Carnegie Mellon University


Neuroscience Institute doctoral candidates share experiences to graduate school

By Kirsten Heuring

Heidi Opdyke
  • Interim Director of Communications, MCS

Neuroscience Institute Ph.D. student Luz Andrino attended the wrong class early into her Carnegie Mellon University career. The experience opened up the right door to help others.

"I sat in the front row because I thought it was my class," Andrino said. "It was really for senior undergraduates, and they were talking about what grad school life would be like and applying."

The class, which discussed research opportunities such as postbaccalaureate fellowships connected to the National Institutes of Health, reminded Andrino of when she was an undergraduate looking for similar information at her undergraduate institution, California State University, Northridge (CSUN).

"When I was at my undergrad searching for information, no one knew where to go," Andrino said. "My university didn't have Ph.Ds., really, it was just master students."

Andrino realized she could take her experience and what she learned from the class and share that information with other students looking for graduate opportunities and other programs.

Along with two NI classmates, she arranged for a Zoom panel to share their experiences and opportunities with undergraduate students at her alma mater. She coordinated with the Multicultural Psychological Association at CSUN to create a panel session on opportunities.

Emily Lopez and Tomas Suarez Omedas, joined her. All members of the Neuroscience Institute Student Organization (NISO), each had different paths leading to their Ph.D.: Lopez took time to work between graduating from the University of Pennsylvania and attending Carnegie Mellon, and Suarez Omedas started graduate school after graduating from Florida International University.

Though all three had slightly different backgrounds, they said that they wished they had known more about their options, and they wanted to make others in similar positions aware of what is out there.

"I'm from Venezuela, and I came to this country looking for better opportunities," Suarez Omedas said. "Knowing about better opportunities is a way of getting them, and if you don't know they're there, you might as well not have them. Outreach events like this are a start of closing that gap."

CSUN's student population is more than 50% Hispanic/Latinx and 70% are first-generation students.

"It was a really cool opportunity for us to represent Hispanic Ph.D. students," Lopez said. "We had a panel of people who have different paths to get to a Ph.D."

In 2023, Carnegie Mellon launched its $150-million partnership with the Norman and Ruth Rales Foundation to contribute to the national effort to address the shortfall of students pursuing advanced degrees in STEM fields, particularly among underrepresented and under-resourced individuals.

The CMU Rales Fellows Program broadens access to STEM graduate education through fully funded fellowships and generous stipends, wraparound support and professional development resources. The university eventually will host 85 to 90 CMU Rales Fellows each year.

Aryn Gittis, professor of biological sciences and associate professor in the Neuroscience Institute, works with NISO regularly. She said that student-led events like this help foster a better scientific community both currently and in the future.

"This is a wonderful event that showcases the value of diversity in science," Gittis said "Luz was inspired to do based on her own experience as an undergrad and wants to share that same knowledge with the next generation of scientists in her community."

Andrino, Lopez and Suarez Omedas all hope to do events like this in the future. They plan to start off with schools they have connections to, and they want to make new connections outside of their own networks so they can inform as many college students as possible about the paths beyond an undergraduate education.

"The big thing is you don't know what you don't know," Andrino said. "You can't look up postbacs if you've never heard of them. You don't know what a Ph.D. is like if no one tells you. I really want to bridge that gap for students like me."