What comes to mind when you think about curiosity? For today’s guest, Sarynna Lopez-Meza, Research Coordinator at the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center, her curiosity is what guided her through her career. With the curiosity to connect different labs, researchers, and institutions, she shows how science is all about the people. She shares how she moved through the ranks of academia without the goal of becoming a faculty member. As a woman engineer, she details her experiences working with women throughout her career, trusting her mentors, and taking chances when given the opportunity.
Michelle Chung | Host
Michelle first joined the Wisconsin Energy Institute in 2020 as a student intern. She has since graduated and joined the communications team full time and continues to find creative ways to tell the stories behind the people and research here at WEI and GLBRC.
Mary (Meg) Riker | Host
Science Writer Intern
Meg is an undergraduate civil and environmental engineering student who seeks to learn about the career experiences of a range of women in STEM.
Edited by: Michelle Chung
Produced by: Michelle Chung and Mary Riker
Music written and performed by: Mark E. Griffin
Meg Riker: What comes to mind when you think of curiosity? Is it the drive for finding connections between things? Why is this related to that? For scientists, that connection might be asking why this action causes this response.
Michelle Chung: For today's guest, Dr. Sarynna Lopez-Meza, curiosity is what drove her connections with people, trusting the guidance of her mentors, finding companionship in women in her career. And it's what led her to do what she does now as a research coordinator at the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center, where she finds ways to connect people across the vast and varying disciplines of bioenergy research.
She shares what she's learned along her journey, how women must be champions for each other, and how science is all about the people.
Meg Riker: From the Wisconsin Energy Institute and the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center. I'm Meg.
Michelle Chung: And I'm Michelle.
Meg Riker: And you're listening to Propelling Women in Power, a podcast about the careers of women in energy at the Wisconsin Energy Institute on the UW–Madison campus, and our sister institution, the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center.
Michelle Chung: Let's dive in with Dr. Sarynna Lopez-Meza.
Sarynna Lopez-Meza: I am Sarynna Lopez-Meza. My pronouns are she and her and I work as a research coordinator for the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center, where I do support for the integrated systems modeling and the bioenergy crop productivity and microbiome teams.
Michelle Chung: What would you say is the most exciting part of the work that you get to do?
Sarynna Lopez-Meza: The most exciting part of my work is getting to interact with researchers from various disciplines. I'm an engineer and I just find it fascinating to to just get to talk to people from agronomy and microbiology and plant biology, you know, just on a regular basis. And on top of that, I'm from Mexico. The area where I'm from in Mexico is not a very diverse area.
We didn't–I think that's changed, but we didn't get people from a lot of areas of the world. So I think, you know, I've been in the country for 23 years and one of the the best parts of my work at a university is definitely interacting with researchers from various countries.
Michelle Chung: So you mentioned your originally an engineer. You went to school undergrad, grad school, post-doc in that discipline. Where did that inspiration to go that route first start, and how did you find your way to doing science support, research administration?
Sarynna Lopez-Meza: I think that route just happened when I was little. If you had asked me what I wanted to do, I would have told you I wanted to be an architect. I really am a good drawer. I have a good sense of space. But at the time, my parents are both doctors. My dad's a pediatrician and my mom is an OB-GYN.
And so it was never a possibility that you wouldn't go to college. Like college was a given. That's what you do after high school. And so I would say, you know, I want to be an architect. And now this is Mexico in the late eighties, early nineties. It's a very male dominated field architecture, at least in Mexico was at the time, because as an architect, you are the one dealing with the construction people for like houses and stuff.
And so I remember having a conversation with my dad about, you know, are you really going to be constructing like planning houses or are you going to be doing interior decoration, which is fortunately or unfortunately, you know, if that's what you want to do, that's great. But at the time, that's what a lot of female architects ended up doing, and that's not something I wanted to do.
So in talking with some of my parents friends, we concluded that maybe engineering, chemical engineering was a good a good very general major for me to do. I could always focus on other things. And that's, you know, I like math. I was good in chemistry and at the time I also thought I wanted to do food engineering. But so there's this big system of universities in Mexico called Tecnológico de Monterrey, which is where I went, and their main campus is at Monterrey, which is a town about 2 hours from where I grew up.
