Don’t Let it Set In

April 14, 2017

Since, I decided to tackle the light topic of race and ethnicity last time, I thought I would continue with the theme of a light hearted discussion and talk about the existential crisis we each face on a daily basis.

If you’ve logged onto the World Wide Web, you’ve probably run across the comics in Figure 1 and laughed, and laughed… only to cry and laugh some more 1,2. Why do these comics elicit the same response in every grad student I’ve met? Well, it probably has something to do with our collective need to be better than the best, and maybe even perfect.

First anecdotal piece of evidence, my inability to put out a second blog post after the resounding success of my first. You see, I’m supposed to submit a post weekly and while I had something written last Wednesday, every time I made another pass at it, I just couldn’t find it possible to actually submit. It just wasn’t good enough. So I let the deadline pass and the eventual guilt set in and robbed me of an afternoon of self-worth. Was it perfect? Most definitely not. Was it good enough for the tens of readers? Absolutely. So why was it that each time I went to hit “send”, I broke out in a cold sweat and just literally could not click the button? Part of me wants to blame my diagnosed anxiety disorder, another part of me knows that it has something to do with the greater feeling of not being “enough” for UMich, but I know that these things are all intertwined.

A recent study reported that one in two PhD students experiences psychological distress while one in three is at risk for common psychiatric disorders 3. This is in stark contrast with the roughly 20% of the population that experiences some form of depression and/or anxiety 4. While the reasoning behind why PhD students are so much more susceptible to psychological distress and disorders is the center of much debate, we as graduate students still have to live every day in this reality, and it does not appear that anything is going to change soon. What can change immediately though, is how we as students talk about it.

I believe the first step to actually changing how we talk about depression and anxiety within the realms of graduate school and academia is to actually start talking about it. Revolutionary, I know. Try to take me seriously for a second though. Other than the obligatory CAPS mention at a seminar once a year, mental health is rarely discussed amongst colleagues, even though (according to the study) the majority of us are struggling with it. Or as one friend rephrased the startling statistic “one in two students struggles with mental illness and the other one is lying about it.” The bottom line is that graduate school is hard, harder than most of us realized it would be, and this is often complicated by other qualifiers such as being a first generation college student, a person of color, queer, or anything else that labels you as a minority.

That is why we need to help each other out a bit more and be real about our struggles. Everything is not fine, life happens, and it can sucks sometimes. But don’t try to normalize your suffering by ignoring its existence. Even though all your laundry is done and your apartment is the cleanest it’s been in months, that poster is still due and you’re still worried about it. So, yeah, don’t let that sense of overwhelming dread consume you, but don’t ignore it. Call up your BFF and have that “my day sucked and I need to vent” talk, or ask the post-doc in your lab how best to attack that experiment that has been failing again and again, week after week. Just try and be kind to yourself and realize that while you demand perfection of yourself, very few people (if any) do.

Lastly, while it may be incredibly cliche and you have heard this same, vague “help is out there” tidbit a hundred times… Well, I have to mention that help is out there. Sometimes the dread, the work, the anxiety, the depression is just too much for self-care and friends and you need capital H, Help. As grad students at UMich, we are fortunate enough to have access to some top notch resources (like CAPS5 and GradCare), and as someone who has taken advantage of them, let me tell you, they’re awesome. I struggled for years trying to ignore the fact that what I was dealing with was bigger than me. Once I was open with my counselor and even my department about what was getting in the way of my work, I actually started to progress because I realized that I had people who had my back. Better yet, I was finally able to feel comfortable around my colleagues (even though they seemed “more” successful) because I accepted the fact that the playing field wasn’t even between us.

So next time someone in your cohort asks you “How’s it going?”, be honest! Let them know that your experiment failed and you are two weeks behind in your readings because they probably have been in the same boat at some point (if not at the exact same point) in time. Let them know that some crazy girl writing a blog you read inspired you to be more open about your struggles! Okay, I realize I am now way overreaching, but still, let’s dish out a little more empathy between fellow students. We can all do with a bit more support and understanding in this ivory tower known as grad school.

Author: Marissa Torres

Biological Chemistry

PhD Student


1. “Busy Work”. Ep. 59. Webtoon.
2. Gunshow comics. KC Green.
3. “Work Organization and Mental Health Problems in PhD students.” Gisle, et al. Research Policy. May 2017,
Vol.46(4):868–879, doi:10.1016/j.respol.2017.02.008
4. CDC.

