April Feature: Stephanie Castillo

We are so excited to share our latest interview with Stephanie Castillo! Stephanie is a soon-to-be PhD Candidate in Science Communication with her Master's in Chemistry! Read more below to learn more about her and her journey through #STEM.

MUSE: Hey Stephanie! Can you start by telling us a little bit about yourself?

Stepanie: Hi there! My name is Stephanie and I am a first-generation American and college graduate I was born in Venezuela but raised in Florida, so I find myself living in the hyphen. I am also the first ever in my entire family to go to graduate school. I am a fifth-year graduate student in the Communication of Science, Engineering, and Technology Department at Vanderbilt University. I love film and photography and found a way to incorporate my hobby/passion into my science communication research!

MUSE: Ah, that is so cool! What are you currently working on in your science communication (or "scicomm") research?

Stephanie: I am specifically looking into how storytelling in science filmmaking is used to create films for specific audiences. As an underrepresented minority in STEM, and as someone who loves to consume a lot of media, I realized there is a lack of representation of people of color from all intersections in both STEM fields and media. I am specifically interested in how storytelling in used in science filmmaking to create science videos specifically for underrepresented students. I am asking questions such as: does the type person communicating on screen matter? What type of guidance can be provided for students through film? And what does it mean to have a person on screen look like you? I am using a design process to create a process that future educators or scientists can use to create films specially made for our community!

MUSE: Did you know that you always wanted to work in a STEM field?

Stephanie: Growing up I actually wanted to be a veterinarian until a bird bit me in middle school hahahaha! As I got older, I actually wanted to be a photographer but my parents were high-key against that because I “wouldn’t have been able to make a living.” I think it wasn’t until high school chemistry that I started to enjoy science. It was challenging and I actually tried hard to do well, yet that thought of being a scientist never occurred to me. However, senior year rolls around and it was time to figure out what to do. Going to college was, however, my main option. As a child of immigrants, my parents instilled in me that education was my way out so that I wouldn’t have to struggle as they did. So, I enrolled in community college because my siblings did, it was cheap, and I could take standard courses while buying time to figure out what I wanted to be when I grow up.

Remember how I mentioned I consume a lot of media? Well in my first year of community college the movie Contagion was released, Casey Anthony trial was being resolved, and I almost failed my college chemistry class. I was exposed to a lot of science and saw women scientists on screen and in real life too! Nearly failing my chemistry course pushed me to do better and gave me new appreciation for the course that I decided that I wanted to be a chemist! Also, the fact that my chemistry professor was a Hispanic woman too served as a source of inspiration for me too. With the encouragement of my family, they seconded my decision to become a scientist.

MUSE: Yasss for that representation!! How did you become interested in science communication?

Stephanie: After two years in community college, I transferred to the University of Central Florida. I graduated with a B.S. in Chemistry. During my time at UCF, I was also a part of the McNair Scholar’s program: a program geared towards providing first-generation, low income, minoritized students paid research opportunities and get us into graduate school. With their help, and my summer research experiences, I was accepted into Vanderbilt’s Chemistry Ph.D. program. However, my graduate school experience did go as I expected it to go. The first lab that I was in did not provide me the mentorship that I needed. I was also told that “the way I spoke was more masters material than Ph.D. material.” I managed to switch into another lab after two years. However, my imposter syndrome and low confidence dimmed my passion for chemistry. Throughout all of this, I consumed a lot of science YouTube. I decided to start my own YouTube channel as a creative outlet as I was miserable in my chemistry program.

That’s when I learned that science content creators were considered science communicators. I dove head first into learning about science communication and loved it as it mixed both my passion for being creative through film with my background experience in science. After a series of unfortunate events, I eventually failed out of my chemistry PhD program—but I was determined to earn my PhD as earning that degree would open so many doors for me. I proposed a PhD program in science communication to the Dean of the graduate school, got it approved, and successfully turned my passion project to my main career and research study!

MUSE: Thank you so much for your honesty and sharing this. So often we see people being successful without knowing all of the hurdles and challenges that led them to where they are today! So, to relax from all of your hard work, what hobbies do you have outside of graduate school?

Stephanie: Before moving to Tennessee for graduate school, my hobbies included going to concerts, the beach, movies, and walking around the mall. I quickly had to change my hobbies moving to a land-locked state. Now my hobbies include hiking, exploring waterfalls, trying out new restaurants, and indoor and outdoor rock climbing. I feel madly in love with rock climbing as it allows me to work out both my mind and my body. It is was a low impact sport, which is better for my body after so many years of falling practicing gymnastics for ten years. Haha! Rock climbing brought me friendship and a community outside of science which helps me with my work-life balance.

MUSE: So awesome to see that work/life balance! What do you enjoy the most about your field and/or graduate program?

Stephanie: The fact that I made up my own PhD program has worked for me because I was able to curate mentors and support system to uniquely meet my needs. It also allows me to bring together love for film and photography into my world of science. My research gives me the opportunities to meet different types of scientists, learn about their research, and have the honor to capture and share their stories. I love being behind the camera, learning new skills, and putting them into good use. I do miss chemistry benchwork, but I love that I still have the freedom to create and learn about the world around me.

MUSE: What advice would you give for someone who wants to do science communication or go into STEM?

Stephanie: As an underrepresented minority or low-income student, we don’t always have the privilege to come from a family or community of STEM experts. Look for science programs or clubs that cultivates an environment where you are supported and can thrive in. This rule applies for both undergraduate and graduate school programs. Graduate school is hard enough as it is, there is no need to make it harder by being in a toxic environment or around toxic people. Don’t be afraid to speak up and advocate for what you need. If there is a will, there is a way, and no will always be the answer is you never ask.

MUSE: Why is representation important?

Stephanie: Diversity and Representation is so important in STEM because it is used as a tool to help recruit and retain us (underrepresented minorities) in STEM. It was seeing women scientists represented on screen to be inspired to pursue chemistry as a career. It was having Hispanic professors at UCF that served as role models and mentors to finish my B.S. degree in chemistry. Finally, it’s seeing the lack of representation in graduate school and positions in power that drive me to push through and be a leader in my field to open doors for those who follow. I want to continue this cycle and help up no longer be minorities in STEM, but be known for being leaders, decision makers, influencers on and off the screen.

MUSE: This has been so fantastic Stephanie, thank you for these incredible insights and stories! Do you have any parting thoughts for other students?

Stephanie: It takes work and humility to reach out for help and build yourself a support system made up of professors, directors, friends, advocates, and mentors. Even with a solid support system in place and picking the best program for you, you are still highly likely to experience microagressions in STEM from people who don’t understand you and your background, or who are simply not nice people and leaders. As much as words may hurt, it takes resilience, perseverance, and self-advocacy (and therapy) to push through and create solutions that will get you to where you need/want to be. Never let others decide what’s best for you. You got this!

Thank you so much for this incredible interview Stephanie! We also want to share how important therapy and mental health is regardless of where you are in your STEM journey. Right now on Sanvello, they are offering free service through the COVID19 pandemic. You can download this app and gain access to thought logs, meditation guides and so much more. Tune in a few weeks for our next interview!

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