They had the first two years of the food engineering major, but then the last two years you had to go like to the Baja Peninsula to finish, which would have been great, except I was two years younger than most of my peers. I was two years ahead in school. I never skipped a grade. I was just younger. So I started college like shortly before turning 16.
I'm the oldest, so I don't think my parents were very keen on just letting me take off that far away. So they said, You know, I'll just pick a general major that is in this main campus and so chemical engineering it was. So that was my undergrad. I thought at the time that I really like biotechnology. And so the way that my university worked is once you pick a major, the classes are all decided for you.
There's it's nine semesters, it's 54 credits, and they're all decided for you. You only get to pick four and they call those your electives and they have to be in a all related field. You cannot just pick literature and physics, and it has to be all as part of a block. So I thought, okay, I'm picking the biotechnology block, which ended up being not a great fit for me.
So I switched to the environmental block. So when I finished college, I thought I was going to work for Schlumberger, the oil drilling company, and I was ready to do that. And then one of my professors said, well, you know, you could get a scholarship to do a master's here in environmental engineering. I'm like, okay, that sounds great.
So I stayed for a masters, and I thought that was it for research for me. But at the time, my ex-husband had gotten a scholarship to go to Vanderbilt to start a Ph.D. So when I finished my master's, I started looking for jobs in the US. But coming without a visa sponsor is really, really hard. So what ended up happening was that I figured, you know, I could do a Ph.D. I liked the idea of research.
It was just, you know, back in those days, whenever people thought about a Ph.D., it was just assumed you would be a professor, which is not something I was excited about. Even back in those days before you even started a Ph.D. And that also, you know, I ended up with that look of I got accepted, did a Ph.D. my husband got a postdoc once we were done in Germany.
So I was very lucky. My advisor connected me to some research institute in Germany, and so I ended up doing a postdoc again. Like all of these were choices that, yes, I ended up accepting, but it was not a decision that I made from the get go, right? Like I just at the moment I was presented with a choice and I took it and I made the best of it.
When we came back to the States after our postdoc work in Germany, I was said like, I don't want to work in research anymore. So I started looking for consulting jobs, and the feedback that I kept getting was that I didn't have managerial experience. When I saw this job for a research coordinator, I thought, you know, you know what they were looking for someone with a master's in biology.
And I thought, you know what? I'm going to apply. Like, the worst that can happen is I don't get it. And it was interesting because I was the first research coordinator hired at GLBRC. So at the time they just knew that they wanted someone with scientific background to help with administrative chores, but they didn't really know what that entailed.
So I sort of had to carve this job as I saw fit at the beginning. In doing so, I found that actually a lot of those skills that supposedly I didn't have, I actually had, you know, as a grad student, I had to learn to manage my time and to manage a bunch of activities that were going on.
And it was just a fit for me. I like interacting with different people. I really like the idea of the big picture view of science, So it made sense to me to end up in research administration as opposed to engineering. I think in general, you know, I was very lucky. I was given a lot of choices and opportunities and at the end of the day, I just ended up doing the best with whatever opportunities were presented to me, like making the best out of that opportunity in there.
Michelle Chung: You decided after your postdoc you just saw research wasn't for you. How did you figure that out?
Sarynna Lopez-Meza: The research part I actually enjoyed. All of my friends that are professors–they deal with this constant stress of funding their labs. So you're not doing the research yourself. You know, you're funding as you should be. You know, students that are doing that, that work, teaching becomes the least of your concerns. And I just didn't see myself in that path.
So I figured consulting was more what I really wanted to do. So where you still do research, but it's in a different setting. I just did not like the academic life for myself and I think a lot of us still struggle with this idea that, you know, as someone with a Ph.D. who's not a professor, you're somehow a failure because, you know, you didn't get that one job.
It's been interesting to me to see in the last decade or so, you know, this change and in the culture of, you know, you have a Ph.D., but there's all these other possibilities for you, and they're all okay, you know, like you don't have to just be a professor. At the time I made that choice, it felt kind of weird.
But you know, it's a choice that I've come to embrace. And and I'm happy to tell that to other people.
Michelle Chung: Yeah. And no one tells you that. Like me just coming from undergrad, the general knowledge of what you do after you get a Ph.D. is you become a professor. Even though, like such a small amount of people with PhDs become a professor. But that's not the known path.
Sarynna Lopez-Meza: Right? That's what we still have ingrained in our in our brains. If that's what you do, that's why you get a Ph.D..