Why Hispan-ish?

If you have made your way here, you are more than likely familiar with SACNAS, but what you may not be familiar with, is me. So here’s the 411. My name is Marissa Torres and I am a second year PhD student in biological chemistry who hails from the foothills of Northern California. No, not the California where it never dips below 70 degrees and the ocean is a reasonable distance away. But the California where all the residents say “hella” and if you didn’t know better, you would swear you were in some notoriously red state. What my California has in common with SoCal though, is that it all used to be a part of Alta California and has resulted in a mixed population of what I have come to dub “Hispan-ish” people; with me square among them. Why Hispan-ish? Why not embrace Latinx, Chicano, or just straight up Hispanic especially when I’m blogging for the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science? Well, because like science, it’s complicated. Like many Californians, I’m of Mexican descent and this has always been a part of my family and identity, but (and this is a big but) I’m also super white. Like, puts sweaters on her dog and goes camping every summer white. So I have constantly straddled this weird, uncomfortable, and possibly overly racialized line. I’m Hispanic enough that people call me “Ma-ree-sa” but when they take one look at me, I become “Muh-ris-uh”. I’m Hispanic enough to know what you’re saying in Spanish but not enough to be able to reply to you in the same language. I’m Hispanic enough for people to assume that when I mention how my Grandma used to clean houses for a living, they assume it was my Mexican grandma. (The joke is on them though, because none of my Grandmas are Mexican.) I’m Hispanic enough that my Dad will call and tell me he had mole at a new restaurant that tasted just like how Grandma Hope used to make it, but not enough so that in the same call he will ask ‘What’s a white girl like you blogging for a group like that?”. I’m Hispanic enough that when I look around my lab or class, I don’t see anyone like me, and I feel alone. I’m white enough though, that when I comment about these observations, I am met with “But why? You’re not like them.” So, I’m white enough to know that I walk through life with immense privilege, but like every other American, I’m the singular intersection of many different identities. This is why SACNAS is just so important, it gives representation to a diverse group of people who are united by three things. One: their ethnicity, two: their involvement in science, and three: their almost complete absence from the sciences. Despite Hispanic people making up about 16% of the population in the United States, the US Department of Education reported that between 2009 and 2010, on average, only 8% of people who received a degree in STEM were Hispanic.1 That percentage and representation continually decreases as the level of degree increases, with percentage of Hispanics receiving a STEM certificate being as high as 24% while the percentage receiving a STEM PhD is as low as 3%. This means the scientific community is missing out on input from a decent chunk of the population and perpetuates an obstinate, singular narrative in science. As any bioinformaticist worth their NaCl will tell you, only when a sample is representative of the population from which it was selected can you be sure that no confounding variable is preventing a true result. So, what was I actually trying to get across in these three rambling paragraphs? Science is imperfect. We are imperfect. But as scientists, we strive to make our world better and the best way to do that is by having our contributions heard and recognized. That is why it is so important that our stories as Hispanic and/or Native American scientists are told by us, and that is why a Hispan-ish biochem grad student is making sure to take time each week to tell her story.

Author: Marissa Torres


1. Overview of Hispanics in Science, Math, Engineering, and Technology (STEM): K-16 Representation, Preparation and Participation, July 2012.

It is so important to have women in science

Being born in a male chauvinistic society, I often ponder what my life would be like if I had stayed there. I got a glimpse of that life two years ago when I went to the rural village I was born in, for my uncle’s wedding. Girls there do not get an education beyond high school. Most of them are married with a baby by age 18.  Their independence is teared up at such a young age. They will know what it is to be a daughter, wife, or mother but they will never know what it is to be themselves. As explained in the words of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, “I walk beneath your pens, and I am not what I truly am, but what you’d imagine me.” Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz became a nun and joined a convent in 1667 to be able to study at will. However, the progress for women in the villages of Mexico has been slow for the past 350 years. For some reason, I was spared of that life and was blessed with a life in which I have independence. I will be the third female from the village I was born to obtain a doctorate degree. One of the things I have learned in graduate school is to understand the big picture, hence, I do not only consider my education an accomplishment for myself but also a triumph for females around the world who aspire an education, choice, and independence.

