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In the Spotlight: ‘When you’re in a minority group, you’re never just a grad student’

This "In the Spotlight" features Carolyn Dundes, a PhD candidate in Stanford's Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine program and an LGBTQ advocate.

No day is the same for Carolyn Dundes, a PhD candidate in the Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine program and an LGBTQ community advocate. That's just the way Dundes likes it. 

Dundes spoke with me about research, activism outside the lab and the importance of "finding your community."

Where were you before you came to Stanford?

I did my undergraduate degree at Wesleyan University. I loved it there. I did a lot of research in the lab of Professor Laura Grabel, PhD, studying the signals that regulate embryonic brain development.

What got you interested in that field?

Science is something I've always been super interested in, particularly the mystery of how the brain develops. I remember thinking, "How have people not figured this out yet?" Turns out it's really hard, that's why!

My first research experience was at the University of Connecticut. We were studying a really cool -- to the extent that you can say any disease is cool -- epigenetically-inherited disease called Prader-Willi Syndrome. Depending on whether the genetic error is passed down on the maternal or paternal copy of the chromosome, the observable characteristics of the disease -- known as the phenotype -- are different.

The lab was super welcoming and they patiently answered all of my endless questions. From then on, I knew I wanted to do research forever. It's a really cool transition from learning all these concepts in books and classes to actually doing an experiment and generating brand new data. 

What does a day in your life look like?

One of the things I enjoy about being a grad student is that no two days look the same. I'm a member of the Loh Lab. We use human pluripotent stem cells, which have the potential to develop into any of the body's cell types, to model and better understand early stages of human development.

My research focuses on central nervous system development: I'm trying to establish which signals are instructing cells in the embryo to become all the different types of cells that make up the brain.

In the morning, I come into the lab to do cell culture. In the middle of the day, I have meetings and seminars, and in the afternoons, I do lots of different kinds of assays. That's also generally when I do my outside-of-the-lab activities. I'm on the staff at Queer Student Resources, and on Fridays, I work with the Stanford Prison Education Project

Tell me more about your advocacy work. 

The prison education project is a misnomer, since we currently work only in jails, but Stanford graduate students lead weekly seminars for individuals who are incarcerated at two local correctional centers. The students have different levels of education; some didn't finish high school, while others have advanced professional degrees. The trick is making the lesson fit all those levels. This semester, the theme was virtue and vice. Our role there was not to tell them how to be good or bad people but to discuss how we as a society decide what is virtue and what is vice.

At Queer Student Resources, I'm one of the coordinators for Trans&, a weekly event for transgender folks at Stanford to connect and spend time together. We welcome all students (undergrad, grad and postdoc) and community members who identify with any trans/non-binary/genderqueer identity, or who may be questioning their gender identity. 

As a nonbinary scientist, running Trans& has been an important way for me to connect with other gender-minority peers at Stanford. Being an advocate is important to me because being a graduate student is already hard enough, and if you're in a disenfranchised or minority group, you can never just be a grad student. At Stanford, people are at least willing to listen to these students' needs, but there's still so much progress that needs to be made, for example when it comes to representation.

Do you have any advice for future graduate students?

First of all, it's important to find your community, whatever that means for you, and to find advocates who are willing to stick out their necks for you. That's easier said than done.

Second, I'd say find something that you love to do that has nothing to do with your work. I do dog-sitting almost every night, and that brings me great joy.

Are you watching or reading anything good lately?

I just finished listening to "Tranny" by Laura Jane Grace, the frontwoman for the pop-punk band "Against Me!" And I've been listening to the storytelling podcast, "The Moth." I like how human it is. After spending all day looking at cells under a microscope, it can be nice to be reminded of the bigger picture.

Photo by Luke Girard/Thru Luke's Lens

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