Michelle Chung: What's one thing that you wish people understood about your job?
Sarynna Lopez-Meza: That, yes, we all have scientific knowledge and we know how academia works. But I think at the end of the day, people should see that it's your ability to connect with other people. That is the very basis of a coordinator position. At the end of the day, our job as research coordinators is to support the people who need different kinds of support and they don't always know what that support is.
So you need to build relationships with them to be able to provide that support in the way that is most efficient for that particular relationship. With all the science and all of our research background, the main thing of our job is connecting with people. It's those people skills that make our job what it is trying to see. You know, like again, one of the exciting things of our job is that we get to work with people from different disciplines and cultures.
So that means that all of those people speak in a way different languages. I mean, yes, we're all speaking English here, but you know, maybe the way that you do things in a certain culture and you request information in a certain culture is different than here or the way that people express their opinions in certain areas. You know, when we have our system sustainability meeting, it's a very fun and relaxed atmosphere when we would have our deconstruction meeting, for example, is a lot of, you know, people that do microbiology and engineering and it's a little more reserved, right?
Like you're there for the science and, you know, like patterns and you know, there's not a lot of openly sharing things, but the way that people interact is very different. So it takes a while to understand those differences and try to harness, you know, the best of all of them to make the center work in a way that is efficient for the center.
That's one big part of my job. Like you need to learn those differences.
Michelle Chung: What is one of those ways that you support researchers, like what's an example of that?
Sarynna Lopez-Meza: For example, every year we have to write a report to the Department of Energy, which is our funding agency, and there's report we give, you know, a progress report of what we've done in the past year. And when DOE gets this, you know, it reads as one document that was created by one center, and it has to read in a certain voice that, you know, it's just one voice.
In reality, each team is various labs in different institutions written by different disciplines. And so each person writes their own part the way that they know how to write. For us, that means combining those ideas and then doing a draft of a document that reads as if, you know, one big picture person wrote it. That's one thing when we get our quarterly reports that we do internally, it's our job as research coordinators to flag issues, awareness issues that a lab maybe had and to bring them to the team lead and to awareness that, you know, maybe give suggestions based on whatever little we might know or whatever much we might know about the the issue; suggestions to the team leads on on ways to communicate to make this better because we're spread out. You know, there's two research coordinators at Michigan State and two at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. We deal with different labs so we can identify if maybe things are doing similar stuff in different institutions and get them to connect. We are the first take of all the publications done in our team.
So we can support our team leads by saying, you know, there’s this cool publication, you know, we should highlight this or do you know that so-and-so is working on this? I don't know. In a way, it seems like minutia, but it's the minutia that makes the center feel like a like a whole.
Michelle Chung: Yeah, you guys are like the links in the web, Right?
Sarynna Lopez-Meza: Right. I mean, that was the original title of our job was supposed to be a research support coordinator.
Michelle Chung: So you went to grad school at Vanderbilt, and going to school, what was that like as a woman and an international student?
Sarynna Lopez-Meza: It was an interesting time to be a woman and international, and international student for sure. It was the first time that I had been in the US outside of Texas that should be stated. And it was the South which you know it's it's part of the US has its own culture in the South, you know, in general is a little more conservative and I was very excited, you know, growing up in Mexico.
You know, the US is always this place where people are super open minded and way more advanced. And so for me it was very exciting. But at the same time, once I got to Vanderbilt, you know, I was accepted in the program. But at the time the department made a decision to not give me a stipend or health care coverage or access to the education credits to deduct my tuition payment from my taxes.
And I realized that, you know, in a way, looking back, it was you know, it was clear discrimination, which was a big eye opener for me. You know, here I was coming to this country, which was super advanced compared to Mexico, and I was dealing with the same things. To add insult to injury, I thought it was very interesting because I was thinking about it.
And when I started chemical engineering back in Mexico, one of the big first chemical engineering classes we had in our first semester was taught by a woman. Her name is Verónica Patiño, and she's still, you know, a professor there in Mexico. And, you know, you could see there was a woman that could be an engineer. And, you know, she was successful in everything.
My chemical engineering class was half women as well. So I was used to being surrounded by women. And at the time that I started Vanderbilt, I think the way that the department back then was set up, it was more of an old boys club. So it was a little weird to be thrown into that. You know, initially, even when I was in my master's back in Mexico, you know, I was roommates with two other women that were getting a master's in environmental engineering.