My younger sister was born in a different society; she was born in southern California. Ever since she started walking and talking, she took her independence in her own hands. She is not afraid to defy the traditional rules of our culture or society. As a four-year old, she insisted in going to a prep program before kindergarten, a program typically for boys. She was the only girl in the prep program and the one with highest marks. In elementary school, she was the only girl selected for a group that targeted students that were advanced in math and science. She joined clubs and classes that she felt passionate about such as Math Field Day and Engineering and Robotics Technology. Now as a high school student, she is one of five girls in the SkillsUSA Engineering Club. Last week, she called me with the news that her team had won silver at the regional competition and that they had advanced to the state championships. I wanted to know everything about the device they engineered!

What is this Assistive Communication Device?

“The intellectually impaired need assistance with speaking to other adults, particularly phrases that they would use but is difficult for them to say. Our focus is to provide a device for such students in our school when they don’t have outside help for speaking to the adults.” Refer to Figure A.

How does it work?

“We used an Adafruit audio FX sound board, 2.5W mono amplifier, 5 arcade buttons, breadboard, speaker, and a power supply. The Adafruit board handles the audio files for the phrases an intellectually impaired student may find useful. The breadboard provides multiple ground pins for the buttons and amplifier. So basically, you just press the button and the phrase you want it to say will come out. We decided to make it easy so the intellectually impaired would just click a button.” Refer to Figure B and Figure C.

Then I proceeded to ask her the most important question, why?

“We felt this device would have an impact on people. We want to make a difference in someone’s life like the intellectually impaired who don’t have a voice, we wanted to give them a voice.

I was filled with pride and joy. Now more than ever, it is so important to have women in science. For all the young girls and women, I urge you to get to know yourself and reach your potential. Do not let society define who you are or who you will be. And for the female graduate students, when your spirits are down in lab remember the big picture. Remember that you are giving voice to the females out there who do not have their own yet. Remember the powerful words of Sor Juana Ines, “I don’t study to know more, but to ignore less.” Refer to Figure D.

Author: Anabel Flores                                                                                                                                                       4th year Cellular and Molecular Biology PhD student                                                                           SACNAS UMich chapter Social Event Coordinator

Es muy importante tener mujeres en Ciencia

Nacida en una sociedad machista, hay veces que me pregunto cómo hubiese sido mi vida si me hubiera quedado a vivir ahí. Hace dos años me toco regresar al pueblo en que nací para la boda de mi tío, fue entonces que obtuve una visión de esa vida. A las mujeres no se les educa más allá de la secundaria. La mayoría se casan y tienen hijos a los dieciocho años de edad. Les arrancan su independencia a tan temprana edad. Sabrán lo que es ser hijas, esposas, y madres, pero jamás sabrán lo que es ser ellas mismas. Como lo explica Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz,” Soy como consigo que me imaginéis.” Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz se convirtió en monja y se unió a un convento para poder estudiar con libertad en 1667. A pesar de que han pasado 350 años, el progreso para las mujeres en los pueblos de México ha sido lento. Por alguna razón, me eh salvado de esa vida y eh sido bendecida con una en la cual tengo mi autonomía. Seré la tercera mujer del pueblo que me vio nacer en obtener un doctorado. Una de las lecciones de las que eh aprendido en escuela graduada es que siempre debemos tener cosas en perspectiva y ver más allá de lo que nos impacta a uno mismo. Es por eso que no solo considero mi educación un logro personal pero también un triunfo para toda aquella mujer en el mundo la cual aspira a una educación, a tener opciones, y a tener independencia.

A mi hermana menor le toco nacer en una sociedad diferente a la mía; ella nació en el sur de California. Desde que empezó a caminar y hablar tomo su independencia por las riendas. Sin miedo, ella se ha enfrentado a las tradiciones de nuestra cultura y de la sociedad. A los cuatro años, insistió en formar parte de un programa antes de empezar jardín de niños. Este programa típicamente se les ofrece a los varones. Ella era la única niña en el programa y obtuvo las calificaciones más altas. En la escuela elemental fue la única niña elegida a formar parte de un grupo enfocado en los estudiantes con habilidades avanzadas en las ciencias y matemáticas. A formado parte de clubes los cuales le apasionan tal como Día de Campo Matemático e Ingeniería y Tecnología de la Robótica.  Ahora como estudiante de secundaria, forma parte del club Habilidades EE. UU en Ingeniería. La semana pasada me llamo para darme la noticia que su equipo obtuvo la medalla de plata en la competencia regional y que avanzaron al campeonato estatal. Con emoción, le pedí detalles sobre el dispositivo que diseñaron.

