Stephanie Melchor

Graduate student,
UC Santa Cruz

,,

Be brave. It is hard, and pushing the boundaries of what you know can be scary, but that's what makes STEM so exciting.

What do you do?

I just finished my PhD studies at the University of Virginia, where I worked in a lab studying how aspects of the immune system can lead to muscle wasting and tissue scarring during chronic infection. I am now a grad student in UCSC's science communication program, after which I will become a full-time science writer.

Why did you choose this field?

I fell in love with immunology in college during my microbiology major. I had an amazing professor who made the immune system completely come alive. She didn't ever use PowerPoints, and drew out every single pathway in multicolor on the whiteboard. It was amazing to realize how elegantly the immune system has evolved, and how specific and detailed and interconnected all the pieces are. There were some lectures where I would just tear up, because it was so beautiful!

It took me almost all of my PhD to realize that I wanted to be a science writer. I've always loved storytelling and writing and presenting, but tried so hard during grad school to want to be a scientist that I ignored all the signs my heart was giving me to be a writer. I have had stories pouring out of my fingers that I feel like I’ve had to suppress in order to get my work done. The outline for a novel fills the margins of the notebook of my first graduate course. My iPhone notes are littered with ideas for a science blog I have wanted to start for years. Shadowy scenes from science plays I haven’t written yet flit across the stage in my head. I want to write because even though it’s hard, I love it. Although I have become skilled at telling compelling stories constructed from empirical data, telling stories with words is electrifying. I love the way I feel when I do it, and I can’t imagine spending the rest of my life doing anything else. Once I finally let myself realize how much I adore storytelling, everything kind of fell into place for becoming a science writer.

What do you look at and think, "I wish younger me would have known this was possible"?

I still can't believe I actually finished my PhD. Even a few months before I finished, I didn't really believe that I would make it to the finish line. Watching papers that I've been working on for years finally get published is an amazing feeling that I wish I could have shared with younger grad student Stephanie.

When I started looking into science writing programs, I also never imagined that I would actually be accepted by my two top choices. I was worried I had missed the boat to become a successful science communicator and had spent too much time at the bench and not enough time writing. I wish I could have given my younger self more confidence about my future as a writer as well.

Why do you love working in STEM?

Working in STEM is hard! That's one of the reasons I chose to go into it, but I don't think I realized how hard it was. I have loved the feeling of getting to discover something that no one else on the whole planet knows. I love building a story piece by piece, and realizing that unexpected findings (while frustrating sometimes) are almost always the most important ones.

I also love the people in STEM. I've met so many amazing scientists who are so willing to share what they know and to help me understand new concepts and new techniques. Some of my favorite memories in grad school have been connecting with senior researchers over amazing science--people who were decades ahead of me in their careers, but who made the time to talk science with me.

Best advice for next generation?

Oh, I have so much I want to say and not enough space for all of it. For girls in STEM, I'd say most of all to be brave. Research is hard, and pushing the boundaries of what you know can be scary, but that's what makes STEM so exciting. I'd also say to make the space you want to inhabit in your field, because there are going to be lots of people telling you for whatever reason that you don't belong, and you DO. Find mentors and managers who recognize what you're capable of, and who can help you hone your unique skills and interests into a career that's right for you, even if that means that your path looks a little different from everyone else's.

Have the humility to keep learning and growing, but don't let anyone make you small. Stand your ground, do good research, have integrity, and everything will work out.

Inspo quote / fun fact / role model

"O friend, never strike sail to a fear! Come into port greatly, or sail with God the seas." - Ralph Waldo Emerson

NOMINATE a woman in STEM

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