From Storyteller to Scientist: Why I’m Pursuing a PhD

“As a graduate student, my goals are not only to find answers to new questions about science but also to represent a community of people who are rarely leaders in this space.”

I am a person whose primary motivation is to provide solutions and resources to support an individual’s well-being. That’s why I’ve always been interested in medicine, public health, and research. However, in my previous experience with research and patients, I felt like I was missing part of the story. I started to get to know the people I was engaging with more and listened to their experiences. It soon became clear that I was missing the human side of health: what happens outside of the research lab and the clinic. 

Once I became a patient and started my own health journey, I finally understood that finding answers is hard and that the best path forward isn’t always clear-cut. Social, cultural, and personal factors can make a huge impact on the real-life application of newly-developed therapies and treatment plans. That’s why prescribing diet and exercise to someone isn’t so simple to tackle conditions like obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes. Plus, our understanding of chronic diseases as scientists and medical professionals isn’t always straightforward.

As a health and wellness writer, I would often interview people with health conditions like duchenne muscular dystrophy, Huntington’s disease, hidradenitis suppurativa, and treatment-resistant depression. In almost all of the interviews that I’ve conducted, I’ve realized some key themes:

  • Individuals living with chronic health conditions often mistrust the medical system, especially women and minority groups because their symptoms are frequently invalidated by health care professionals. 
  • Even if they found a health care professional they trusted, research isn’t advanced enough to give the answers they seek.
  • They feel a lack of support from their community and loved ones because of misconceptions around the condition they live with.
  • They wish for greater acceptance in society and spend a significant amount of energy masking their condition to conform to societal expectations. 
  • Because of all of the previous statements, one of the most challenging aspects of living with any health condition is maintaining their mental health. 

These themes came up again and again and were supported through thousands of survey respondents conducted at my previous workplace, The Mighty. During this time, I kept asking myself what I was going to do to help support my community. Before my own health-related hiatus from school, I was set on going to graduate school to become a physician assistant. I’ve realized that in order to best help people with more complex medical conditions, I need to go a step beyond training in just the clinical setting. I need to be able to understand the research process and develop stronger critical thinking skills. That’s why I ultimately decided to pursue a PhD in biomedical sciences at the University of North Texas Health Science Center (UNTHSC). 

My research focuses on vascular physiology, or more specifically, how the vascular system adjusts and adapts to exercise and environmental stress in health and disease. I want to better understand how the vascular system contributes to conditions like high blood pressure and dysautonomia, a condition I live with myself.   

A few months ago, I visited a research laboratory affiliated with UNTHSC that developed the now gold standard cardiac rehabilitation protocol for people living with autonomic nervous system disorders. It’s incredible to me that one tiny room, a few dedicated minds, and many brave research participants were able to develop something that could change someone’s quality of life so much. Despite these advancements, there is still a lot of hesitancy in my community to try the protocol and it goes back to the themes I discussed earlier.

Building trust and feeling seen in research and medicine begins with representation. As a graduate student, my goals are not only to find answers to new questions about science but also to represent a community of people who are rarely leaders in this space. I’m excited to see where I go from here! 

Images from Romero Lab Twitter

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