SACNAS/GSBS Career Exploration Series: Steve Ramirez, PhD, Assistant Professor, Boston University
The UT Health San Antonio SACNAS (Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science) chapter and the GSBS Office of Career Development hosted a Career Exploration Series Talk in Oct. 2020 with Dr. Steve Ramirez, assistant professor at Boston University, in celebration of National Hispanic Heritage Month.
Dr. Ramirez started by saying that this is his favorite kind of talk to give, it’s a chance to keep it real, and his favorite talks are the ones where he can infuse humanity with his career trajectory. His goal for the talk was to discuss his personal career trajectory, along with some nuggets of wisdom, and talk about some science along the way with time for Q&A.
He begin by sharing that his parents are from El Salvador, and his siblings were born there. After moving to the U.S. and trying several cities, his family settled in Boston where he was born. He grew up infused in culture of education, of the many opportunities available in the United States. In high school, he had no idea what he wanted to do with his life: he really liked biology, liked aerospace engineering, liked Shakespeare and grew up playing music – he liked everything. He turned down the opportunity to study piano in New York, and decided to go to Boston University, in part because he could live with his best friends from grade school. Dr. Ramirez related that he had emotional stability in Boston – all his friends & family were there, and he saw parents every week. Even now that he’s back in Boston he spends a lot of time with his family, his brother and sister live right outside Boston.
One thing he learned is that some people are really good at giving bad advice. He was told to expand his four walls, go to California, Texas, London, but people often didn’t ask him what he wanted to do. He wanted to stay in Boston, and to be near to friends & family.
TIP: people may give you advice that they would have taken. You need to listen to what you want, and march to your own beat. You don’t have to follow what everyone says you should do.
Upon entering college, he took a lot of different classes, thought he might major in Shakespeare studies. He had passed on the music scholarship as he wasn’t sure that’s what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. In college, he kind of liked biology and the life sciences, but he didn’t know much about it and didn’t have any experience. So, he volunteered in a lab, and his first experience was not great. It was a very competitive lab, he didn’t feel it was supportive. But then at the centrifuge one day, he ran into a classmate who recommended he talk to a certain faculty member about it. Dr. Ramirez related that he liked music and Shakespeare and space and maybe science but wasn’t sure what he wanted to do. The faculty member then asked, why not study what produced all these things – the brain? So, he took some classes, switched labs, joined Howard Eichenbaum’s lab, which turned into a great experience. This lab had a great social network, people in the lab celebrated or commiserated together. And at this point in time, he began to “fall in like” with memory research.
TIP: there’s no need to be alone. You need an army of people you trust around you.
Dr. Ramirez then began to think about graduate school. As he told the group, his GREs were a disaster. According to his scores, he supposedly can’t add or speak English. He studied all summer and still bombed them – and he’s very happy that universities are starting to not require/consider them these days. His grades were ok, but he had a lot of research experience and he liked to talk about science. His parents really wanted him to apply to MIT – relating a bit of imposter syndrome, he stated that he didn’t think he would get accepted but applied anyway. During the interview process his research experience really helped him along with his ability to talk about research. When he received the email that he had been accepted to MIT, he initially thought it was a prank from his roommates. First thing he did was call his parents, but dropped his phone in his cereal, and the line cut (he thought he gave his parents a heart attack) but all turned out ok.
TIP: You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. He was very glad he took his shot at applying to MIT. And he realized the biggest contributing factor was the experience he had, which is not something captured by a number or a text score.
At MIT, he learned to keep his blinders on. You have to drown out the crowds and focus on what you are good at. During his first day of grad school during introductions, he realized you can’t compare yourself to anyone else – it just makes you feel awful.
TIP: You earned your spot in graduate school, get over feeling like an imposter. You can do it and that’s why you are here.
