She’s a young woman whose story will make your heart beat just a little bit louder. Elizabeth Rodriguez is the rare amalgamation of motherly wisdom and youthful flare that is chicken soup for our souls.
An interview by Matt Gaidica
Elizabeth greeted me with her signature smile in the lobby of the Ann Arbor Veterans Affairs (VA) Hospital. It was nearly 10 A.M. as we navigated the main floor. I felt very much the bumbling reporter following the head honcho through the hallways. She was giving head nods and cheerful how-are-ya’s to everyone she saw while my clumsy backpack nearly took hold of a patient’s IV bag. .
We made our way at last to a cozy, quiet corner of the third-floor cafeteria, and there began a conversation that took me on a journey through Elizabeth’s life. At the end, I was both awed and inspired. Not often do you meet someone who so clearly has the power and presence to make an impact on you, but yet who sits there before you with such confident humility. “Ellie,” as Elizabeth is nicknamed, has fought adversity and paved her way over rocky roads to get to where she is now. Her story will move you, as it moved me, and we both agreed afterwards that this tell-all would not be one that follows a direct path from birth to neuroscience. So, instead, we follow the rabbit holes, both dark and light, all perspicaciously filled.
Working at the VA
The VA is only about a mile from the University of Michigan’s central campus, but its energy is quite different from most research labs, and even from the other hospital down the street. Though the problems of the patients are clearly wide-ranging—from mental to physical—you very quickly develop a sense that each and every one of these individuals has experienced something you haven’t. Perhaps it was in Vietnam, Desert Storm, Afghanistan, or just in training, but there is a solidarity that radiates from the men and women around you. There’s a solemnity reserved for them, and an instinctive honor you want to show in their presence. Of course, the blue badge around Ellie’s neck gives her a place among each and every one of them; she’s not a patient, nor a doctor, but yet she does something behind the scenes to keeps that place, those people, alive and well.
Ellie has been working on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) under the mentorship of Dr. Israel Liberzon for nearly six years. As she explains, PTSD can result from exposure to a traumatic event, and while nearly half of the American population will experience at least one of these episodes of trauma in their lifetime, our veterans have an increased exposure to them in times of war, and therefore an increased risk of developing PTSD. It might seem that the VA is the perfect environment in which to stay inspired to work on such a problem, but for Ellie, that hasn’t always been the case. Not only can research efforts within the bureaucracy of a hospital system offer many challenges, but the isolation from other students and campus life has taken years for her to overcome.
“It has been a battle,” Ellie told me, especially compounded by the internal anxiety that she has dealt with since entering graduate school. She related that, “Most of my graduate career has been spent feeling afraid, feeling anxious, and feeling undeserving of my place here,” and it was, in part, the separateness of the VA environment that amplified her insecurities. To meet her and talk with her, though, you wouldn’t know that there is even a trace of trepidation inside her. Every word she speaks has a deliberate grace to it, her lipstick is bold and perfectly coordinated, and when asked to pose for a photograph, she knows exactly what to do. Much of that comes from her finally discovering and embracing her power within. “Now I understand,” Ellie told me, “that every step of the program is designed to help, encourage, and teach you.”
Realizing that the system was here to work for her, and not against her, was a shift in thought, and then in action, for Ellie. She took small steps to cultivate collaboration and to partake in events that she normally wouldn’t. It was these baby steps that led to a gigantic shift in her appreciation for her research, and even for the VA. “You’re not here to be perfect,” she said. “You’re here to learn and grow.” Without pause, she offered a profound statement about being in graduate school that we should all keep in mind: “The job of a PhD student is to ask smart questions, not give smart answers.” Embracing her own Socratic advice, she has found it easier to approach other people and to vocalize her ideas, ultimately guiding her towards a more fulfilling experience as a student-researcher.
Born in the Dominican Republic, Ellie entered the United States for the first time in February 1996. She remembers this as a year of record low temperatures in the Bronx. “I was bundled up in four jackets,” she recalled. “It was a miserable introduction.” For nearly her entire life (twelve years at this point), Ellie’s father had been forging his way through the immigration system in order for her, her two sisters and mother to enter the country.
A family of five with very limited financial means, spoke no English, and without modern technology, theirs was a nearly impossible situation. In a misguided attempt to shelter her and her sisters from “the corrupting influences” of the Bronx, her father quickly found refuge in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Her father was unable to find employment there and quickly returned to New York City, this time in Brooklyn. Ellie finally began school that fall, retaking eighth grade, largely because in the first six months in this country her father moved the family three times. Shortly thereafter, at the young age of thirteen, Ellie became pregnant.
