Veronica Varela

Spotlight on Veronica Varela

By Ellen Wixted

When I began determining who I wanted to interview for a student spotlight, I was genuinely shocked that Veronica Varela had not been featured yet. She is the epitome of dedication, perseverance, kindness, and honesty. For many first year students like me, her role as our diversity and executive council representative and student ally made her the face of the NGP student body. 

 

“I used to want the words ‘She tried’ on my tombstone. Now I want ‘She did it.’” ~ Katherine Dunham

 

Veronica is a fifth year graduate student working in Dr. Shafer’s lab to study the circadian control of sleep in drosophila, but her research is only a small fraction of what she has contributed to the University of Michigan and Neuroscience Graduate Program. To understand where all of her passion for science comes from, we went back to the beginning of her story and why she decided to go to school for science in the first place.

While she excelled through high school, Veronica went to work rather than college to help support her parents. She got married young and had her first daughter at the age of 20, but after having her second daughter, she “decided I need to provide more and set a better example, so I went to school.” She excelled in college as well, and when a professor told her she had the mind and passion for graduate school, Veronica set out to make that goal a reality. She was awarded a NIH fellowship to provide a stipend while she worked in research during her last two years of undergrad. Here, she discovered her love for science and research (and also that she’s pretty darn good at it).

 

 

“I knew I had two years to do everything I needed to do to become a competitive candidate, and graduate school was the only thing I could afford.”

 

On a whim, Veronica applied to the University of Michigan, and to her surprise (but no one else’s), she got in. When she came here in her first year, she had big plans. Her main goal was to become a prominent scientist of color, to be a role model to others who had similar experiences she did. However, before the end of her first semester, she was diagnosed with cancer, and that put a lot of things on hold. What makes Veronica unique is that this did not dampen her passion for science. Her tenacity allowed her to finish preliminary exams with her own cohort, and within a year, she was back to lab and catching up on her coursework. It did not end her graduate school dreams; it merely shifted them.

 

“Worry less about what you want to be and more about what you want to do.” ~Barack Obama

 

“Being sick, and being out, changed grad school for me. It stopped being so important to me. Not science, but research…Once I came back, I realized that as much as I wanted to be a famous scientist to be a huge role model for people like me, I didn’t have to wait to be a famous person because I could do that while I’m here.”

She began her new focus by helping her cohort create MYELIN, an outreach program designed to help youth become interested in STEM careers. She helped with BrainsRule, a reverse science fair where middle school students come to learn about the brain from graduate students and interactive exhibits. But that wasn’t enough for Veronica. In addition to bringing neuroscience to the public, she decided to become a major influence on how the program here at UMich was run. She worked her way onto the diversity and inclusion committee for the NGP and started implementing different workshops and inviting speakers to increase the focus on diversity within our program.

 

“That was when I realized how passionate I am about this.”

 

That’s when the goal shifted from being a researcher to being an advocate.

 

 

“Let me tell you the secret that has led me to my goal: My strength lies solely in my tenacity.” ~ Louis Pasteur

 

Her most recent endeavor to change the world of academia is her organization Science In Color (science-in-color.com), which provides a place for people underrepresented in science to share their stories, something that was sorely needed in academia. Within the first week of launching the website, they had 30,000 views. Offers of partnerships and sponsorships flooded in, and they have just recently gotten their podcast up and running.

“I’m doing start-up workshops to figure out what I’m doing because I don’t know really what I’m doing! But we immediately got so much support because this is important.”

Like I said, Veronica’s tenacity is what makes her such an unstoppable force. She finds things that are missing in science or academia and does whatever is needed to fix it, and this is what makes her perfectly suited for a career in advocacy alongside science. Her passion for science and love of research will never die, but her desire to better the world of academia is even bigger than that.

Q&A:

What’s your favorite thing about a life in academia and science?

“I get to meet so many different types of people because I come in contact with so many different cultures. I love being in contact with people I typically wouldn’t run into on the street and start a conversation with. And of course, I love, when it works, scientific communication, collaboration, and discussion. Honestly, research is cool. We do cool stuff. Learning all about that? That’s cool.”

What is your downtime like?

“We’re a video game nerd family. My kids and husband and I will be sitting on the couch playing Zelda, we do board games all the time, too. Honestly, that’s all I do with my life.”

Any other things you want to mention?

“Well, one thing I do want to put in there is that coming to UMich for grad school was honestly a great choice. I don’t regret my decision to come here, and the Neuroscience Program is amazing. They’re like a surrogate family to me. I came in as a single mom absolutely terrified. I moved across country, didn’t know what I was getting into, and they were always there to help me.”