Ep 11 – Interview with Irene Park: Questioning Whether to Stay in Grad School or Not

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Irene is currently a sixth-year human genetics Ph.D. student at the University of Michigan. While she enjoys benchwork, she enjoys telling people about science more. She was a news reporter at The Michigan Daily for almost three years (and was the only graduate student on the news staff). She also helped to establish Michigan Science Writers, a student organization that trains students and postdocs to write about science for the general public.

She sits down with us to discuss why she considered leaving her Ph.D. program and what made her decide to stay.

Sponsor – SACNAS

Music – JBlanked: Been on

Contemporary Spotlight: Neurophysiologist Alena Mohd-Yusof

Alena’s pursuit of high academic standards began in 1998 when she migrated with her family from Malaysia to the United States.  Her parents sacrificed a comfortable lifestyle in Malaysia to provide an array of opportunities for Alena and her siblings. Many of the obstacles her family faced following the transition from Malaysia stemmed from financial distress. However, these struggles have served as motivation to persevere and pursue her passions for higher education.

” [I] watched my dad working really hard going from being a civil engineer to coming out [to the US] and delivering pizzas and scrubbing toilets and that’s what really inspired me, I think more than anything, until even today to just keep moving forward and always doing my best.”

During those difficult early years in the United States, her family struggled, and eventually, Alena found herself undocumented but undeterred.  She excelled in high school in both academics and track and field. Her stellar athletic ability landed her scholarships to attend college. She started her higher education journey at Victor Valley Community College and eventually transferred and received a Bachelors of Arts in Psychology with an emphasis in Biological Psychology in 2010 from California State University, San Bernardino (CSUSB).

“I knew I loved science and just had a passion for it. I got into neuroscience by taking a biopsych class.”

During her time at CSUSB, she discovered research and realized she a knack for it. She began working in a psychopharmacology lab, jumping on as many projects as she could.  She developed a profound interest in the study of pharmacokinetics and addiction.She continued to complete her Master’s degree in General Experimental Psychology at CSUSB as well. Her thesis focused on the role of dopamine D2 receptors concerning behavioral sensitization; more specifically, she investigated behavioral response (locomotor activity) when a combination of a D2 antagonist combined with an indirect agonist such as methamphetamine or cocaine.

“I wanted to continue to a Ph.D. program [after my bachelors] but because I was undocumented it would have been a struggle for me so I was in limbo.”

During her master’s career, Alena decided to experience what life was like in a lab that had Ph.D. students. Her lab at CSUSB was a smaller lab, and the University did not have Ph.D. level students. She began working at nearby Loma Linda University(LLU) researching traumatic brain injury (TBI).  She assisted on projects investigating the potential mechanisms underlying repetitive mild TBI by using non-invasive imaging tools to assess potential neuroprotective strategies, including whether nicotinamide (vitamin B3) and hyperbaric oxygen therapy could be used as effective treatments for TBI.

“Working in two different lab environments was a blessing. I kind of got a taste of what [PHD life is like]”

Together, these diverse research projects have taught her that scientific inquiry into clinically relevant diseases is not only very interesting and satisfying but has furthered and strengthened her capabilities as a researcher. By the time she finished her Master’s degree, Alena had published eleven journal articles include Behavioral Pharmacology, Psychopharmacology, PLoS One, Neurobiology of Disease, Brain Research, and European Journal Pharmacology.

She married and gained legal status and seemed set to continue along the path she was on to go to a Ph.D. program, but at this point in her life, things were beginning to change.

“I definitely had my mind set on [getting my PhD] but somehow, I don’t know,  I just felt the need to stop. And I have never actually done that but I finally took that time for myself to just stop for a second and ask myself what I really wanted.”

Despite how terrifying it was to realize that a Ph.D. was no longer what she wanted, especially with all of the hard work and long hours she had put in for the last five years, she was confident that she did not want to continue her graduate school career. The most challenging thing about choosing to forge her path in STEM was the judgment of her capabilities by others and even she the at time doubted herself and whether she was making the right choice.  Her foray into the job market and attempting to find a job was crushing at first. She was rejected for countless jobs mostly for being too qualified. However, she did not give up and eventually found a job as an intraoperative neuromonitoring tech.

” It was definitely disheartening. I figured that with my solid resume I should be able to get a job but apparently, that was an issue. It was this idea of being too qualified and it was a struggle.”

She is now a fully certified neurophysiologist. She primarily focuses on complex orthopedic spine surgery cases as well as vascular (carotid endarterectomy) cases. She uses various modalities such as somatosensory evoked potentials, electroencephalography, and electromyography in order to ensure patient’s safety during surgery.

“Revealing to others that I was no longer going to grad school, it was almost like wearing a scarlett letter.”

