Dr. Michelle Tong – Systems Neuroscientist

The professor who got bad grades

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Finally, as I think specifically about being a woman of colour in STEM, I think one thing that helped me greatly was the community that I gained through continuing to pursue opportunities and just staying involved despite discouragements (and those poor grades)! Throughout my undergraduate career, I was consistently involved in doing research, something that I loved. Research is a series of open-ended questions where you have to figure out the answers. It afforded me a freedom of expression that the more structured exams did not. One summer I worked at a hospital looking at what proteins where involved in remodeling the heart after a heart attack. During the school years, I worked with a professor looking at biological motion perception in pigeons. Another summer, I traveled to Germany to study how honeybees navigate to their food sources.

I believe it was these experiences that helped me progress in my career and shape my interests. Not only was I able to later demonstrate a committed interest in something, I also developed relationships with professors and researchers who were able to speak to my abilities beyond what my GPA could show. These mentors and role models were the ones who eventually pointed me to opportunities and wrote the reference letters that brought me to where I am today. When I think about the obstacles that I overcame, I realize that I did not overcome them alone. Indeed, it was the community of individuals around me that lifted me up, emotionally and practically.

1.) What is your chosen STEM field?

I'm an assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at Earlham College in Richmond, IN. I like to think of myself as a "systems neuroscientist." This means that I'm interested in examining the nervous systems at many levels, trying to figure out how genes and proteins affect perception and behavior. In the lab, my students and I focus broadly on how such sensory representations form (learning) and persist (memory). For animals who live in an unpredictable world, the ability to process and remember their sensory environment accurately is crucial for survival. We pair behavioural studies with psychopharmacology and techniques in molecular biology to study the molecular pathways involved in olfactory memory. Studies of olfactory memory can help us deepen our understanding of how the brain translates the physical world into its “memory world.”

2.) Why did you choose this field?

As a psychology major, I had to take a course in sensation and perception, as most psychology majors do. In the textbook, there was a small section on olfaction (the sense of smell) hidden among thick chapters about vision and audition, and the mystery of the sense spoke to my curiosity. It doesn't follow the same neural pathways as the other senses, and it's one of only two areas of the brain that still have new neurons in adulthood. What is the olfactory system up to? So, when I applied for graduate schools, I looked into labs that studied olfaction. Now, I run a lab that continues to explore these mysteries!

3.) What obstacles have you had to overcome in your career/college journey?

I had bad grades in college. I mean actually bad! I worked really hard and just loved the material I studied. I remember sitting in lectures and tearing up after learning something amazing about the brain. For some reason though, my grades never showed my deep interest in the material and work ethic. I think many students can relate to my experience. Part of my struggle was serious test anxiety (e.g. I had to take my driver's license test 8 times!), part of it was just that whatever made students good at taking exams didn't come easily to me. After my first year in college and realizing that this was serious problem that could affect my future, I began working with the learning strategies center at my undergraduate institution. They helped me develop better strategies for studying material, for taking multiple choice exams, and for dealing with anxiety in high-stakes test-taking situations. I also worked closely with my campus writing centers to help with my writing and communication. I owe a great deal of my later successes to the staff and student volunteers in those centers. They are well-trained to help with these issues, and at most institutions, they are highly under-utilized by students. One piece of advice I often give to young students: commit to 1-2 visits per month to a learning strategies center and writing center at your school. Bring them everything and anything. Even short-answer questions on an exam are opportunities to improve writing skills. These short visits will slowly build up to a powerful outcome.

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