¿Que es el dispositivo de comunicación asistente?

“Las personas con discapacidad intelectual necesitan asistencia cuando se comunican con otros adultos, en particular con frases que usan regularmente, pero se les dificulta decir. Nuestro objetivo es proveer un dispositivo precisamente para esos estudiantes en las escuelas los cuales no cuentan con ayuda para poder comunicarse con los adultos.” Refiérase a Figure A.

¿Cómo funciona? “Usamos una tarjeta de sonido Adafruit audio FX, un amplificador de 2.5 vatios, 5 botones de arcada, un tablero de circuitos, una bocina, y una Fuente de poder. La tarjeta de sonido Adafruit audio FX maneja los archivos de audio con las frases las que resultarían útil para un discapacitado intelectual. El tablero de circuitos provee múltiples clavijas para los botones y el amplificador. Entonces básicamente, solo se necesita oprimir un botón para que el dispositivo diga la frase deseada. Decidimos diseñarlo de manera que fuese fácil de usar para que los discapacitados intelectuales solo necesitarían oprimir un botón.” Refiérase a Figure B y Figure C.

Entonces procedí con la pregunta más importante, ¿por qué?

“Creímos que este dispositivo afectaría a las personas de una manera positiva. Queremos hacer una diferencia en la vida como la de los discapacitados intelectuales cuyos no tienen voz, les queremos dar voz.” 

Me llene de orgullo y alegría. Ahora más que nuca es esencial tener mujeres en la ciencia. A todas las jóvenes y mujeres, les pido que se conozcan a sí mismas y que alcancen su potencial. No dejen que la sociedad defina lo que son o lo que pueden llegar a ser. A las estudiantes graduadas, les pido que cuando sus ánimos estén abajo mientras trabajan en el laboratorio, que no pierdan perspectiva. Recuerden que ustedes les dan voz a las mujeres por los rincones del mundo que aún no tienen su propia voz. Recuerden a las palabras poderosas de Sor Juana Inés, “Yo no estudio para saber más, sino para ignorar menos.” Refiérase a Figure D.

Autora: Anabel Flores                                                                                                                                                      4to año estudiante Ph.D. en Biología Celular y Molecular                                                                    SACNAS UMich chapter Coordinadora de Eventos Sociales

Welcome to our SACNAS UMich Chapter blog

Hello friends,

My name is Carla Ramos. For those that do not know me I am the president and co-founder of the SACNAS UMich chapter.If you would like to know a little more about me I invite you to check out the about section of our webpage and read a little about me and my research. As we continue to grow as a chapter one of our goals is to provide a platform, in which students, friends, and guests can blog about an issue or topic they want to share with us and our community. I am a strong believer that in order to foster any kind of achievement we need to maintain an open communication in order to learn from one another and grow. This blog will serve as that platform, in which members and guests can share with us their stories and ideas. For the first couple of months I will invite guests to write a blog and share with us on our webpage.

Stay tune for some great blog, stories, poems, etc.

Here is an inspirational quote from Stephen Hawking,”Look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see, and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious.”

Hola amigos,

Mi nombre es Carla Ramos. Para aquellos que no me conocen yo soy la presidenta y fundadora de SACNAS UMich capitulo. Si les gustaria saber un poco mas sobre mi y de mi investigacion les invito visitar nuestra pagina web la seccion que dice about. Mientras continuamos creciendo, una de nuestras metas es proveer una plataforma en la cual estudiantes, amigos, e invitados puedan proveer un blog de algun tema oh idea que quieran compartir con nosotros y nuestra comunidad. Yo creo que para promover cualquier tipo de logro necesitamos mantener una comunicacion abierta para aprender uno del otro y crecer. Este blog servira como esa plataforma, en la cual nuestros miembros e invitados puedan compartir con nosotros sus historias e ideas. En los primeros meses voy a invitar a invitados a que escriban un blog y lo compartan con nosotros en nuestra pagina web. 

Asi que mantenganse pendiente para estupendos blogs, historias, poemas, etc.

Aqui les dejo una frase inspiradora de Stephen Hawking,”Mira arriba a las estrellas y no abajo a tus pies. Trata de razonar lo que ves, y preguntate que es lo que hace que exista el universo. Se curioso,”