So I had always been surrounded by engineers, as, you know, women engineers. And suddenly, you know, it's all men. There was not a single female professor in that department at the time. And yeah, it was it was a very interesting, sad experience at the beginning, you know. But again, I was excited. So I was trying to make the most out of that.
I was very thankful early on for the opportunity to work at the Science and Engineering library. I didn't have a stipend, so I, you know, I had to make I had to make some money. There was this wonderful woman who passed recently. Her name used her name was Deborah Stevens, and she hired me and I worked at the front desk, which was really scary.
My English was okay, but, you know, I had the grammar down. But there were, you know, daily, you know, the day to day English I didn't have. So that really gave me the opportunity to practice my English and connect with people from other places. So it was really the first time that I was in such an international setting, which, you know, it was great, despite the the difficult times.
I remember, you know, being terrified because I had to answer the phone. I was at the front desk and when people would call to ask directions for the library, it sounds so silly now, but I would get nervous on describing, you know, how to cross the street, how to describe, you know, walking on on campus, on the sidewalks, on campus, you know.
But again, I chose to you know, this is a great opportunity to practice my English and let's do this.
Michelle Chung: You saw the silver lining in everything.
Sarynna Lopez-Meza: Yes. I mean, you, I feel in general, you have to, you know, otherwise it can be a it can be a very sad place looking back. You know, back then, I just didn't see a lot of people making noise about things. And again, I for me, I remain so grateful that I was given this opportunity. Right. I didn't see it in myself to speak up about these things.
And this is all when I started, like the very first semester after my second semester, we got a new chair who became my advisor. And I mean, she was a wonderful mentor to me. He, he took me in, you know, he was horrified to know that I didn't have a stipend. So I quickly became his his research assistant.
You know, he he believed in me. I didn't have to teach or be it. I had a research assistantship, but he wanted me to to have a whole experience as a doctoral student, you know, in case I did decide to go and be a professor. So he gave me the opportunity to teach his his class fluid mechanics two summers when he would travel, which was a lot.
He was the chair. I would go and teach his class. So that also gave me the opportunity to teach. He was wonderful. I–his name is David Kosson, and I, I'm eternally grateful to have been the student. It was thanks to him that I connected with a woman that ended up being my boss for my post-doc research in Berlin.
And he was just he was a wonderful, a wonderful mentor.
Michelle Chung: Yeah, that's what a good mentor can do for you. Like give you those opportunities, give you those connections.
Sarynna Lopez-Meza: Completely and the, and the understanding as well. You know, after my second year, I actually got divorced from my from my husband at the time. And at the time I actually considered just going back to Mexico, you know, like I, what was I doing here? I was not interested in getting a Ph.D. that much. And I was like, am I really going to go back without a Ph.D. and a marriage?
You know, I remember one time and he came into the lab and I'm there crying. He had a lot of empathy. And, you know, he encouraged me to stay and give it my best shot. I was here. I could continue doing this. You know, he was there for me. So it is amazing what a difference a mentor can do for you.
Michelle Chung: This is also referring to your post-doc in Germany. You really found your own identity with that experience and that it made you especially proud to be Mexican. What specifically was it about your time there that made you change the way that you thought about being from a different country?
Sarynna Lopez-Meza: Right. I think a lot of it had to do with my first experience outside of Mexico, being in the U.S. and in the South, particularly, and again, the Vanderbilt culture. Right. Which is a private school, not just the South, but it's also a private school, you know, and none of us in general want to constantly be told that we're different.
So I think we all have an inherent, inherent desire to fit in and be part of a group. And when you look different or you speak a little different, you know, that's constantly pointed out. And in that particular setting, it was annoying. It was frustrating for me that it didn't matter how hard I tried to, you know, work on my English and, you know, try to fit in the culture that it was always a reminder that I wasn't from there until I moved to Germany.
And granted, it's not small town Germany. It was Berlin, right? So I'm sure that if I had been in New York, my experience also would have been very different than it was in Nashville, but it was Berlin, and it's a mix of all these cultures and you learn that, you know, the value of all the different cultures and you can learn something from all the cultures.
So when we came back from Germany, I was very proud. You know, I was more than being very proud. I think I was no longer interested in fitting in like I had found myself. I was proud of who I am. I was just no longer interested in fitting into please other people like I am my own person and I like the person that I am.
