Updated: Mar 2
Every month, we are going to feature one person in STEM and share their unique story about when, how and why they became interested in their field. They will share what they are working on and some fun facts about their work. Here is our first interview with neuroscientist, Mélise Edwards!
PhD Student in Neuroscience & Behavior
Q: Tell us a little about yourself!
A: Hey all, my name is Mélise (pronounced May-leese) and I am a first year PhD student in the Neuroscience and Behavior program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. I study neuroscience (or brain science) and the role that sex hormones play in cognition and aging. I love what I do because I get to use many amazing technologies and approaches to ask questions about how our brain works the way it does!
Q: What are you currently working on?
A: I am currently looking at the role of estrogen in cognitive performance. One approach I use to study the brain is RNA-sequencing, a technique which analyzes the transcriptome of gene expression patterns encoded within our RNA, to look at functional protein expression. For example, I am interested in estrogen receptors and how widespread they might be in different brain regions.
I'd also like to note that I learned this technique for the first time this year in graduate school. I did not come into graduate school knowing everything about everything! I am learning as I go and very much a beginner, but this is normal and I try to remind myself to not get intimidated by not knowing everything. If you have a curious mind and are interested in the work, that is the most important part because you truly can learn any technique or skill with practice.
Q: Did you always want to become a scientist?
A: Heck no! When I was younger, all I knew was that I loved learning and asking questions. I wanted to be a veterinarian, then a performer, then a French translator, then a civil rights lawyer. Even though I loved learning about science and it was my favorite school subject, I did not always test well and did not make good grades in my science courses. This made me feel uneasy about pursuing college or higher education. I saw scientists as many people do -- as untouchable figures who must possess some inherent intelligence that I simply wasn't born with. This is of course untrue and there are experiences and stereotypes which consciously or subconsciously affect our confidence in pursuing certain career paths. I was not white. I was not a man with glasses. I had several interests including languages, social justice, civil rights, politics, Russian literature, ecology and conservation, music and dance. I hadn't seen any scientists who resembled me or my multifaceted interests.
Science is fulfilling to me because I get to ask questions about the worlds within and around us. I get to be curious, problem solve, learn and see the world from such a beautifully different perspective. I also see now that I can be a scientist who is involved in local government and social justice, dance, sing, read, rock-climb and so much more at the same time. In fact I can use my privileges and position as a scientist to enact change in the ways I want to see in my communities and that is just as important to me.
Q: How did you become interested in neuroscience?
A: It was a winding path for sure! I studied biology with a focus on behavioral ecology in college. It involved a lot of field work and observing animal behavior in the wild. I loved it, but after I graduated and worked full time with the National Park Service, I found out I didn't really love doing field work 40 hours a week, which was important to learn in my gap year!
I set out to work in different science labs as a research technician to figure out what else I could see myself studying. I had never really been exposed to the field of neuroscience before, but I took a job as an animal technician in a neuroscience organization called the Allen Institute for Brain Science. After talking to scientists, reading about the institute's work and seeing the projects happening there, I knew this was the field for me. It combined my love of behavior with my interest in biology. I spent all my time reading neuroscience books and listening to the Brain Science Podcast. Soon after, I was promoted to a research assistant position and was able to get amazing research experience that looked great for graduate applications as well. Afterwards, I took a position at a medical center to manage a research lab that studied the effect of hormones on behavior. I had taken an online class in hormones and behavior, so this really cemented that this is what I wanted to specifically study. Managing a research lab also gave me the confidence to pursue graduate school.
Q: What hobbies do you have outside of your STEM field?
A: I love rock-climbing (and have been climbing for 11 years!) and used to compete across the country and climb outside tons! Now I just climb for fun indoors and outside. I also like singing and dancing, watching reality tv, reading, running, playing soccer and going on hikes with my dog Rupi.
Q: What are you enjoying most about graduate school?
A: So far I have loved everything. I love my program and their commitment to the success of their students. I love my incoming cohort and how supportive and inspiring they are. I love juggling a lot of different things that make me excited like STEM outreach, research, really amazing classes, lectures or seminars and so much more. I love being a part of student led committees where you can see how passionate students are about bettering our environments for future scientists that occupy these institutions and spaces. I love having access to crazy cool tools and resources that help with research projects and traveling for conferences all across the United States. It is hard work but I wake up every day and truly feel so lucky and grateful that I get to do this.
Q: What advice would you give to someone who wants to be a scientist or go to graduate school?
A: Know that if you have curiosity or passion for science, in depth knowledge and technical skills can come later. Also know that one bad grade or semester will not stop you from becoming a scientist. The most important thing is to be interested in the work and find an area in your field that makes you excited. I went from making bad grades in science to learning how to test well and make great grades!! I did not let those bad grades define me and sought lots of relevant work experience in research labs to identify what within the field of neuroscience I was really passionate about. Do not be afraid to ask for help or mentorship (in your community or on this website!) I would also like to advocate for gap years in between undergrad and graduate school to (1) make money, (2) identify if you truly like the work enough to go to graduate school and (3) get relevant work experience and try to learn a variety of amazing skills, collect and analyze data, have published papers under your belt and presentations to strengthen your graduate school applications.
Another thing I had to learn on my own -- being able to test well on exams, ask great research questions, etc are all skills that can be strengthened and developed over time! Do not feel that if you do not immediately possess these skills, that cannot ever be changed. These are not fixed traits and all of my skills have been developing over time and will continue to develop in graduate school. Also, know that you are intelligent, capable and that people are waiting to help you succeed on the path you want to take. You can do this.