From C-Average to PhD: You Can Excel in the STEM Field, Too!


In high school, I wanted to become an artist and live a fabulous life in San Francisco painting the portraits of vacationers from around the world. It was when my high school biology teacher, Mr. Vince Bicocca, first took notice in my contentment with a C-average GPA, that my path to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) was suddenly ignited.

He encouraged me to study for the next exam by just spending a little time every night reviewing the textbook material. To my astonishment, my efforts were well justified and I received an A. As I continued to push myself to understand the material, I soon came to a subsequent, yet equally astonishing realization: I really enjoyed the science material I was reading! I began opting for science courses to pack my high school schedule, and thanks to the availability of scholarships and government grants, I was able to consider college as a plausible option.

I was soon a graduating high school senior, awaiting the results from several universities to which I applied. However, as the college acceptance letters began to arrive, my world was shattered when my mom was diagnosed with colorectal cancer, passing away only a few short months thereafter. This palpable heartache only further fueled my desire to pursue a STEM career, and it was through her loss and unwavering belief in my limitless potential, that I was now determined to dedicate my life to the field of oncology, and continue her fight against cancer.

9-7-stem-scientist

That fall, I began my Bachelors Degree in Molecular Biology at University of Califoria, Davis (UCD), adjusting to the rigorous and studious life of an undergraduate in STEM. I was a first generation college attendee, and there were many times where I questioned my abilities and was afraid I would be inadequate for a life in science.

However, I was determined to persevere, and remain a strong role model for my two siblings to not relent to fear, and thus continued forward in pursuit of a college degree. I sought outlets where I could further develop my passions and interests, and soon became an active member of Relay for Life, a twenty-four hour event that raises money for the American Cancer Society, as well as served as an undergraduate researcher in a plant pathology lab on campus.

As my senior year approached, I started to seek out graduate institutions for a PhD in Biochemistry. One obstacle stood in my way: due to my first couple of college years where I struggled to excel in class, my GPA, although sufficient for admission, was not impressive. In those beginning years, I wish I had known just how important those recorded numbers would be for my continuation in academia. I still did not let this deter me, and considered masters programs that could serve as a stepping stone on my way to a PhD. I was soon accepted for the Masters of Science program at San Francisco State University in Biochemistry, and my path through the sciences continued.

During my MS, I first witnessed the impact that I could make as an educator through my personal engagement with students struggling in class. These students included those who could not afford outside tutoring, as well as many women who wavered on whether they should continue in a STEM major. I took careful note of the students who struggled, many of which were women who were the first to seek higher education in their families. As no student desires to fail, I believed that perhaps by spending some time encouraging their personal growth, I could prevent these women from switching out of STEM.

After completion of my Masters degree with high marks, I was accepted into the Chemistry PhD program at UCD in Bio-organic Chemistry with a Designated Emphasis in Biotechnology (DEB), where I now hold a 4.0 GPA amidst research, teaching, tutoring, and volunteering. When I began surveying research labs, I felt a strong kinship to my now PhD research mentor Dr. Sheila David, an expert in DNA repair research who alongside her many duties as a full professor, is a loving mom to two young daughters.

In her lab, I have mentored several undergraduates as well as new graduate students, many of which were women who I encouraged to apply for scholarships and research conferences. My efforts for outreach did not stop there, and in conjunction with the Biotechnology program and one of my other fierce woman mentors and faculty advisor for the DEB, Dr. Judith Kjelstrom, I co-founded the “Women in Leadership” seminar series, which helps empower women to pursue leadership roles in STEM fields. Dr. Kjelstrom is a champion example of a military spouse in STEM, who after having children and endured the rigors of military life with her husband, a major in the USAF and navigator during the Vietnam War, she went back to school to pursue and complete her PhD, and now serves as the Director of the UC Davis Biotechnology Program.

Dr. Kjelstrom connected me with Cari Lyn Vinci, founder of InVINCible Enterprises and author of the book titled “Playbook for Teens”, of which I am a featured role model in the series. Cari strives to encourage young bright females to pursue STEM careers, especially girls who come from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds. She has provided me with numerous outreach opportunities to connect with and encourage middle school girls who are just beginning to consider possible careers.

In my future research profession, I hope to serve as a role model, using my own life experiences to seek out those who are struggling in the sciences, and encourage their educational and professional growth. It is because of role models like that ones I have had, that I not only persevered in STEM, but even considered it as a viable career option. With STEM career opportunities on the rise, now more than ever, women should consider this sector for employment. Best of all, I still have many outlets in STEM where I get to be creative; whether it be through depicting complex molecular interactions in figures or through scientific writing and presentations.

9-7-stem-math-calculator

I wanted to tell an honest story of how I came into STEM, as it was not something I dreamt about as a little girl. However, I hope that as society progresses, this career path will begin to seem not just a viable option for women, but a fulfilling one. All of the role models I have not only enjoy the financial and intellectual rewards of a life in STEM, but also have a family, enjoy hobbies and travel, volunteer, and so much more! These role models enjoy a life of science and the pleasure of having what so many women fear is unobtainable: a work-life balance.

As a military spouse, I understand the uncertainty of deployments and relocations can make pursuing a college degree difficult. My husband, Staff Sergeant Cody Nunez, is a Load Master in the USAF, and endures frequent deployments throughout the year. However, even during his absence he remains my strongest supporter and source of empowerment to complete my degree. Furthermore, I have found that there are many solutions and resources that can be utilized to make pursuing a STEM degree a reality.

If it’s a financial crisis, there are numerous military scholarships, government grants, and even government administered student loans that don’t accrue interest until after you graduate from college. If your college limitations are due to family obligations, remember that there is no set way to attend school, and you have the option to go to school part time, online, and take advantage of the many colleges that are now offering child care services with reduced rates.

Finally, if your reasons for straying away from STEM are that you fear you do not have the chops to do it, I am here to say that yes you can! All of the skills you have developed are translatable to STEM vocations, and there are many opportunities for STEM careers in government, industry and academia. With the wealth of information available at our fingertips thanks to technology, you can take advantage of online tutoring, professors who provide lecture notes and podcasts electronically, and the ability to use video conference platforms to contribute to group projects and discussions.

If there was ever a time for women to make their breakthrough into the sciences it is now, and I truly believe that if this once C-average high school student, now turned PhD grad in Chemistry can excel in STEM, then you can too!

Posted by Nicole Nunez, Military Spouse

+ There are no comments

Add yours

Leave a Reply