"Take Five" - SPINES Students Reflect on their MBL Experiences

Almarely L. Berrios-Negron (left), John Gonzalez-Amoretti (center), and Yesenia Garcia-Sifuentes (right) share their experiences in the three-week long SPINES course. Credit: Yesenia Garcia-Sifuentes and Almarely L. Berrios-Negron

"Take Five" is an occasional feature in which we pose five questions to an MBL community member about their career, dreams, and passions. This time, we’re highlighting students from the Summer Program in Neuroscience, Excellence and Success (SPINES). SPINES provides neuroscience graduate students from underrepresented backgrounds with three weeks of training at MBL to hone their professional skills. Below, three students from this summer’s SPINES course tell us about their experiences: 

*Almarely L. Berrios-Negron (@heyitsalma) is a third-year clinical psychology PhD student at Ponce Health Sciences University in Puerto Rico. 
*Yesenia Garcia-Sifuentes (@yeseniatweets) is a third-year neuroscience PhD student at Emory University. 
*John Gonzalez-Amoretti (@jgonzamor) is a third-year neuroscience PhD student at University of Rochester. 

What scientific question are you focusing on? 

Almarely L. Berrios-Negron: I am interested in exploring the effectiveness of a creative educational instrument; using the implementation of visual arts and aesthetics to improve the assessment of cognitive skills in children through increased sustained attention.

Yesenia Garcia-Sifuentes: I am interested in resolving the neural circuits underlying how social experiences influence reward-related decision-making and understanding how adolescent isolation disrupts this process. 

John Gonzalez-Amoretti: As of now, I am interested in understanding the neuronal dynamics of the prefrontal cortex involved in the modulation of visual processing when attention is engaged.

Why did you decide to apply to SPINES?

Almarely L. Berrios-Negron: I decided to apply to SPINES because I wanted to be able to gain more knowledge about neuroscience and research, and be able to define my future interests more.

Yesenia Garcia-Sifuentes: I applied to SPINES primarily because I had heard from many alumni who said that the course was life-changing. The chance to spend three weeks honing my science communication and professional development skills at the Marine Biological Laboratory seemed like a very unique opportunity, so I jumped at the chance to apply.  

John Gonzalez-Amoretti: I submitted my application for SPINES through the application to become an Neuroscience Scholars Program Scholar. 


John Gonzalez-Amoretti (left), Yesenia Garcia-Sifuentes (center), and Almarely L. Berrios-Negron (right) stand in front of the SPINES bulletin board. Credit: Yesenia Garcia-Sifuentes
John Gonzalez-Amoretti (left), Yesenia Garcia-Sifuentes (center), and Almarely L. Berrios-Negron (right) stand in front of the SPINES bulletin board. Credit: Yesenia Garcia-Sifuentes

What aspect of SPINES was most influential for you and why?

Almarely L. Berrios-Negron: The aspect of SPINES that was most influential for me was being able to meet such an amazing group of people and getting to know them beyond their research work. Being able to talk to scientists who have the same interests as me, and who have undergone similar experiences as mine throughout their lives, made me realize the importance representation has in my life and career.

Yesenia Garcia-Sifuentes: Being in community with fellow neuroscientists of color, both at the peer level and faculty level. Getting the opportunity to network with and form relationships with the stellar faculty that participated in the course was super beneficial for me given that COVID-19 has limited my ability to network in person since starting grad school in 2020. Having access to a strong support network of role models and peers with similar backgrounds to me is incredibly important for my future success as an underrepresented neuroscientist navigating academia, and I am super grateful for the opportunity to learn from so many inspiring human beings. 

John Gonzalez-Amoretti: The most influential part of SPINES, without a doubt, was the people that I got to meet. As a Hispanic first-generation student, it is rare to find people at my home institution who understand the obstacles that students with my similar background have had to endure. In the academic setting, when I looked around it felt like I was alone in that sentiment for the most part, but SPINES reassured me that I was not alone. A lot of the courses and workshops that SPINES offers taught me how to navigate academia as a minoritized individual who constantly faces implicit biases and obstacles that are a product of an institution that was not necessarily built for us. They also offered some great advice on how to go about changing the environment to be more inclusive and welcoming for BIPOCs, rather than tolerant. 

What has been most surprising to you about the SPINES experience?  

Almarely L. Berrios-Negron: I was very surprised at how welcomed I felt throughout the whole experience by the mentors in the program as well as my peers. Coming from Puerto Rico, where Spanish is my native language, I feared not being able to communicate my science and my interests as I wanted to. But I quickly learned that was not going to be a problem at all, quite the contrary! I was welcomed with inclusivity and respect, and left the program feeling more confident in my communication skills.

Yesenia Garcia-Sifuentes: I was surprised by how close my cohort got over the course of the program. By the time the three weeks passed, my cohort became like my family and it felt like I had known these people for three years instead of three weeks. I shed many tears when I had to say goodbye to them! Even though the program has ended, a group of us still have a weekly Zoom meeting because we miss each other's company. I am certain that we will remain connected for many years to come.   

John Gonzalez-Amoretti: Most importantly, and surprisingly, SPINES helped me feel comfortable in my skin and perpetrated the sense of my identity, not as a scientist but as a person who happens to do science. 

How do you hope your experience this summer will influence your future in research/academia?

Almarely L. Berrios-Negron: I'm now more motivated than ever to create more spaces for minorities like myself who are interested in pursuing scientific careers and [conducting] research, but sometimes struggle to find representation in academic spaces. Therefore, I hope to become an excellent representation of what a Latina in science looks like and will use everything I learned in SPINES to achieve this.

Yesenia Garcia-Sifuentes: SPINES has instilled a strong sense of confidence within me that I will carry with me wherever I go. I gained a ton of experience communicating my research to varying audiences this summer, which will be incredibly useful for me as I advance in my career. Knowing that I have a team of people rooting for me makes me feel like I will be unstoppable in all my future endeavors. I know that I want to give back to the program that has helped me grow so much, so I hope to pay it forward by being involved in the SPINES program in other capacities in the future! 

John Gonzalez-Amoretti: Once I landed back in Rochester, I immediately felt the influence that SPINES had on how I viewed my research and how I approached academic settings. I feel a lot more intentional about the work that I do, and my contributions to the associations that I am part of.