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#STEMStories: Charlene, Neuroscience & SciComm PhD candidate, USA

#STEMStories: Charlene, Neuroscience & SciComm PhD candidate, USA

1. Introduce yourself, who are you what do you do?

My name is CharleneRivera-Bonet and I was born and raised in the beautiful island of Puerto Rico. I completed my bachelor’s in Biology at the University of Puerto Rico, Cayey and am currently a graduate student in Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. I work in a laboratory that uses Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) as a tool to study the brain. Basically, it is a huge magnet that makes images of the brain and allows us to study it in great detail. I use those images to study depression in people with epilepsy. Epilepsy and depression, when you think about their symptoms- seizures and profound sadness, respectively- sound like two very different disorders, but neurologically speaking, they are fairly similar. Often times they co-exist. People with epilepsy often experience depression which can be a reaction to living with the condition or induced by changes in the brain. In my research, I use MRIimages to look at how changes in brainconnections relate to depression in people with epilepsy.

I enjoy doing science, but I also like talking and writing about science. In addition to my PhD in Neuroscience I am getting a PhD minor in Life Science Communication so I can learn how to communicate science effectively. I also help lead my program’s outreach committee, through which we visit schools and science festivals to talk to students about the brain and careers in STEM.

2. How did you arrive at this career (or point in your life/work)? Was it always something you knew you wanted to do?

I owned a tiny microscope growing up. It was a little kit that had some slides with different kinds of threads. Some were “make your own” so I could put anything I wanted on it and observe it under my tiny microscope. I think I have liked science since I was very young but didn’t really know what I could do with it. It wasn’t until I started college that I got to use a real microscope, and I was mind blown. It was also in college that I learned what a scientist was, and I decided to become one. I took advantage of all the opportunities that came my way. I was part of a research program called the Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement (RISE), I did summer research at different universities in the United States and went to conferences for underrepresented minorities. All of these experiences prepared me to go to graduate school. I explored many different areas in science such as plant genomics, toxicology, microbiology, and neuroscience, andI fell in love with the brain. I decided to pursue a PhD in neuroscience to learn more about our fascinating nervous system. In graduate school, I have made connections with researchers from different scientific backgrounds that have allowed me to shape my research in a way that combines different interest: the brain, epilepsy and mental health.

3. What about your job makes you jump out of bed in the morning, especially on those cold, dark mornings?

There are many things that make me excited to go to work! I think the one that motivates me the most is contributing to the understanding of mental illness in order to identify better interventions and to reduce the stigma around it. I am a big believer that mental health matters, and that it is as important as physical health. Helping people understand the value of good mental health is a big motivator for me.

4. What is your personal cure for stress or how do you raise your spirits in times of doubt? Can you share a Story?

Every Tuesday night, no matter how much work or studying I have to get done, I play volleyball with a big group of friends. All it takes is a few hours of running around and hitting a volleyball to relieve some stress.

It has always been easy for me to get lost in my work or books. Growing up, my mom would ask me to stop studying and go to soccer practice because I needed to do something that would get my mind off school. I am forever grateful to her for doing that. Now it is a priority for me to make some time to have fun. Sometimes I go play volleyball, or dance some Salsa, or simply spend some down time with friends. Those little moments give me the energy to do well at work. You have to be well in order to do your job well. Taking care of your mental health through healthy activities you enjoy will ultimately help you perform better at work.

5. Who is your role model? If no one, any thoughts on this?

I have had different role models at different stages of my career. Currently, I look up two women that seek to make science more accessible to all. Dr. Giovanna Guerrero-Medina and Dr. Mónica Feliú-Mójer. Together, they lead a fellowship I am currently a part of called Yale Ciencia Academy which provides professional development tools to underrepresented minorities in science. In addition, they lead a non-profit organization called CienciaPR, which seeks to advance science education in Puerto Rico.

Science education and communication, particularly to underrepresented minorities is something I am passionate about. Dr. Guerrero-Medina and Dr. Feliú-Mójer’s passion to make science available and accessible to all communities is one to admire and learn from. Their ability to bring their background and culture to inform their work is something I aim to learn. Where you come from and the experiences you have lived can inform the way you do science and the way you communicate science, and I am learning to do so from Mónica and Giovanna.

6. What advice would you give to yourself if you could go back in time?

If I could go back in time, I would tell myself: “Have more confidence in yourself. Trust that you belong here, even when you fail. You will fail many times.Don’t let those failures define you but use them to grow into the scientist you want to become.”

7. Top 3 tips for girls starting out in STEM?

Tip #1: Good opportunities might seem scary sometimes, take them anyways. Working in a new lab, presenting science to a crowd, learning new techniques, among many others. You grow when you step out of your comfort zone.

Tip #2: Sometimes you will feel like you don’t belong here, don’t listen to those thoughts. Don’t think you need to stop being your true self in order to fit in.

Tip #3: Taking care of your mental health is important; life is not all about work. Have some fun outside of work too.

8. How do you measure your success?

Success looks different to everyone and that’s a really important thing to keep in mind. Never try to compare your success to other’s! There are three things that are important to me when thinking about what success looks like: 1) I want to make a positive contribution to my field, 2) inspire the people around me, and 3) be happy and enjoy the work I do.

9. Where can we find out more about your work?

You can find more about my work in my LinkedIn profile: https://www.linkedin.com/in/riveracharlene/
My resume/curriculum vitae (CV) is attached, so you can take a look at the opportunities I’ve had throughout my career and please feel free to reach out and ask me about them!

10. Are you social? Will you share your Twitter handle, or LinkedIn profile, or Facebook so that young women can connect with you?

Science is meant to be shared and social media is great for that! You can find me on Twitter (@charlenerbonet), and LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/in/riveracharlene/), or you can email me at riverabonet@wisc.edu.