|God & Nature Magazine||
PhD Challenges and the Need for Support: A Conversation with Carla Ramos
By Ciara Reyes
What is SACNAS, and what has been your role or involvement in the organization over the years?
SACNAS is an acronym that stands for the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science. It all started in an elevator full of about 8 scientists - a couple Chicanos and Native Americans - at a scientific meeting, and they jokingly remarked that that was it in the field of science. Afterwards, they decided to put this organization together because they realized that there was a need in the scientific field to raise awareness of science in the Latino and Native American communities with the hope of getting more students not only to get into science, but also feel welcome once they were there. The goal of SACNAS is to raise awareness of science in underrepresented communities and provide an environment that fosters these students to continue forward.
I’ve been involved in SACNAS as a member since I was at San Jose State University. My advisor was the SACNAS chapter advisor, and he would ask his students to submit an abstract and present a poster at the annual SACNAS conference. I was really nervous since it was my first science poster, but I loved it because it was so different from what I was used to seeing in undergrad. I was really shocked to see so many Hispanics, so many familiar faces.
While a Ph.D. student at the University of Michigan, you started a SACNAS chapter - how did that happen? What was your vision for the chapter?
The reason I was able to start the chapter was because I had support. Sometimes professors can get really busy and at a big university like Michigan, as great as it is and all of the resources it has to offer, support can be hard to pinpoint someone - you never know who's willing to put in the time. Having the support of my graduate program director and friends who were willing to help me out made a difference. It started with only five of us, and our first meeting was in the living room of my apartment.
There was a need for SACNAS. There are conferences that foster your scientific side, but Latinos, even if we are American born, still have our culture, and if we are first generation we are very adapted to that. When you start college or graduate studies, you are stripped out a familiar environment and placed into a completely different environment. Everyone misses home. Having a SACNAS chapter at Michigan was able to provide a little bit of home for me and others as well. Also, you don’t have to be Latino or Native American to be a part of SACNAS - it is open to anyone that recognizes the privilege of having the opportunity to get a higher education and wants to give back to the community.
How does your cultural background or upbringing influence your approach to science? What are ways that you find your culture and science connecting? Do they sometimes feel disconnected?
Often I am asked, “Do you consider yourself a scientist before a Latina or a Latina before a scientist?” Everyone is different but in my case, I consider myself a Latina first, because I have been a Latina first-generation American born Salvadoran before I even decided to do science. My background influences me a lot. Maybe I haven’t had a lot of role models that I know are Salvadoran in science - there aren’t many of us - but that doesn’t mean that I can’t strive to be what I want to be.
I remember when my brother and I were little, when our mom would tell us to do something, and we told her that we couldn’t do it, she would tell us to go and call Mr. Ideas and ask him to help! At the time, I had not idea who Mr. Ideas was. I thought to myself, “Who is that person? How do we call Mr. Ideas because I really don’t know how to arrange this!”
I realized later that she was trying to get me to think. Her logic was if I’m telling you to get something done, figure it out. Some things she would teach us, and other things she wanted us to figure out. That came in very handy in science. In the lab, when you do an experiment, you use a protocol. You may do what the protocol says and it doesn't work. You really have to figure out what happened. My mom raised me to be independent, self-sufficient and also to think outside the box - this has helped a lot in science. Another thing I was taught growing up was to be resourceful. If you can’t afford something, make it. In science I’m always like that. In science, if I don’t have a little gadget to do a particular thing, I consider how I can make and ask myself how can i think outside of the box? Somethings you cannot change but a lot of things you can.
As for challenges, with my culture I had to add another layer of difficulty, another language. I am bilingual. All of my scientific knowledge and training has been in English. I had to go out of my way to learn how to say things in Spanish to explain my research to my parents. But I see this challenge as an opportunity to share my research work in two different languages.
You are the first scientist in your family. How did your love for science begin, and how did your family respond to your decision to become a scientist?
I grew up Seventh Day Adventist where there was a big emphasis on education, especially medicine. Being a medical doctor was seen as a great way to give back to the community. From a very young age, my parents would tell me about the importance of getting an education, and I really enjoyed going to school as well. It all started with my fascination with the ocean - I was completely thinking a different branch of science than my parents had in mind - marine biology not medicine. I found myself watching documentaries on the ocean on the weekend, and even when I was just doing science, I realized that I just loved learning. To this day, it doesn't really matter if I’m the one discovering something important or someone else - I just like knowing.
I’ve been fortunate that my family has supported me throughout my education and career decisions. They have been my pillars of strength during turbulent times.
You grew up in a religious family. What is your relationship with religion now, and in your opinion how can faith and science communities come together?
I question the institutionalized manmade structure called religion more than spirituality, but I believe that we should be respectful of everyone’s ideas. I can’t say with 100% confidence that there isn’t a God because I don’t have any evidence, but at the same time I can’t say that there is one either because I also don’t have any evidence. If there is a God, I think it’s more like physics. I don’t think good and bad are very different to nature. Nature doesn’t really have a good and bad. It’s a creator and destroyer all in one.
I study the retina, a transparent delicate tissue that is highly organized and complex. Order in the retina is important, otherwise it doesn’t function properly. For those in science who are believers, this organization is one explanation to them as to why they believe there is a God. For them, science is a vessel that gets you closer to your faith. Science is random, complex, and highly organized. It’s almost difficult to imagine that it happened randomly. You can combine faith and science, if that is something that gives you peace of mind. We must be respectful, not only to each other but even to the smallest things that seem insignificant.
Carla Ramos is a first generation American-born Salvadoran Latina from Los Angeles, California. She obtained her B.S in Microbiology from UC Santa Barbara, she then completed her PhD in Cellular and Molecular Biology at the University of Michigan. Currently Carla is a post-doctoral trainee at Vanderbilt University.