And I learned to value my experience and the privilege that I had as an immigrant. Right. I know that's not the same experience that a lot a lot of immigrants had, but if suddenly I could be proud of that and pass that pride to other immigrants that were struggling, like bring it on, I was happy to help people.
And I think finally accepting myself and my own individuality really made a difference while living in Germany. And to live in a place like Berlin, right. That also had been divided. And, you know, there were all Germans that their own differences pointed out. And just to learn from all those cultures, I think eventually made it very easy for me to finally accept, you know, yes, I'm Mexican, I'm different, and that's okay.
You know, since we've been here in Michigan, I know we have a kid and I always speak to my son in Spanish and I don't care where we are or who's around, you know, like there's something to be learned about just valuing who you are, where you're come, where you come from. We can all learn something from all different cultures.
Michelle Chung: Right? Yeah. Being proud of those differences, being proud of the fact that that's something different you can bring to the table, too.
Sarynna Lopez-Meza: Right.
Michelle Chung: As a society, there's an uneven expectation between men and women when it comes to work life balance, especially with parenting and, you know, like the heteronormative context, women are expected to do most of the caregiving. And on top of that, there's still an expectation to excel at work, in their social life because women, you know, can have it all, with quotations. And, you know, it's apparent in the media. We always ask women only, what's your kid doing right now? Or like, how do you balance it all? Has this exact expectation shown up in your own life?
Sarynna Lopez-Meza: Of course, you know, my friends and I have a running joke that, you know, all all successful women need a wife. And it's not so much that it has to be a woman. Right. But you do need an assistant. Right. And at the end of the day, that's what this work life balance comes to, right? Like as a woman, you need someone else to to help you.
I want to believe that things are changing. I think it's a generational divide, but sadly, I still see it in my own generation. You know, for me was always clear. My parents, like I said, they're both physicians and they both worked. And it was true that a lot of the House stuff it landed on my mother, even though she worked a lot.
Granted, we up until I was eight years old, we had someone who lived with us in the house because there was no way my mom could do it all. I'm the oldest of four and you know, there's just no way that you excel at work and you have a social life and you are a great mom and you look great in the process.
There is just no way, you know, So something has to give. So, yes, this was definitely the case for me. My husband and I, we're very open about that discussion when I talk to my to my parents, you know, my family and my friends in Mexico, there's always this talk about how my husband helps at home. You know that the key word being “helps”.
Like he doesn't help. He lives here, right? Like, just like I live here. We we both do our work, you know, our share in the house. And my husband is great for that. But it is true that I know that's been an issue. We still have that issue at the end of the day. You know, you, as a mom are expected to deal with your kids.
And I think at the end of the day, it has to be the person that has the the the more flexibility in their workspace. I am incredibly privileged that my work allows for that flexibility. I can work from home at times. And so, yes, it was you know, it fell on me. But I also know the very few cases, you know, some of my friends who it's the husband who stays at home and because his work was more flexible.
But in general, yes, it's it's the women. And yes, that that's a struggle.
Michelle Chung: Yeah. And it was something like the pandemic. Maybe these things were talked about, but nothing was so in your face about how different the expectations were.
Sarynna Lopez-Meza: Yes. All of a sudden you had to work full time, but you were also the daycare and, you know, the playdate planner. Suddenly, when the pandemic started, my child for six weeks didn't have any work sent from school. Nothing. And this started at the time. That is the busiest day of the year for me. I'm the research coordinator that plans I'm the chair of the planning committee for our annual science meeting at GLBRC.
So it was at the time where I suddenly had to pivot from an in-person meeting to a virtual meeting. So I'm dealing with the most stressful time of my work while my kid is at home with nothing from school and my husband's work is deemed essential, which means he has to be in his office at all times.
So, you know, maybe you have a pity party for a day. And then I immediately created workstations in our dining room. Looking back, it's insanity that we were, you know, pretending that life was normal. It wasn't. So it was insane. I think the pandemic really revealed just how much we depend on flexible parents, which tend to be mothers on time care.
I thought it was funny that a lot of the male professors suddenly were using, you know, their children as reasons why they couldn't do things. And I'm like, women have been doing this for ages. You know, nobody bats an eye about you being with your child. You know, It's like, Oh, how nice of them. And it is nice, you know, how nice that they're finally recognizing this.