To hear her tell her story, listen to our podcast episode featuring her discussing her Journey in STEM.

To learn more about a career as an an Intraoperative Neurophysiologist, check out the article we wrote about it.


Potential STEM Career: Intraoperative Neurophysiological Monitoring

For those who love the clinical applications of neuroscience but aren’t interested in academic careers, Intraoperative Neurophysiological Monitoring (IONM)  may be of interest.IONM uses electrophysiological techniques—such as electroencephalography (EEG), electromyography (EMG)—to monitor the integrity of the central nervous system during surgery. This aids surgeons from damaging important nerves during surgery. This type of monitoring is also used in a multitude of other operative settings as well. This new and emerging field is vital in maintaining patient safety and decreasing the risk of permanent damage to the nervous system.  

Specialized training helps you interpret triggered and spontaneous electrophysiological signals from the patient’s nervous system throughout the operation in real-time. IONM professionals are becoming vital parts of the team, functioning as a second pair of eyes for the surgeon and anesthesiologist and providing immediate feedback and warnings before permanent injury occurs.

IONM are employed by large university hospitals, larger non-teaching hospitals, and smaller community hospitals regionally. Companies specializing in the intraoperative monitoring also employ IONM professionals on a national level. As a burgeoning profession, demand for IONM professionals is very high, and current average salaries are between $60,000 – $70,000/year.

How do you get into this field?

There are two different private organizations offering certifications you can pursue: the ABRET (American Board of Registration of Electroencephalographic and Evoked Potential Technologists) offers CNIM (Certification in Neurophysiological Intraoperative Monitoring) and the (ANM) American Board of Neurophysiological Monitoring also offers certification in IONM). In the US, the CNIM is the most widely recognized certification, although the ANM is solely focused on IONM.

Both organizations offer multiple pathways for obtaining certification, with options for those possessing Bachelor’s degrees or current medical professionals. To be eligible to take the national exam for certification in Neurophysiologic Intraoperative Monitoring (CNIM), an individual must have a minimum of 150 cases solo experience.

There are two paths you can take:

Path 1: a 200 question exam costing $600.

Path 2: a 250-question exam. A 4-hour multiple-choice computer-based exam is offered twice a year.

Typical Route :

Obtain a bachelor’s degree in Biology, Neuroscience, or something similar. Some schools offer IONM training programs.

Find a job as an Intraoperative Neuromonitoring trainee

After handling a minimum of 150 cases solo, apply for the CNIM exam

Interested in learning more?Listen to this episode of our podcast where we interview a neurophysiologist.

Information resources






Training programs












Science in Color Podcast – Ep 10: Interview with Neurophysiologist Alena Mohd-Yusof: Finding Your Own Path in STEM

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In today’s episode, we speak to Alena Mohd-Yusof about her journey in STEM. Alena’s pursuit of high academic standards began in 1998 when she migrated with her family from Malaysia to the United States.  Her parents sacrificed a comfortable lifestyle in Malaysia to provide an array of opportunities for Alena and her siblings. Many of the obstacles her family faced following the transition from Malaysia stemmed from financial distress. However, these struggles have served as motivation to persevere and pursue her passions for higher education.

Despite being undocumented, Alena received her Bachelors of Arts in Psychology with an emphasis in Biological Psychology in 2010 from California State University, San Bernardino (CSUSB). She then continued to complete her Master’s degree in General Experimental Psychology at CSUSB.

Currently, Alena is working as a neurophysiologist. She primarily focuses on complex orthopedic spine surgery cases as well as vascular (carotid endarterectomy) cases. She uses various modalities such as somatosensory evoked potentials, electroencephalography, and electromyography to ensure patient’s safety during surgery.

Sponsor – SACNAS

Music – JBlanked: Been on

SACNAS Bonus Episode #2 – Excitement, Accomplishment, and Pride: Interviews from the Exhibit Hall

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Ever walk through the exhibit hall and wonder what the story is behind the science? How and How did these people end up here and where are they on their path to success? This bonus episode we speak to people we found standing in front of their posters, but instead of asking about their science, we asked about them. Learn why conferences like the Society for the Advancement of Native Americans and Chicanos in Science is essential and how representation makes a difference.


Sponsor – SACNAS

Music – JBlanked: Been on

Science in Color Podcast – SACNAS Bonus Episode #1: First Times and Goodbyes

After being away for several months, Science in Color Podcast is back with a brand new episode. In the first part of this episode, Alex and Veronica Varela discuss their brief trip in October 2017 to the Society for the Advancement of Native Americans and Chicanos in Science (SACNAS) National Conference in beautiful Salt Lake City, Utah. The second half of the episode is spent discussing why they had to leave the conference early; the passing of Alex’s mom. Having a chronically ill family member and subsequently losing them comes with a lot of emotions but going through all of this while in grad school can lend undue stress to an already stressful situation.

