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Hey FemNeuro readers! My name is Nuri Jeong and I am a 27-year-old Neuroscience PhD candidate at Emory University. I study how electrical activities of neurons change during learning and memory formation in mice. I absolutely love what I do. I get to train mice to run on a treadmill while searching for rewards in virtual reality environments. When I record from these neurons, it is THE coolest thing to see them fire action potentials while mice are actively engaged in a task.

How difficult was it for you to pursue this career ?

I am an international student from South Korea. I moved to the United States when I was 15 years old to stay with a host family as an exchange student. Moving to another continent alone at a young age was not easy. I missed celebrating birthdays and holidays with my family back home and had difficulties with the language. I still remember the getting a ‘D’ on my first quarterly report in high school simply because I did not understand the homework assignments. I had many sleepless nights looking up words in the dictionary and trying to decode my assigned readings. During my college years, I struggled financially making it difficult to graduate. These were very stressful times. Thankfully, my host family, wonderful mentors, and friends helped me through these difficult times. I could not have accomplished all that I have without their support.

How does gender discrimination play a role in your career thus far.

As far back as I can remember, gender bias and discrimination have always been there (whether I recognized it as such at the time or not). As a child in South Korea I was told that I was too loud, too opinionated, too good at (or not good) at something for a girl. I remember having a male teacher back in middle school who commented that the goal of a woman was to get married and have kids. In South Korea, I did not like the higher educational system in which there is a prominent divide between liberal arts and STEM fields (Korean students are to choose between the two fields of study by their second year of high school). This educational system made me feel as though I was being forced to pursue a field that I was not passionate about. One unfortunate consequence is that female students are less likely to enter the STEM fields dominated by male students. Moving to the U.S. helped broaden my opportunity for high education in the STEM fields.

Now in graduate school, I am thankful to be surrounded by so many empowering female scientists at all levels of training. Throughout my academic career, I have had many mentors, both male and female, who have taught me to become the scientist I am today.

How has intersectionality come to fruition in your experiences of discrimination?

I have experienced blatant discrimination based on my ethnicity and race. For example, I was shopping at a store one day when someone referred to me as the c-word and told me to go back to my country. This verbal harassment escalated to the point where the store had to intervene. When it comes to the more subtle, every-day microaggressions, I find that they can slowly eat away at my self-confidence. It is impossible to know whether a person is treating me any differently or judging my level of competence based on how I look. Even well-meaning words can be hurtful if they suggest a person’s understandings of my identity are deeply rooted in race- or gender-based perceptual bias. Despite the discrimination, I try to stay positive and do my best not to let it stop me from pursuing my goals.

Have you ever been asked, expected, or made to decide between a family and your career?

I am fortunate to have my support network to avoid having to make this type of decision.

But in South Korea, I feel that there is a lot of societal pressure disproportionately placed on women to do housekeeping, parenting, and taking care of family members. Things are a lot better than it was 20 years ago in Korea, but there is still room for us to improve as a society. One of the changes that we have seen in the past few decades is that more women are holding high-paying jobs and making significant financial contributions to their households. Yet, many women still feel pressured to pursue traditional gender roles over their interests. I would like to see more women in leadership roles, especially in science. One reason I am pursuing a higher degree is to become a role model and inspire more young women to become leaders in the scientific community.

Is the gender disparity visible to you?

Being at Emory is a blessing because for the past 5 years over 60% of enrolled students have been female. My lab is led by an energetic female mentor and again dominated by female students and trainees. Perhaps this may be why I have not observed much disparity, compared to other peers.

What is the biggest lesson your career has taught you ?

The biggest lesson for me is that I can always learn more. The more I read literature, the more I realize how much I don’t know. My former mentor taught me to never be discouraged to ask questions. I found that by asking questions, I could learn more lessons efficiently.

What advice do you have for girls who feel discouraged from pursuing a career in Neuroscience because of their gender?

Do not underestimate the power of education. Growing knowledge from education makes you realize that you have the freedom to pursue many different options in your career. Being a minority does not mean being a handicap; you can use it to your advantage. Show the world that intellectual capability cannot solely be reduced to a certain gender. By the age of 16, I chose a path where I saw the biggest educational opportunity. I pursued the field that I truly wanted, despite it being heavily male

dominated. There is always going to be resistance to changing the status quo. In the end, you must hold your ground and protect your mental health. Don’t let external bias stress you out or hinder you from pursuing what you want!

What is your favorite thing to research about science!

I am passionate about understanding how we learn new information. My hope is that my research investigating the mechanisms underlying learning and memory formation will help design a new therapy for memory impairment or learning disability.

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  • Writer's pictureKaylah Holmes

Hey FemNeuro readers, I'm Lauren! My pronouns are she/her and I am a 27-year-old neuroscience PhD student. I am currently studying how brain cells (or neurons) communicate with each other using electrical signals and how that communication may be different in a neurodevelopmental disorder called Fragile-X Syndrome. My work focuses on the learning and memory center of the brain, the hippocampus. I absolutely love what I do! I will never forget when I first recorded electrical activity from a neuron as a rotating graduate student in 2016. It was so incredible to see a neuron fire real action potential! I have always been very curious about how the world works, and I feel very fortunate to have an awesome support system that has always been really encouraging of that curiosity.

What were some obstacles or difficulties you encountered on your path towards a career in Neuroscience?