So I do hope the pandemic, you know, by virtue of being an insane time of our lives, made this clear for people that, you know, women we expect a lot of women and we're not the only sole sources of childcare. You know, we we need better systems. I know some universities have, you know, onsite childcare, but maybe that's something that all universities or workplaces can have just easy access to childcare, affordable childcare.
We do need these systems in place to be able to to have equity, you know, for for men and women. It's great to give men time off, you know, when they have kids. It's great that they were making it, you know, an issue. But let's not forget, you know, women have been dealing with that and asking for that for you for years.
Hopefully men, you know, in positions of power that asked for that can be allies for women to to get that as well.
Michelle Chung: If they need the same thing, they should realize there's been a demographic that has been doing all this.
Sarynna Lopez-Meza: Right or even women, you know, in more senior positions, women in positions of power, you know, they can become allies. You know, maybe you like your kids are already in college or you never had children. And that's great. You know, you can also be an ally for for someone that might be struggling and you're in a position to help get access to some of those things.
Michelle Chung: So this kind of goes into my next question. So obviously, a good system of child care is something that's lacking. What else do you see as a continuing obstacle for women?
Sarynna Lopez-Meza: I think what I see sometimes are the expectations that we set for ourselves and that sometimes we as women maybe have for other women. I think I would add our own expectations, like we as women need to stop buying into this society expectation that we have to have it all and that we have to fend for ourselves and we cannot help others without fearing something diminishing for our own.
Like we have to help other women, a way to break that obstacles, you know, be a champion of women. You know, maybe it was really hard for you to get to where you are and that sucks, but you're there, so champion for others. You know, just because it was difficult for you doesn't have to be difficult for everybody else.
Like if you have a a place to speak up and a voice that can be heard, if you're in a position of power, speak up. You know you can be an ally and you can help remove those obstacles for other women that are, you know, starting up.
Michelle Chung: So there's championing other women that will come after you, so that. Speaking to the people that are in power, how do we get that buy in from the people that are in power?
Sarynna Lopez-Meza: That's.. I mean, I've been struggling with that, but my struggle is usually in terms of training for mentorship and diversity, equity and inclusion knowledge, because I feel a lot of our postdocs and grad students are really into that. But sometimes the faculty, you go under the assumption that they know how to be mentors. And while some of them do, some of them don't because they never had that training.
There's a disconnect between the trainees and the trainers. And from where I see it, I think the people in power need to remember that people who feel accepted, who feel happy at the place that they work, that feel loyal to the place where they work. Those are people that are more productive and they're more excited about their work as a as a mentor, as a someone in a position of power.
Remember that, you know, be be flexible, be willing to listen, be willing to learn, and yeah, be willing to to see that maybe your way of doing things is not the only way that makes sense to me. That would be the way to to get buy in from the from the people in power. You know, just having some of these obstacles and barriers taken away will not mean that people will leave your workforce.
It just means that people will finally be happy and and feel accepted and be more productive at the workplace because they'll be they'll know that they have a boss that supports them. And that's invaluable.
Michelle Chung: Have you met pushback?
Sarynna Lopez-Meza: That's a really good question. I think the pushback that I've had is not so much in terms of them thinking that they know it and they don't have to learn. I think a lot of the pushback is based on time availability. I mean, we expect so much from our faculty, especially the people that are in tenure track positions, right?
They're supposed to be getting excellent grants and, you know, all of them accepted and they're supposed to be publishing and they're supposed to be excellent teachers, and they're expected to participate in a gazillion committees. And time, you know, is valuable and not a lot. So I understand that a lot of their hesitation comes from in their own, you know, usage of time.
Again, talking as someone in operations, for example, for jobs, and specifically about our annual science meeting, you know, if we're offering you during the meeting a time to discuss mentorship or to get feedback on on the training, take it. You know, you're already in that place, you're already in that situation, Use that time. Maybe. Maybe you have other meetings at the time and maybe it is not possible, but used if you get an opportunity to do it in a setting, you know, in a conference that you're attending, try to use that time.
Like I want to stress that. I don't think people don't want to learn. I think people just are very short on time. Maybe in general, we need to learn how to work those expectations that we have of faculty to be a little more realistic about, you know, the the best faculty person that we want to have and what that is.
And maybe they don't need to be in so many committees. So I think that is generally the the pushback in a way. There's just not enough time.