Sponsor – SACNAS

Music – JBlanked: Been on

… (continued) Trials & Tribulations of the Questioning Scientist

Hypothesis: (In case you forgot…) The institution of academia and the original goal of science have become marred with groups of powerful individuals who behave inappropriately and perpetuate an environment that is both unfriendly to students and detrimental to scientific inquiry. 

Evidence #3 (Subtle discrimination toward the powerless.): There are certain actions that merit lawsuits. For example, a professor touches you inappropriately or sends you an email with overtly racist comments. These events should first be reported to the appropriate administrators, and not to personal lawyers so that the case is the university against a professor – not just you against a professor. (Hopefully, your administrator is a responsible employee and goes through the correct channels to report the incident, instead of trying to hide it under the table. If this happens, go tell the next person up in the chain of command.)

Usually, discrimination is not so overtly black & white, resulting in little to no consequences for faculty, especially those who are tenured. I’ve met old, white male faculty who are the most caring and cognizant of minority struggles, and I’ve met some who aren’t, from whom the majority of stories regarding students being manipulated, threatened, and abused come – though not exclusively. I’ve seen younger female faculty act the exact same way, and I can only presume this is because they were raised in an academic environment in which the abusive type of mentorship had been normalized… and so, the cycle continues – the abused become the abuser (a common psychological phenomenon applied to victims of domestic, childhood, or sexual abuse). When a parent lashes out in anger, a child learns by example that lashing out is the way to handle feelings of anger. In academia, this means that when a mentor holds a certain mentality (such as a stereotype, a method of conflict management, or a way of treating people from different backgrounds), the mentee is likely to adopt that same mentality. For example, there is a common stereotype of Asian lab technicians working for the lowest pay in sweatshop conditions, and being threatened to get fired and sent back to Asia if they fell out of line… this is the reality.

“The Asians work the hardest.” – Prof. Old White Man

“International students cost too much. I only take those with super high productivity and who don’t ask questions.” – Prof. Old White Man

“(to an international employee) If (other employee) doesn’t get the method working, your job is on the line.” – Prof. Old White Man

Sometimes, discrimination might be visible through behavior, but the evasive language and the absence of concrete proof make this type of conduct particularly difficult to reprimand by administrators. Ultimately, those being abused might have no way to speak up, aside from making the decision to leave a lab. I have heard of entire labs leaving an abusive mentor… but here’s another story:

There is this couple with a child in my lab. The woman works the earlier part of the day, and the man works the later part so they can take turns for childcare. It appears that the man gets to spend more time in the lab because he doesn’t have as much of the childcare duties as the women. However, the woman works much harder when she is in the lab, while the man just sits there with low productivity. Somehow, the PI looks more favorably at the man, while often making microaggressive remarks at the woman. Regardless of the relative quality of her data, the efficiency of her work, and the productivity of her hours, it is the absolute hours in the lab that the PI cares about. The PI’s judgment of the situation is biased, based only on attendance, overlooks all other facts, and takes things out of context. – Minority graduate student

            To bring Evidence #3 back to my hypothesis, when powerful individuals behave inappropriately without backlash, but get the results that they want (such as students working longer hours or even forging data to avoid getting fired), the inappropriate behavior is reinforced. When this happens, the environment in which the student is raised becomes toxic. Now my questions for you are: Do you think the above story would also be true if the professor were a female? Have you ever experienced an incidence where there might have been a subtle undertone of discrimination, but didn’t know how to address the situation? If you could go back, what would you have done differently? What advice can you share with others undergoing the same type of treatment? Please share (anonymously if you must).

Evidence #4 (The little girl’s conundrum.): Ancient scientists, or petitor veritatis (Latin for “a seeker of truth”), shared a goal and responsibility first and foremost to finding concrete truths about the universe. Perhaps my view of academia is a little archaic, reminiscent of the time of Al-Haythem and Descartes when the original philosophy of science is to always ask why, to challenge the status quo, and to look beyond the surface. If genuine questioning forms the basis of science, then one should expect a mentor-mentee interaction to exhibit a questioner with no shame (if their purpose is truly to learn) and an answerer with no ego (if their purpose is truly to educate). Those that follow this type of teaching philosophy tend to be great mentors, because they promote discussion and critical thinking, which nurtures mutual respect.

Then there are mentors who have become accustomed to student adoration and the niceties of ass-kissing, without which they will feel disrespected. As an undergraduate in a major, that was predominantly on the premedical track, I found it shocking how often students felt like they had to “brown nose” to get a good recommendation letter.

“Go to the professor’s office, stroke some ego, wear something cute, and get a good recommendation letter.” – A friend with good intentions

Upon questioning, these professors reacted by assuming that I was a bad student (ahem… I was an A student.) and reaffirming their superior status, instead of just answering the question.

