Last year, we spoke to Denisse, a Global Health and Infectious Disease Researcher from the USA. She completed my undergraduate training in Cellular and Molecular Biology at the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras Campus. 

1. Introduce yourself, who are you, and what do you do?

My name is Denisse Vega Ocasio, I am a Global Health and Infectious Disease researcher originally from the beautiful island of Puerto Rico. I completed my undergraduate training in Cellular and Molecular Biology at the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras Campus. Following that, I completed my Master’s Degree in Public Health and Health Policy in Philadelphia from the University of Sciences. I am currently a PhD candidate of the Translational Biomedical Sciences graduate program at the University of Rochester. My thesis project studies how social and biological distress can influence an individual’s ability to mount an effective immune response toward arboviral infection in communities in Ecuador. The experiences I have acquired through the years have allowed me to work efficiently with individuals of multiple cultural and scientific backgrounds. Furthermore, these interdisciplinary experiences have granted me the opportunity to apply basic science and global public health to my research methods.

2. How did you arrive at this career (or point in your life/work)? Was it always something you knew you wanted to do?

Let me share with you a little bit of my journey. First, I never thought I was going to end in this career path. Originally I wanted to become a doctor in medicine. It wasn't until my third year of college when I was exposed to research and community outreach (Thank you Ana-Rita Mayol!) that I became interested in research and even more passionate about science outreach and mentoring. There was something about sharing science and working directly with community members that caught my attention and inexplicably made me eager to explore other career options. So in my last year of college, after taking the MCAT, I decided to pause my original plan and last minute I applied to a Master degree in Public Health (Yes, my parents freaked out lol).

I got accepted and moved to Philadelphia, I applied to every opportunity available that would reduce my tuition fee, and I immerse myself in every opportunity that came my way. Over the next three years, I fell in love with population sciences, global health and health policy. I moved to Denmark to complete an internship at the World Health Organization and at this point, with the multiple opportunities I had to engage, I understood the importance of combining basic sciences with population health and how significant these skills were in science. I was finally passionate about my work and confident about what career path I wanted to take, which led me to pursue a doctoral degree in Translational Biomedical Sciences. Without a doubt, the uncertainty and the multiple roads to get here have been the most exciting part of this adventure.

I share my experience with you because I think it is important to understand that everyone has a different career path. Some paths are more linear or traditional, some others look like mine. Do not compare yourself with others, and trust yourself enough to know that non-traditional scientific paths are equally important and valuable. If you are still exploring career options, I want you to know that it is OK to change your mind multiple times and to give yourself permission to explore. I did it, I continue doing it, and I don't regret it.

3. What about your job makes you jump out of bed in the morning, especially on those cold, dark mornings?

Honestly, I would not be able to get out of bed without a strong cup of Puerto Rican coffee! But once I am finally awake I find a great deal of joy in what I do. Therefore, in those cold, dark mornings I get motivated by thinking about the communities that I work with that have always made me feel as part of their family. I also really enjoy mentoring and advising other students interested in a career in global health and infectious diseases and promoting more Latina representation in the field.

4. What is your personal cure for stress or how do you raise your spirits in times of doubt? Can you share a story?

Emotional self-care! However, that looks for you. Throughout my academic journey, I have learned to implement healthy boundaries into my routine. I make sure to take time for myself, my friends and to continue doing things I enjoy (watch a movie, grab coffee with a friend, or grab a glass of wine). Applying these behaviours as part of my routine has helped tremendously in managing stress. Furthermore, it has resulted in more productivity and improved quality of work in a shorter amount of time. By no means am I saying that I have mastered mitigating stress - rejections and “failure” are part of the scientific path - but it is important to continue learning about what causes my stress and when to take a step back.

5. Who is your role model? If no one, any thoughts on this?

I have many role models and each of them have inspired me at different levels. On a personal level my family has always been my support. I was blessed in my family with a big group of strong amazing women (and my awesome Dad!) who taught me kindness, hard work and perseverance. I try to remember that without them I would not be flying today. They all are my biggest role models, and each day, independently of how difficult things can be back home, their resilience continues to inspire me tremendously.

6. What advice would you give to yourself if you could go back in time?

I would tell myself to practice taking time off without feeling guilty and go easy on myself. Make sure you are enjoying every step of the way and the people around you.

7. Top 3 tips for girls starting out in STEM?

Tip #1: ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS, remember your roots! Be proud of who you are, where you come from, and never stop being your authentic self. Diversity is beautiful and we belong in science.

Tip #2: Explore! There are multiple pathways that can lead you to your goals. Science is not a linear approach and building your career shouldn't be any different. Being open to opportunities will expose you to more interdisciplinary training that might uncover hidden talents you didn't know you had. Apply to every internship, program, and opportunity. Believe in yourself!

Tip #3: Don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself.

8. How do you measure your success?

This is a tough question since success can’t be measured by one definite standard, but I would say for me success is measured by feeling joyful about my work and being able to share my experiences and ideas with others.

9. Where can we find out more about your work?

I am happy to chat more about what I do. You can email me: [email protected]

10. Are you social? Will you share your Twitter handle, or LinkedIn profile, or Facebook so that young women can connect with you?

You can find me on Twitter (@den_veg5). Feel free to write!