Michelle Chung: I know you're big on empathy and like networking and being that people connector, how does that show up in how you support people?
Sarynna Lopez-Meza: I think it all comes from my own curiosity. Again, I grew up in a place that wasn't very diverse and, you know, most people that I grew up with looked and lived like me, and that's been a hunger that I've had, right? Like I, I love just the diversity of culture of work, types of work. I learned growing up.
I learned that, you know, you go to college and so that's that's your bubble that you live with. And so it's in a way, it's very hard to relate to people that don't do the same thing as you do. I don't know if it's a chicken or egg situation. I think my personality has always been, as demonstrated by this interview, I am not an introvert, an extrovert, like talking, and I like learning.
And so my empathy really comes from a lot of, you know, traveling that we've done. Yes. But also my willingness to talk to people who are different than me. I think we all have something to to learn from others. And just as I'm happy talking to a professor, I can be happy talking to someone that does something completely different, a cook, you know, at a restaurant, the person that is, you know, checking me out at the grocery store and my husband has a very funny story that I think encompasses what I what to me is empathy.
Yeah, we were traveling back, I think it was from North Carolina. We were at the Charlotte Airport traveling back to Detroit, and our flight had been delayed a couple of times and Nero's was this very angry French guy who was very upset that his flight was late because he had a connecting flight in Detroit back to back to France, and he's angry and he's yelling. And of course, everybody around him is rolling their eyes. And, you know, here's your stereotypical French person. You know, they just have to make a big deal. And, you know, I'm sitting there reading a book, which at the time happened to be a book about Americans living in Paris in the early 1900s.
My husband and my kid go for a walk. And as they leave, this guy is yelling right. And when they come back, the guy is sitting next to me and we're talking and, you know, we're best friends. And my husband was like, Only you could do something like that. What happened? And I'm like, You know what? I just made eye contact. I made eye contact. And I smiled at him. And all of a sudden, I think to recognize, you know, another human being, it was not a gate agent that was, of course, frustrated because there's nothing he or she can do about the flight. And there's this angry person yelling, you know, I just connected like and then we started talking about Paris and he was telling me what he did.
He was a sports person that had been in Charlotte to cover the All-Star Game. And I have this book that happens to have a map of Paris. He's showing me where he lives. And at the end of that conversation, I had told him, you know, he could just connect in Detroit. This is how the Detroit airport looks. Don't worry, you'll make your flight. And if you don't make it, you know, there's always assume you can call into your meeting tomorrow morning for work. I had a place to stay in Paris. We're now connected on LinkedIn, but at the end of the day for me is just it's eye contact, right? It's recognizing our own humanity. In other people. We're all scared to connect to others at times.
You know, we're scared of people being different. We're scared of people judging us. Part of what I do and I actually have enjoyed this as part of the mentorship program that we have a GLBRC. I've worked as a mentor in it for two years. Part of what I enjoy is just encouraging people to really take those leaps of faith like you put yourself out there.
You know, the worst that can happen is you don't talk to someone or, you know, you learn something about yourself, Take the jump, even if it's scary. Put yourself out there, try to see what other people are feeling, what their view on things might be. And when people offer you help, take it. People like helping. It makes them feel better.
I think oftentimes we feel like, you know, you don't want to owe favors to others or you might be in common dating other people. If you ask, you know, for a favor. So I try to pass that message on as much as I can. If you tell me you need help, I'll offer to connect you to the people that I know.
Take my help. And when they offer to help you, take their help. It sounds so simple, but I've seen it in action, you know, through the years. Like making connections with people that otherwise wouldn't know each other. I'm myself an example of that. When I finished my Ph.D., I stayed as a research associate in my department until my husband finished his Ph.D. And when we came back for my husband's interview in Berlin, we already knew that he was going to take a job there.
I cannot stress how lucky I've been in my life within a week, my advisor was going to a meeting in Paris where he was meeting the woman that ended up being my boss in Berlin. So he talked to her about me. I could have been scared when we moved to Germany to call her. I didn't know her, but my advisor had told me, you know, she's.
She would like to meet with you. Maybe she could offer you a job. So it was scary. Yeah. I took the chance, you know, like, even. I mean, I know a lot of us are really privileged in life, and, you know, it's easy in a way to just disregard that as, yes, you have the privilege, but it takes some effort, you know, to take those those opportunities when you're scared and when you don't know the place or the language.
