By: Jessica Martin, SDSU Chapter member
This week I got into contact with WSS Alumni Isabel Moreno. She graduated from San Diego State University in May 2019 with a degree in Biology and is now in the Physiological Optics PhD program at the University of Houston. After she gets her PhD, she wants to work at the Salk Institute of Biological Sciences located in California.
Isabel joined WSS in Fall 2017 when the San Diego State Chapter was founded. As a commuter, it can be difficult to find the extra time to spend on campus but she said “WSS was THE organization to join” due to the countless opportunities for networking and resources that WSS provided.
Isabel said that WSS Q&A panels provided her with lots of valuable information about applying to work in labs as an undergraduate student. Furthermore, she met Elizabeth Dinsdale at a WSS faculty networking event, and soon after discussing research interests she landed a spot working in Dr. Dinsdale’s lab. In Dr. Dinsdale’s lab, Isabel was able to have her name in a few publications and work on her own project. While working on her project, she was able to join the NIH funded Initiative for Maximizing Student Development (IMSD) Program at SDSU. The program made it possible for her to get paid for her research as well as have her PhD application costs covered (including application fees, travel fees and a stipend for her research). Isabel says that if she had never joined WSS, she would have never been able to get the amazing opportunity to work on her own research in conjunction with IMSD.
Ever since Isabel started college, she knew that she wanted to pursue optometry. However, through her experience in WSS and in a research lab, she found that she wanted to specifically pursue a career in research. After doing some research on PhD programs, she learned that there were 10 programs in the country that would cater to what she wanted to do.
Although we typically think of waiting for responses as the stressful part of PhD applications, Isabel found that the actual applications were more stressful for her. She had a late start in applying, and had only 2 months to prepare for and take the GRE, get letters of recommendation, collect all of her transcripts and write statements of purpose and personal statements. Throughout the gruelling and expedited process, she leaned heavily on her friend and fellow WSS member Veronica Vasquez who was always there to listen to rants and calm her down. While she was waiting for responses, she kept reminding herself that she “was applying to PhD programs and that in itself was something no one in my family had ever done so I was already succeeding.”
During the application process, Isabel managed to stay on top of deadlines for her 8 applications by creating a color-coded excel sheet with checklists, saving ALL emails and receipts and setting multiple reminders in your phone so nothing slips through the cracks. Applications can be chaotic, but they can definitely be managed if you keep yourself well organized!
Isabel found the interview process to be an extremely positive experience. At interviews, she gained many new skills and met lots of new people. She put a positive spin on all of her interviews because she knew that even if she didn’t get in, she was gaining valuable interview skills that she could use down the line.
Although applying to PhD programs is a feat in and of itself, Isabel exceeded all of her own expectations. She applied to 8 schools and got into 6 of them. She was waitlisted at her top choice, UC Berkeley, but she was accepted into her second choice, University of Houston. When she realized how many options she had, she took time to look into each program and city and considered factors such as existing faculty research and funding those projects had as well as the quality of life she would have in each city based on cost of living. Ultimately, she decided on University of Houston even though she got of the UC Berkeley waitlist because Houston would give her the quality of life that she wanted and she felt as though she fit in better there.
The biggest piece of advice that Isabel has for other women who are applying to PhD programs is to think deeply about what you really want out of a career. You have to find something that you would be willing to do even if there was no paycheck; something that you are truly passionate about. She also emphasized the fact that it is okay to reapply if you are not satisfied with your first round of acceptances. A backup plan never hurts, but don’t let that stop you from giving your all! Lastly, she advised that you put your passion and dedication for the subject into your application and interviews, “they look at all of you not just paper you.”
Isabel had many amazing opportunities throughout her undergraduate experience and has excelled in the post-graduate world of PhD programs. So many doors were opened for her by WSS through valuable information on getting involved in research, faculty networking and building strong relationships with fellow members. Isabel will always shine as a WSS success story and amazing woman in science.