Mónica I. Feliú-Mójer
Ph.D. candidate in Neuroscience at Harvard Medical School and vice-director of Ciencia Puerto Rico
My Ph.D. program is based at Harvard Medical School and my laboratory is in Massachusetts General Hospital. Ciencia Puerto Rico is the non-profit I co-direct as a volunteer.
What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
I grew up in Vega Alta, a small town in northern Puerto Rico, where nature was my playground, so I was always curious about how the world around me worked, what the biological basis for events that surrounded me was. While I never really had a scientific role model as a child, my parents were always very encouraging of my interest in science.
When I was 11 years old, someone very dear to me was diagnosed with a mental disorder and upon seeing how that person's behavior was changed as a result of this affliction, I began to develop an interest in learning how the brain works and how it leads to behavior.
At the beginning I thought I would become a physician, because I didn't think there were any other career options in science, until my General Biology professor (the very first scientist I ever met) encouraged me to try a summer research program. After that first research experience I was hooked, and I knew that was what I wanted to do: be a researcher.
What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
The coolest project I have ever worked on is Ciencia Puerto Rico, the non-profit I've volunteered for during the last 6+ years. Ciencia Puerto Rico is a resource and expert network for anyone interested in science and Puerto Rico. Through its online collaborative platform, Ciencia Puerto Rico brings together members of the greater Puerto Rican scientific community and leverages their knowledge to give back to Puerto Rico and help advance science, research and science education in the archipelago.
Ciencia Puerto Rico has given me the opportunity to give back to Puerto Rico; to connect with scientists and individuals with shared interests, background and experiences; and to mentor younger students (from grade school to college) interested in STEM. Moreover, this project has helped me realize the impact of science beyond the bench and the importance of public engagement with science.
Role models and heroes:
There are many people that fit in this category. I would say that everyone that has taken the time to mentor me at different steps of my career and my life. The best advice I ever got is to have multiple mentors, figure out what they do best and how they do it, and learn from that. The support and advice from my mentors has helped me achieve my goals, and they are the reason I want to pay it forward by mentoring others.
Amongst these people, I have to give a special mention to my undergraduate research mentors, Carlos Jiménez-Rivera and Rafael Vázquez Torres, who really helped shape my scientific interests, gave me the first opportunity to think independently, and to explore my capabilities as a scientist to the fullest.
They were always demanding, but loving and encouraging, and frankly made me fall in love with scientific discovery. My Ph.D. advisor, Josh Kaplan, has also been very supportive of my academic and non-academic interests, and has allowed me to grow and mature as a graduate student and a scientist.
I also have to single out the Ciencia Puerto Rico volunteer team. They are a group of professionals highly committed to the organization's mission and to each other. They are a great source of advice, ideas and inspiration, both at the personal and professional level. We are like a family to me and working with them is a privilege.
Last but not least, my family. They have been a constant source of inspiration, support and encouragement.
Why do you love working in STEM?
Nothing compares to the thrill of discovery and of contributing to the advancement of knowledge. Working in STEM has encouraged me to be curious and think outside the box, something that is definitely helpful in the lab and in life. Also, being a scientist has allowed me to meet people from diverse backgrounds and expertise, and that diversity has enriched my life.
Advice for future STEMinists?
- Be passionate about what you do.
- Keep open to new directions and think outside the box.
- Be a leader.
- Have multiple mentors.
- Don't be afraid to network. You'd be amazed at the unexpectedly great opportunities that arise from networking.
- Believe in yourself and be confident.
- Don't let people say you can't or that it is too hard to do it, particularly because you are woman. I was once part of a panel and someone asked me if I ever felt at disadvantage because I was a double minority in science (a woman and Hispanic). My response: No, because I never let that define me. I've never seen myself as a Hispanic woman scientist; I am a scientist that happens to be a Hispanic woman. The way I see it, being a Hispanic woman is an advantage rather than a disadvantage, because of the diverse set of skills, experiences and knowledge that I can bring to the table.
- Work hard.
- Don't be afraid to ask for help.
- Always be curious.
Favorite website or app:
My email! It is an important tool for work, to stay in touch, network. Twitter is my one-stop for news about science, current affairs and issues that I care about. Facebook allows me to keep in touch with family and friends.