I didn't know any German when we moved there. You know, and this is a federal institute. You were supposed to speak German, but I took it. You know, the words it could happen was, you know, I didn't get the job. And that was that same thing here, right? Like, I saw this job and it wasn't something you know, my background in paper was not something that was needed to take it, you know, just take the chance.
So I really try to as part of my mentorship, I try to pass that message, simple as it might be to people, just take the jump. Just try it. You know, the worst thing that can happen is, you know, you fall and you put yourself up and then you learn another way to bring yourself up and together. But if it works, then, you know, maybe it's a an opportunity that you didn't know you had.
Michelle Chung: Or it's a good story.
Sarynna Lopez-Meza: Or it's a good story, right? You met somebody else that was different than you. And that's always great.
Michelle Chung: Knowing all you know. Now, what advice would you give to your younger self?
Sarynna Lopez-Meza: I think I would tell my younger self that it is okay to be different, that, you know, you should embrace your unique uniqueness and you are appreciated and you bring value to a place as you are and all the things that will happen to you will make you be the person you know that finally accepted itself. Yeah, it's okay to be different and you know you'll come at some point to be the part of the puzzle of this life that you were meant to be.
And it's okay. One day people will appreciate that same encouragement that they'll see you and and know that you learned this so they can, too. It's okay to be different.
Michelle Chung: Meg, were there any big things from my conversation with Sarynna that jumped out to you?
Meg Riker: One of the big things that jumped out was the part where she talked about the issues that faculty members face with time pressure specifically for dedicating time to training for mentorship and DEI and I think this is under-discussed and a big issue. Why top down change from like faculty level down for DEI is not occurring at the rate that everybody thinks it should be.
Basically, we stress professors so much for time and for funding and for interviewing and for doing the research and teaching and grading that we don't give them enough time or set aside time for going to trainings about mentorship and about the. Mm hmm. Like giving faculty structured time paid structured time for some sort of training or mentorship and DEI could help solve the problem.
Yeah. Like this whole issue, I think really brings up that we need to restructure the roles that faculty are responsible for. And what you were saying about setting aside paid time for faculty to go to these trainings, to, you know, invest their time in engaging in DEI initiatives, making it part of the hiring process, like hiring people that will care about these initiatives and making that a priority.
Michelle Chung: And there's so many things that faculty have to do. Someone said it's like running a small business, like how do you put DEI initiatives on the important and urgent part of the matrix? And maybe part of it is reevaluating what the metrics for success as faculty are. Obviously, the grants, the publications, they're going to be a part of that, but things like how you treat your lab group, your mentees, what you might do in service of others. And like there's a ton of research on this that women faculty usually do more of that work anyways, like serving on committees and doing outreach.
And another thing I wanted to point out, she mentioned how she felt really excluded when she first came to the U.S.. She, you know, was afraid to, like, express where she came from and be proud of that. But it was her experience being in like, the melting pot that is Berlin. You know, there's a lot of diversity there that made her proud of her Mexican heritage. And I think that her experience is just another example of why.
And it seems so glaringly obvious, diversifying spaces and, you know, having an inclusive culture is so important. She didn't feel like she belonged, you know, so she was like more down on herself. You're not going to work as well. You're not going to be as happy.
Meg Riker: And people are going to be–I think she mentioned this– more productive. When they're happy, they're going to be more open to discussion. They're going to be better coworkers. They're going to want to go to work every day.
Michelle Chung: Yeah, it makes sense that you'll feel psychologically safer and more open to contribute when you see that there are all kinds of people around you succeeding. It nixes is that imposter syndrome in the bud. Yeah. So I, I really love those points that she brought up today. Mm hmm.
Meg Riker: And that's our show for today.
Michelle Chung: Thank you to everyone listening in and to our guest, Dr. Sarynna Lopez–Meza, research coordinator at the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center. This episode was produced by Michelle Chung and Meg Riker. We'll see you next time on Propelling Women in Power.
What is your superpower?
Sarynna Lopez-Meza: My superpower is that I can get up really early and function. Now, I think the best question is what I would like my superpower to be.
And I used to believe that I wanted my superpower to be speaking all languages in the world, like C3PO. But I think this day, these days, I would settle for my superpower to be the ability to take a nap at any given time.