjoy dancing, they feel lazy sometimes, they can not like to read, or they can not like doing math or talking in big groups. However, these things are the things we usually do not see.
INSPO / FUN FACT
“Be a human and you'd be a better scientist.”