Grad students work to make science more inclusive

July 21, 2020  //  FOUND IN: News,

At Michigan Medicine, experts make a global impact in the classroom, clinic and laboratory. From staff members to med students, grad students to professors and beyond, these efforts are focused on advancing health in a myriad of ways.

Two graduate students were recently lauded for their research efforts and their commitment to improving diversity, equity and inclusion both on campus and abroad.

Candilianne Serrano Zayas and Thibaut R. Pardo-Garcia are recipients of prestigious Gilliam Fellowships from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The fellowships are designed to support diversity and inclusion in science.

For Zayas and Pardo-Garcia, the honor serves as the culmination of a journey that has set the framework for everything they do.

Candilianne Serrano Zayas

Finding her passion

Zayas, who often goes by “Candy,” is a graduate student in neuroscience. She was born and raised in Puerto Rico and while her goal was not originally to enter the research field, once she was exposed to it at Universidad Ana G. Méndez Cupey, her plans changed.

“We didn’t have the resources that are found here,” Zayas said. “The universities in Puerto Rico didn’t have the research resources, space or opportunities.”

Once she came to U-M, however, she immediately began making the most of what was available.

“In our lab, we study a family of receptors known as G protein-coupled receptors or GPCRs,” Zayas said. “Opioids are one of the most notable drugs that are designed to act on GPCRs. While the currently available opioids, like morphine, are very efficient at treating chronic pain, they also produce many undesirable side effects in patients.”

So she and her team began working on a project focused on studying one specific opioid receptor. And by doing so, they hope to increase pain relief without any apparent side effects.

‘I just didn’t see a whole lot of … me’

Zayas’ positive experience at Michigan Medicine has inspired her to help lead others down such a path. Last September, the Program in Biomedical Sciences and the Cellular & Molecular Biology program helped fund a trip to Puerto Rico for Zayas so that she could meet with students at her former university.

“I wanted to let them know about all of the opportunities that U-M has to offer,” Zayas said.  

She also wanted to express pride in her quest for knowledge.

“Coming from an area with limited resources and knowledge, I’ve been able to study marine biology in Georgia; I spent a summer in Greece for behavioral research on dolphins; I looked at blood disorders at Case Western Reserve; and now I’m working on opioids at U-M,” Zayas said. “I’ve been able to accomplish a lot and I hope to provide support to others because when I came to Michigan I just didn’t see a whole lot of… me. At the time, I was the only one of Puerto Rican descent in my program. I will say, U-M does great with diversity, but there’s always room for improvement.” 

Her mentor, Manojkumar (Manoj) Puthenveedu, Ph.D. had a similar experience as an immigrant from India more than 20 years ago. He found it jarring upon his arrival to the U.S. that he suddenly was part of a minority population.

Manoj said he considers himself fortunate to have had the opportunity to mentor a diverse group of students studying the cell biology of drug addiction and to support the next generation of leaders: “Candy is an outstanding scientist and passionate about inclusion work. We need to make every effort to give her the opportunities to flourish.”

Thibaut R. Pardo-Garcia

Pursuing science for practical purposes

Sometimes the catalyst for a child’s desire to become a scientist is holding a microscope at a young age and allowing curiosity to thrive. This wasn’t the case for Pardo-Garcia, a graduate student in the neuroscience program who also comes from San Juan, Puerto Rico. His rationale was a bit more practical — though in the end, science has become his passion. 

“I have always had curiosity and creativity, but I also really wanted something that could help take care of me and my mother financially,” said Pardo-Garcia. While job hunting in college to help offset his family’s costs of living, he’d heard from a friend about NeuroID (Neuroscience to Increase Diversity), a program offering a stipend. With that, he took the plunge into science.

Thibaut was introduced to studies on addiction, which further piqued his interest. It wasn’t much further in his career that he met Monica Dus, who became his mentor after he was enticed by her research on sugar.

His own work reflects those beginnings: He is aiming to identify the effects of a high sugar diet on reward learning and the consequences for how people eat.

Like with Pavlov’s dogs, reward learning is thought to play a crucial role in determining how much we eat, which can lead to obesity,” Pardo-Garcia said.

‘Profoundly authentic’

Dus, Pardo-Garcia’s mentor, said diversity is vital in science — and Pardo-Garcia is symbolic of that.

“I didn’t think that I’d fit in with scientists when I was growing up because I like unicorns, pink and glitter,” Dus said. “There was a certain way scientists were perceived to be and it just isn’t like that anymore. Thibaut is profoundly authentic and I feel that is so important for the future of science and its inclusiveness.”

Indeed, Pardo-Garcia has never forgotten his roots. He served for two years as outreach chair for the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science at U-M. And some of the funding Pardo-Garcia and Dus received was targeted to begin a diversity and inclusive mentoring teach-out.

It’s that work, and the work of Zayas, that has led them to remarkable recognition as Gilliam fellows.

“Diversity is essential at any organization,” Pardo-Garcia said. “And we’re fortunate enough to be in position to make a difference both here at U-M and across the globe.”