Mikaela Sifuentes, PhD Candidate
University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio
LIFE INSIDE THE LAB
What is your work/research topic? I study stroke, specifically treatment with thyroid hormone as a neuroprotective agent. Over the decades, clinicians have documented observations that thyroid hormone drops in patients after stroke, and higher levels are associated with better recovery. The wide assumption in healthcare is that low thyroid hormone is the result of injury, not a causative factor, but I think there’s more to the story. Researchers have long documented a causal relationship between thyroid hormone treatment and stroke protection in animals, and my job is to find out why. If we can figure out exactly what thyroid hormone is doing to help these animals, this could strengthen the argument for clinical trials. Thyroid hormone is already deemed safe for human use, so it presents a great opportunity for advancing stroke therapy.
Mikaela Sifuentes is a PhD Candidate in Neuroscience at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. Follow her on Twitter @neuro_file.
What was your best day of science? My best day so far was when I got the news that I had been awarded a predoctoral fellowship from the American Heart Association. I had been going through the grind of submitting grants and was expecting rejection when I opened the letter. The validation of getting the grant was the sweetest experience. I struggle with imposter syndrome like many scientists do, so that was the moment where I felt like I could breathe. Yes, someone besides your friends and coworkers think your work has value. Phew.
What are you studying at university? During undergrad, I went to a small liberal arts college called the University of Dallas, where I primarily studied biology. I was also a huge art nerd in high school, but since my university didn’t have minor degrees, I got a “concentration” in art instead. I got to produce some good quality work, and I put on an art show at the end of my senior year. Still, it looks kind of funny on my transcript to have a Bachelor’s in Biology with a concentration in Studio Art.
LIFE OUTSIDE OF LAB
Where did you grow up? I grew up in Dallas, Texas, and even after travelling across the United States and several different countries, it’s still my favorite place to be.
What profession did you think you would be when you were a kid? As long as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be a scientist, even before I knew what a scientist was. I was the kid climbing trees, collecting bugs from the backyard, documenting everything I could with a big old clunky camera. I just wanted to see everything and know how it all works. Sometimes I was too curious for my own good, and I once ended up a little too close to nature when I fell into the Leonhardt Lagoon at the Dallas Fair Park. Nature really captured my imagination the most, and becoming a biologist just grew from there.
What do you do outside of lab? Something about grad school inspired me to step up to the plate and take on leadership roles, so much of my non-lab time is taken up by student events and science outreach. I currently serve as the president of the Graduate Student Association, and I’m a founding member of my university’s Women in Science initiative. I really enjoy talking to the public about science, and our student organizations have hosted several major science literacy events in San Antonio.
What was your biggest motivation to obtain your PhD? I really enjoy challenging myself and testing my limits. When I was deciding whether to go to grad school, I was looking for the best opportunity to grow and make myself a more capable person. In my years as a grad student I have learned so much about science, but most importantly I have discovered new things about myself. Getting this PhD will not only prove to me that I can rise to the task, but it will also prepare me to take on the next challenge in my career.
What is your best advice for girls interested in science? Be your own advocate. You’re responsible for seeking out opportunities and chasing after them. Don’t be afraid to ask for recognition.
What is the next step in your career? I am looking for a postdoctoral position related to the study of stroke, but I am also very interested in getting involved in science policy. This past September I went to the Texas State Capitol with Voices for Healthy Kids to advocate for heart-healthy policies to my state representatives, and I’ll return for Go Red for Women with the American Heart Association in February. By getting involved in the community and supporting science-backed legislation, scientists can really help to break down barriers against science literacy and public health. Last month I was ecstatic to find out that I was selected by the American Society for Pharmacology & Experimental Therapeutics to go to Washington D.C. and talk to my Congressional representatives in support of science research. I expect this opportunity will be a real eye-opener as to what a career in science policy may look like.
What is your favorite book? Without a doubt, my favorite book is Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. It has everything I want in a book: comedy, mystery, tragedy, adventure. I laughed and cried to that book.
What would you listen to while writing? Words/lyrics distract me when I write, so I like listening to instrumental hip hop and ambient music.
Organization nut, or curated chaos? I’ll occasionally have bursts of organizing frenzy, but curated chaos is the status quo. On the plus side, I’ve gotten very good at finding lost items.
What color socks are you wearing? Right now I’m wearing red socks with tigers on them.