I am a first-generation college student and graduate student. Many struggles I went through to get to where I am now revolved around trying to find resources and information about how to become a scientist. I originally had no idea you could pursue a PhD until I came to college and began working in a lab. I also had no idea you could participate in a lab as an undergraduate student. In my interview for my first lab position I remember telling the graduate student I would gladly get the lab coffee if they needed it (thinking this was a canonical internship shown on TV...). He told me “no, you’d be doing real science in the lab, not running errands for people”; I was honestly surprised. From that point on, I tried to be very proactive and ask as many questions as I could about everyone’s journey through academia. I also really struggled with certain classes, and treated lab work as a serious part time job. Not to mention, I was already working another part time job while doing school full time. Since I was so passionate about research I prioritized lab work over class work at points in my career. These were some of my main struggles as an undergraduate student. Graduate school has been different. Now, a lot of what I have dealt with revolves around fighting that pesky imposter syndrome and getting people to take me seriously as a scientist.

What role does gender bias play in your career?

Gender bias is rampant in academia. Neuroscience is a relatively male dominated career path. There is also a lot of stigma against women who pursue computational disciplines as opposed to psychology based ones, which is ridiculous.

When was a specific moment you realized you were viewed differently in the scientific world because of your gender?

Oh yes! I was at the the Society for Neuroscience conference, which is a pretty big deal within this field. I was probably about 20 years old and was talking to a professor about my work in the lab and how I was about to be on my first paper. He told me I’d eventually leave science after I found a more well-off man to marry. I still laugh about this one. I would also say this is the first instance where I actually realized something was wrong. I have no doubt other things had happened before this, but I was just too excited about doing real science and unfortunately, to naive to tell.

Have you ever been asked, expected, or made to decide between a family and your career?

I have been asked if I will make structural changes to my career if I decide to have a family. I think many women deal with an immense societal pressure to have children. But I don’t think you have to make a choice. I’ve seen many incredible female scientists be amazing parents and publish incredible work.

How many women do you are familiar with in your line of work? In other words, is the gender disparity between men and women in science visible to you?

I do feel like the disparity is clear, especially on social media. In order to circumvent this, I purposefully take the time to curate who I follow and intake information from. It's important for me to try and surround myself with an amazing community of women and non-binary scientists. I also love being a part of communities like The STEM Squad (which was started by the amazing Christine Liu) where women and non-binary scientists are actively supporting and advocating for each other.

Was your family supportive in your career choice? Did you ever feel doubted by family members because of your gender?

My family once doubted I would go back for my PhD! I took time off to be a lab tech for 2 years after I graduated from undergraduate (to make sure I REALLY wanted to pursue a PhD) and they were convinced I would stay in that position forever. It is difficult to explain the trajectory of a PhD student. Sometimes, there is also that familial pressure to have children and stop working in order to be a care giver. But I knew I couldn’t stop doing science.

What advice do you have for girls who feel discourage from pursuing a career in neuroscience because of their gender? How do you think girls in stem should defend themselves against gender-bias in their school and college careers?

You are the change we need! So many women are working tirelessly to rebuild academia, and I am confident in my lifetime we will see systematic changes that will make the retention of women much better. I wouldn’t be where I am without role models and mentors, so look for the people who inspire you and will stand up for you, and befriend them! I have met so many amazing humans on social media that are now my dear friends and advocates. These friends will help you change the world. Your support system can carry you through when you need

encouragement, don’t be afraid to look around for them whether it’s online or irl.

What is your favorite thing to research or study about Neuroscience?

I’ve thought this for so long, “I can’t believe I get paid to do this”. There are major structural changes that need to take place with how we treat graduate students, post docs, and especially marginalized communities. I do feel very fortunate that I will always be challenged and pushing the boundaries of what we know. It is so exciting to me that for the rest of my life I will be learning. And that’s honestly what I’ve always wanted for myself.

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Hey FemNeuro readers, my name is Clara Guillem! I am 23 years old and I’m currently a second year molecular biology PhD student at Vanderbilt University.

What were some obstacles or difficulties you faced pursuing this career ?

Getting to this point was extremely difficult and took a lot of hard work. During college, I often had sleepless nights watching the sunrise while studying for my next exam. I had to sacrifice some great opportunities. Once, an anthropology professor invited me to Thailand for the summer to participate in an archaeology dig site (anthropology was my minor and this professor really liked me) and I had to say no so that I could stay on campus and work on my biology research instead. Another big obstacle that I experienced in college was learning how to manage my intellectual disability (ADHD) without medication and still push through for my career.

How does gender discrimination play a role in your career path thus far.

Gender discrimination has played a huge role in my career so far. In college specifically I experienced a lot of subtle discrimination in my STEM classes, especially if I showed up wearing a “girly” outfit or makeup. I experienced many instances in which men would “mansplain” to me or tell me that I must have gotten an answer wrong because they had written something different, when indeed I was correct.

When was a specific moment you realized you were viewed differently in the scientific world because of your gender?

My college was holding a research symposium where everyone presented a poster and judges voted on who would win. I ended up winning based on my microbiome research, which was very exciting. A biology professor I had at the time asked how I felt about it. I told him I was very surprised that people were that interested in my research. He proceeded to say “I think it was the tan,” because I was tan from spring break. Even though this was meant to be a joke, it implied that my appearance, rather than my intellect, had something to do with me winning the research symposium. To this day I still wonder if certain opportunities I am given are based on the way I look rather than merit.

What is the biggest lesson you have learned in your career thus far

The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that imposter syndrome is real and especially prevalent amongst women (and POC). I struggle with it daily and am still searching for methods to help me feel like less of an imposter.

What advice do you have for girls who feel discouraged from pursuing a career in STEM because of their gender?

Do not let them win! Use the discrimination as fuel and motivation to be the very best you can be in that field! Report any discriminatory situations you feel comfortable reporting and do not let them quiet you.

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