“Why don’t you listen to others? Do you think you’re smarter than everyone else? You’re not a PhD or MD. You’re not a PI. Keep your head down and do what others tell you.” – Prof. Old White Man

            If the respect of an individual is so easily won by the superficial, then are they worth your respect to start with? To bring Evidence #4 back to my hypothesis, the integrity of science is at stake because the historical process of learning through mentorship is at odds with the modern approach of succeeding through building superficial relationships. Unfortunately, there are many professors who positively reinforce behaviors such as ass-kissing to get a good recommendation letter and negatively reinforce behaviors such as questioning for scientific integrity. If those in higher positions create an environment, such that the constituents of academia succumb to ‘playing the game’ as opposed to ‘playing by the rules,’ then how can one truly succeed in science, while also acting on principle? We would like to think that to be the best in science, doing the best science is all that matters… but in modern academia, this is far from the truth. Even peer reviewing, a system set up for checks and balances, when not double-blinded is tainted with the inevitable human factor. How does one reconcile the human in you who wants to reject the grant proposal of your competitor with the scientist in you who sees the strength of the experiments proposed?

Discussion: Perhaps there are no right answers to the questions I have posed, but there are definitely goals of equality and integrity that we should aspire towards. I’ve only provided a handful of examples pertaining to my hypothesis, and I’m sure you will see, hear, and experience more during your time in academia. As a female in STEM, I have been called a “young lady” and a “big girl,” sometimes endearingly… sometimes condescendingly… who knows? But THAT’s the problem. Context is important for the subjective interpretation of undertone and connotation. “Maybe she’s just more sensitive than the others…” – Prof. Old White Man. The story of those being oppressed will always differ from that of the oppressor, who might say that the rise of feminism has ‘sensitized’ women to wrongly assume the presence of sexism in gender-neutral situations. For example, “mentoring” could be misinterpreted as “mansplaining.” Subjective interpretations aside, one cannot deny that events occurring with high frequency over time objectively suggest the presence of a systemic issue. What IS consistent across every single context is the fact that I was outranked, by age and sex and degree. So, when I felt mistreated and told people who adopted the hierarchal way of thinking, I found myself victim-blamed. People would make excuses for my abusive superiors and find fault in me. I did the same. I mean, after all, I must be wrong because I am inferior, right? 

Conclusion: The way minorities, women, and students are often treated by their older colleagues is a reflection of the fundamental inequalities in our society. This treatment suggests that people need to change themselves, assimilate, or ‘be normal’ in order to earn the respect of others. I was told to change my behavior, but it takes two for communication to go awry. And let’s face it… a behavior change from my end will not have as large of an impact as a behavior change from a superior. It’s clear, in science, politics, society… that inequality is hard to fight from the bottom up, but can be easily fixed from the top down, via the actions of administrators and legislation. Let me tell you… inequality will happen to you if you’re an underrepresented minority. When it happens, know that the feelings you have are justified, because somebody with more power just wronged you. You will feel disrespected, but probably not say anything. You will question yourself and find fault within because others wrongly found fault in you.

Future Directions: What then can we – those of us who are not administrators, not PIs, not Deans, not directors – do? All ‘responsible employees’ at a university are required to report incidences of sexual and physical harassment, regardless of your consent. These incidences include things like ass-grabbing, sexting, racist & derogatory comments, threats of or actions resulting in physical harm, and likewise. If you are sure you want to lawyer-up, then file a complaint with an administrator. Publically admonish the bad behavior by facing your attacker and calling them out for what they are. If you are unsure of what to do, then there are two classes of individuals at a university you can speak to without repercussions – your physician and therapists from the university’s counseling and psychological services – both bound by patient confidentiality. Speaking to these professionals will offer many advantages, from emotional support to conflict management tips to help with determining the extent of legal versus daily work abuse.

            Occasionally, you’ll find that there is no solution to a bad situation. Perhaps then, the best one can do is to walk away, which I want to emphasize is not the same as giving up. Walking away is recognizing that there are things you can’t change, and that is not your fault. By walking away, you are acknowledging that a particular surrounding is hazardous, so you are retaking control of yourself and your path. Never regret holding yourself to a higher standard of conduct where integrity and honesty rank above appearance and reputation. If somebody wronged you, do right by someone else. Don’t give up and become an abuser yourself. Break the cycle, because if we continue to allow such a toxic environment – where who you know is more important than what you know, where being smart and confident beyond your title is seen as insubordination, where authority is not to be questioned – science takes a hit. If your macro environment is filled with microaggressions, it is time for a scene change. You deserve the best.

“One should not take a change in path as a failure in the other path.” – Prof. Minority of Caring Old White Men.