She describes her pregnancy as a turning point of indescribable challenge, but also one of opportunity. As a young mother, she was required to change where she would attend high school, and so she entered a school that offered day care for her daughter while she attended classes.
It was during this time of accelerated maturity that Ellie became more aware of the conditions of her own family. She began seeing hints of abnormal behavior in her younger sister, and reflected deeply on what underpinned the actions of her aunt, who was simply deemed “crazy” in stories told during her childhood. Her sister was ultimately diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. She also recognized the power of inheritance, as nearly one-quarter of all the women in her family suffered from some type of mental disorder. “I always thought very critically,” she said, and she knew that “there had to be something that could explain this.” At the time, that something was the field of psychiatry.
Doctor to Scientist
Initially convinced that she would become a doctor and wrangle mental disorders to submission in a white coat, Ellie began her pre-med track at SUNY New Paltz, a school outside of New York City and away from her chaotic family life and her beloved daughter. However after three semesters, she transferred to Hunter College, which brought her back to The Big Apple. During this time, she earned admission to Minority Access to Research Careers (MARC) program through which she had the opportunity to conduct research and began working with zebra finches, a bird commonly used in research. “I was using dopamine and opioid blockers to investigate song-learning and changes in sexually dimorphic behaviors,” she recounted, and over the course of four years, she produced multiple posters and traveled the country presenting her research. Her summers were occupied by internships in Columbia University’s Summer Program for Under-Represented Students (SPURS), where she engaged in additional biological research projects.
Slowly, Ellie began seeing the problem of understanding psychiatric disorders as one that lacked clearly identified mechanisms, and discovered that it wasn’t the medical doctors who were working to solve this, but rather the scientists and researchers. Her sights, which had been so feverishly cast on the MCAT, and then on medical school, shifted now to graduate school, where she could hone her critical thinking skills, and more importantly, continue working on the problems that gave her purpose in an impactful way.
Joining forces with Dr. Liberzon, Ellie now researches the neural mechanisms that underlie PTSD. Specifically, she is looking for therapeutic targets, both in terms of neurochemicals and anatomical location, that might be important when considering the treatment of PTSD. Currently, she’s focused on the role of the hippocampus (where most of our memories are formed), as impairments within that brain structure are often exhibited by those who suffer from PTSD.
At this year’s Neuroscience Graduate Program’s Preview Weekend, Ellie had a chance to share her story as a graduate student with a younger prospective student. “The young girl said something that really changed me,” Ellie told me, which was, “It’s like you reach into my soul when you talk.” Through this conversation, Ellie connected with the core identity of someone traversing the many pressures of entering graduate school, and was able to offer real hope. Here’s a glowing example of how empathy transcends and trumps sympathy, and how it makes all the difference if the person giving you advice has truly walked in your shoes before.
After that night, Ellie recognized that, “Keeping thoughts to yourself is damaging,” which is why she wants to continue speaking with young students about graduate school. She’s been considering writing a book about her experiences as a graduate student and what she has learned. The goal, as she puts it is “…to get people to understand what I know now, sooner and faster.”
Admittedly, her realizations come largely from dealing with her own fears. It’s the engagement with people that has kindled both her passion for science, and perhaps now, for working with others on addressing their own insecurities. When asked for some simple advice that we can all apply, she simply stated, “If you find yourself afraid to do something, that’s the thing you have to do.” It’s those things, she explains, that are holding us back from being the best versions of ourselves.
While speaking and writing will certainly make up some part of Ellie’s future, she still has a daughter under her wing, and so she divides her aspirations between dreams and reality. She wouldn’t be the first to worry about the academic market and the ongoing inflation of requirements to become faculty, noting, “I simply can’t afford to go the traditional route and step into a post-doc after this.” She’s keen on finding a position that will allow her to do what she does best, which is to understand a problem and to disseminate that information in clear wording. This comes under the broad umbrella of, “consulting,” but Ellie isn’t necessarily ready to commit to that as her definite next step.
In closing my interview with Ellie, I asked if we could direct students her way who might have questions about navigating through life or school. “Of course!” she exclaimed. “I would love that.” (You can find her contact information here.)
After a conversation that turned out to be nothing other than candid and enlivening, Ellie left me the way she found me, with that signature smile, all her own.