Profiles in BME
Miguel Vivar Lazo
Tell us about yourself:
I am a first year (2017) biomedical engineering PhD student rotating in Dr. Reza Shadmehr’s lab for computational motor control. I am part of the neuroengineering branch here at Johns Hopkins and currently I am interested in understanding patterns in head, arm, and eye movements in Ataxia patients.
What does your prior academic background look like?
Before coming to JHU I was an undergraduate at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. I was a biomedical engineering major and was doing research with Professor Troy Shinbrot in the BME department and Professor Michael Cole in the Center for Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience.
What did you like most about your time at Rutgers?
What I enjoyed most about Rutgers was the amount of cultural impact that it had on my life. Rutgers contains one of the most diverse student bodies in the nation. Arriving there was a complete culture shock. I am originally from a small town in New Jersey that is 78% Hispanic in population and being placed in a university as diverse as Rutgers was something new to me. I got to learn a ton about different cultures during my four years at Rutgers, which helped me appreciate cultures outside of mine.
What kinds of jobs did you have before going to college?
I had one job before going to college and that was to get into college. But in all seriousness, I had one job before college, which was at an AMC movie theater. I worked there for two years and it was a blast. I cannot emphasize how great of a work environment AMC is and the amazing benefits of being able to watch any movie for free at any time. Those two years were definitely the most I ever watched movies.
What kinds of outreach programs have you been a part of?
I’ve been part of three main outreach programs: Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation (LSAMP), Engineers Of the Future (EOF), and The McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program. Each program is as impactful as the other. EOF helped bridge the gap between high school and college by constructing a summer program that gave insight into differences between high school and college courses. The McNair program was similar to EOF but concentrated on helping high achieving students transition from undergraduate studies to graduate studies.
What made you want to pursue graduate research?
While traversing my undergraduate career, I wanted to accumulate experience in order to become more qualified for job positions. I received an email to join The McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program and it seemed like a good opportunity to gain some sort of experience even if it wasn’t industry related. I decided that the research I wanted to pursue while in the program should be related to a field that I was always passionate and curious about: neuroscience. I ended up getting a RA position at a very small lab (just me and a graduate student) in Professor Shinbrot’s lab in the BME department at Rutgers. For the next year I would embark on a tedious but rewarding journey that would teach me to love answering questions with no clear answer. This experience fueled my passion for science and helped me realize that I wanted to be a professor in a research university.
What do you do for fun in Baltimore, Maryland?
For fun I personally like to go out to bars with friends. But there are tons of things to do in Baltimore. There are cheap baseball games one can see with student discounts. Baltimore also has its own convention center that hosts plenty of events year-round. There are plenty of sports leagues that are held by organizations that one can be a part of. Also, Baltimore is a historical city with plenty of museums and sights to see.
What do you feel makes you unique from the rest of the scientific community?
Well to be completely honest, I think everything about me makes me unique in the scientific community. For instance, I am a first generation college student, which means that my parents did not know much about higher education – they didn’t even know graduate school was a possible trajectory after completing a bachelor’s degree. Another example is my heritage. It’s difficult to find other Hispanics in engineering programs and I pride myself in knowing that I am unique and am potentially inspiring others. Lastly, my trajectory to graduate school is unique; I was never told that there were other options in life other than going into industry after undergrad. I kind of stumbled onto research, thanks to the McNair program and my undergraduate mentor, and fell in love with it ever since.
What challenges have you overcome to get to where you are now?
I have faced many challenges throughout my life. I have dealt with problems of fitting into a college environment that was not representative of who I identify as. I had to overcome the fact that I never had anyone in my life to coach and guide me in what it means to go to college and succeed. Probably the most explicit challenge I ever had to overcome was facing the fact that I came out of one of the worst high schools in New Jersey and was ill-equipped to succeed in a rigorous college environment that engineering students are put through. I came in not understanding what a simple vector was and struggled through introductory physics courses.
What is your view on diversity and how do you think the scientific community needs to better engage with diversity?
I personally believe that diversity is quintessential for the scientific community to thrive. I believe ideas and innovation can be expanded with a diverse scientific community. People with different backgrounds can bring innovation to fields that have been saturated with stagnant ideas. The scientific community can do a much better job with diversity; simply recruiting undergraduate students with diverse backgrounds is not enough. The scientific community needs to continue, and increase, its outreach efforts. It needs to target children of diverse backgrounds and low income with programs that can enrich their education with the gifts of science. This needs to happen because, in reality, there are thousands of kids out there with potential to become the next big thing but that potential could be swayed by a bad environment, responsibilities, horrible schooling, low opportunities, etc. In my opinion, only when we reach out to children of diverse communities will the scientific community reach its pinnacle.