For his Ph.D. research, Dr. Ramirez joined Dr. Susumu Tonegawa’s lab. This is when he really fell in love with memory and studying memory. He loves that the sights, sounds and smells of a memory can make you travel right back to a certain moment – it’s like you have a time machine right in between your ears – memory is really cool! It’s what the brain does. So, he dove into reading, research, and the Ph.D. process. During his Ph.D. years, his initial project was looking at the question: can you find the brain cells that hold on to memory and if you artificially stimulate them, will that be enough to activate the memory? If you activate the cells, is that enough to activate the memory? Dr. Tonegawa has a large lab, and Dr. Ramirez worked closely with Xu Liu, who was his daily mentor and the person who trained him, and who was so good at sharing success. He and Xu cut right through the politics and decided early on that they would be co-first author on their papers. When he thinks about building the army that supports him, it started with his time with Xu Liu.
TIP: Share success. Science can be competitive, and it doesn’t have to. Science can be a race and it doesn’t have to be.
The first project he and Xu worked on, reactivating a memory in a mouse, was a great success, though partially in relation to an error on a botched surgery that went deeper in to the hippocampus than planned. And this success helped launched their careers. When they relayed the good news to Dr. Tonegawa, in typical PI fashion, he replied, “That’s great, so what’s your next project?” To which Dr. Ramirez said, I’m going on vacation!
TIP: Science is often more than 9-5, but it’s important to check in with yourself periodically, and take some time off. Don’t burn out – balance is a good thing. Find a way to turn off your brain after a hard day and find some cheerfulness. Keep your eye on your own personal barometer and see when the pressure gets to be too much or too little.
For the next project, Dr. Ramirez and Xu wondered if they could alter the contents of a memory and/or edit it? Memory is not like an iPhone video of the past, when you recall a memory, there’s a period where it’s susceptible to modification, it becomes updatable. For example, there are plenty of examples of the Mandela Effect, how we often misremember things. For example, Darth Vader never says “Luke, I am your father” in the Star Wars movie, he says only “I am your father.” Or in the Queen song, “We Are the Champions” the lyrics “of the world” is not actually part of the song. So, they designed an experiment, and on Christmas Eve, lightning struck twice, and this experiment worked too! At this point, Dr. Ramirez felt that the study of memory had really become his calling. However, having a family of non-scientists, none fully understood his excitement at the results he had achieved, and he had to wait until after Christmas break to celebrate with the lab.
At this point he and Xu discussed if these studies and results could be used in a therapeutic manner? Are their applications for psychiatric diseases? Dr. Ramirez read a review from Steven Hyman describing how most psychiatric drugs were developed between 1948 and the early 1960s. And he asked why are we still using the same stuff that was discovered 70 years ago? On one hand it works, and we need the drug research. But some people are treatment resistance or only 50% of people respond on the first treatment. And imagine if we were using other things from 70 years ago, i.e. a rotary phone versus the iPhone. So, Dr. Ramirez saw this review in some ways as a call to arms to restart the revolution to think outside the box. Yes, we need drug research, but we need to think of other treatments too. For example, is active recollection of positive memories enough to alleviate symptoms of psychiatric diseases? This is the part of the research Dr. Ramirez is looking into now.
In parting thoughts, Dr. Ramirez advised the students to actively listen to people, but march to your own beat. He stated that a Ph.D. teaches (at least) two things: 1) how to troubleshoot and 2) to have a fantastic BS detector. Every job you will ever have will require you to use these two things. And a reminder to keep all career related doors open – you can use these skills across academia or in industry, in consulting or science writing. Dr. Ramirez also recommended an article: How to be a graduate advisee (Raman 2014, Neuron).
Dr. Ramirez also closed with the thought that he is inflexibly optimistic. He likes to be optimistic but realistic – get you to where you want to be. The world may have been a bit easier a year ago than it is today, but these challenges are never going to stop being there. So, it’s a matter of going and being proactive about it and approach in in a way that progress is possible and in a way that’s healthy and marching to our own beat as well. And he closed by thanking his lab, who are now doing the work while he’s the coach of the team. And he also mentioned a variety of resources on his website as well. When challenges happen – his personal motto is: don’t fight fire with fire, because then the whole building burns down. Fight fire with water and then you take care of the problem. How you become that water sometimes requires you to bend over backwards and do twice the amount of work. And that’s how you become a role model.
About The Author
This article was written by Mary Bradley, MLA, the Director of Career & Professional Development at the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences.