A shared humanity Four leaders in the College of Science share their perspectives on success, leadership and identity
A shared humanity
The four women featured in this story offer individual life experiences and inspiring paths to success in both science and academia. They represent leadership across the complete spectrum of academic life at the University—from undergraduate Elisabeth “Lizzy” Hairston navigating a global pandemic as a freshman while continuing to excel in both school and on the women’s Division I soccer team to Dr. Melanie Duckworth’s role and influence at the University as Associate Dean of the College of Science, and all the space between. The significance and value their stories have in these past two months, Black History Month and now Women’s History Month, is no different than any other time. What is different is the context in which they are presented and what that means.
“Any sharing that has to do with identity, be it the socially constructed identity of race, or any other identity, it’s about creating a shared humanity,” Duckworth said. “When I share, particularly in the context of my holding the identity of a Black woman, my sharing is a recognition of all that I am in addition to those intersecting identities and all that I hold in terms of potential to do, create and lead that is not as bound by identity as some might believe.”
"Any sharing that has to do with identity, be it the socially constructed identity of race, or any other identity, it’s about creating a shared humanity."
While the women in this feature have paths to science that are wholly unique, they all share in a belief that women, People of Color, and members of other underrepresented groups should be seen widely in all fields of science and in leadership. They all believe in the necessity of role models. Mariann Weierich, the James K and Lois Merritt Mikawa Distinguished Associate Professor of Psychology, has spent much of her career dedicated to improving representation of racial and ethnic minorities in the field of psychology. Third-year medical student Tasha Vazquez recognizes a need for more individuals who share in her lived experience across the entire field of medicine. Hairston asserts the value of having three driven and successful older sisters as role models for her own life. Duckworth has used her place in leadership at the College and the University to give unwavering voice to these issues.
Duckworth, Weierich, Vazquez and Hairston’s stories, independently and collectively, serve as examples of human potential at its greatest. Shared now, their stories serve as a starting point for change.
“Black History Month and Women’s History Month represent society’s effort to acknowledge the significance of the contributions made by persons who hold a Black racial identity and persons who identify as women. The designation of these months as windows to celebrate Blackness and womanhood also reflects the systematic devaluing of the contributions of Black persons and women across most of our nation’s history,” Duckworth said. “If we are going to change that—if there is going to be an ever-present respect for the essentialness of all human beings—then we have to start by challenging our bounded conceptions regarding the importance of human diversity to the health and well-being of our world.”
Below are the stories of four role models.
Dr. Melanie Duckworth, Associate Dean of the College of Science
Melanie Duckworth’s influence in the College of Science is paramount. She serves as Associate Dean of the College, Director of the Women in Science and Engineering Program (WiSE), and is an Associate Professor of Psychology. She is an expert orator, often speaking on behalf of the College and the University, giving voice to issues of vital important to the success of the College, the University and the larger community. On the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, February 11, she led a virtual panel of women scientists and researchers from across campus in a discussion of gender equity, discrimination and biases. In organizing the annual College of Science student video competition, she encouraged students to share their experiences as students in the College under the competition theme Breaking barriers: diversity in science. As Director of WiSE, she is dedicated to connecting students with female role models from all walks of life. In addition to her commitment to student success, she continues to publish impactful research. In 2020, she co-authored Prejudice, Stigma, Privilege, and Oppression with professors Lorraine Benuto and William O’Donohue, a behavioral health handbook meant to provide guidance for clinical psychologists responding to clients’ experiences of prejudice and oppression. As she reflects on her path to leadership in higher education, her hope for the future is clear.
"More recently, that journey has caused me to contemplate the ways that I can be effective in ensuring that the next Nobel Prize-winning scientist is free to pursue discovery without any hindrance that’s based on identity.”
“It has been a journey,” Duckworth said. “More recently, that journey has caused me to contemplate the ways that I can be effective in ensuring that the next Nobel Prize-winning scientist is free to pursue discovery without any hindrance that’s based on identity.” While mindful of this article as highlighting diversity related to gender and racial identity, Duckworth emphasizes the importance of creating educational systems that prize diversity in all its forms and appreciate diversity as essential to achieving the highest levels of success.
Duckworth has dedicated much of her career and life to achieving this goal, using education—her own pursuit of education as well as the education of those around her—as a catalyst for change. Even as a young girl, Duckworth challenged society’s idea about her and her capacity for success. Her journey to her current position started with a love of math.
On the value of education, Duckworth’s formative years
The young Melanie regularly won school math and spelling competitions, often taking the top spot in her elementary school class. She continued on to a private, all-female, predominantly African American preparatory high school where her love of learning flourished. Many of her high school teachers held doctoral degrees and their passion for the subjects they taught was palpable.
“As important to us as their expertise in imparting subject content was their confidence in our ability to excel against any competitor,” Duckworth noted. “I recall foreign language competitions during which we were pitted against other high school and college students in tests of Latin language spoken fluency and we often left those competitions victorious.”
Duckworth’s early education was exceptional. She is quick to credit her parents, particularly her mother, for making education a priority above all else.
“There was this emphasis not only on academics but on having us be well-rounded. My mom was somebody who, despite having what some people would describe as a very typical life as a working wife and mother, had this vision of the world and my place in the world. She saw her place in the world, but she saw my place in the world as going so far beyond any expectation she might have had for her life.
“It was only as an adult that I gained a full appreciation of the economic and social challenges my parents-and many of the peers-negotiated to provide their children with every possible educational opportunity,” Duckworth acknowledged. She recalled that many of the drama, debate, and extemporaneous speaking competitions she attended were held in schools and city locations that were not at all welcoming to persons of diverse racial heritage.
Duckworth began her undergraduate education at the University of New Orleans armed with college prep classes, family support, and her impressive oratory skills that still serve her today. Instead of sitting down to write her college papers, Duckworth describes evenings spent dictating her papers while pacing back and forth as her sister typed feverishly to put her spoken words to paper. Duckworth performed very well throughout her undergraduate years, receiving high grades for those stream of consciousness recitations and receiving high grades in the many basic science and psychology courses and labs she completed to obtain a B.S. in Psychology. Duckworth attended graduate school at the University of Georgia to pursue her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology with a Behavioral Medicine emphasis. It was then that she discovered her research passion. While working at the Providence Veterans Administration Medical Center as part of a year-long predoctoral internship at Brown University, she became captured by clinical research addressing the connection between physical injury and emotional trauma.
“In the context of war, individuals often experience both physical injury and psychological trauma,” Duckworth said. “That became the body-mind nexus that continues to fascinate me. How do we recover when both of those things are true—when an emotionally traumatizing event is made more memorable by the physical injuries and limitations that are the result of that traumatic experience?”
Duckworth continued to pursue this research throughout her doctoral degree and her postdoctoral fellowship at Brown University. She continues to publish in the field today. Her focus now is physical injury and trauma occurring in the context of serious motor vehicle collisions.
On having the right role models
Throughout her childhood and young adult life, Duckworth found inspiration and mentorship in her teachers, professors and leaders in education. One experience, in particular, stands out.
“We know that support is not gender-specific. I cannot count the number of men who have been supportive of my professional success. Nevertheless, it is critical that students see women in positions that have been defined by male presence,” Duckworth said. “In my undergraduate program, there were a number of females that were of high academic rank and well-respected as scientists and teachers, but positions of authority and administrative power were held by males. While I was matriculating, a Black female was elected Chair of the Department of Psychology. She was one of the most passionate and demanding professors many of us had ever had. I remember being a bit in awe of her as a professor, and when I saw she had been elected to be Chair of the entire department, it was motivating to say the least. What I viewed as possible for my future career expanded dramatically.”
This experience and others like it have instilled in her a belief that the students she serves today need to see some aspect of their lived experiences, their identities and their cultures in the individuals holding positions of power and leadership at the University. As the Country grapples with widespread and prevailing racial injustice, racism that has only been amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic, Duckworth believes that confronting the inequities that exist within our campus community, including the scarcity of Black female and male role models among the academic faculty ranks and in leadership positions, is essential to making any real change. It is here that she sees an opportunity.
“For some, my presence as a Black woman in the College, on the campus, and in this country is something to be questioned," Duckworth said. "Some who hold 'centered' gender and racial identities exaggerate the relevance of my identity as a Black woman and devalue the expertise and hard work that my accomplishments reflect. This is consistent with our long history of prioritizing the success and wellbeing of culturally centered groups over non-centered groups."
The designation of a cultural group as centered or non-centered is context-specific. In the United States, unearned recognition and rewards are often afforded to those who are of younger age, able-bodied, Caucasian, wealthy, heterosexual, of Christian faith, city-dwelling, and male gender.
“Grappling with issues of race is something we have been engaged around for the longest of time and I am very much opposed to taking much longer to resolve some of those issues."
“Grappling with issues of race is something we have been engaged around for the longest of time and I am very much opposed to taking much longer to resolve some of those issues," Duckworth continued. "I view changes in policy as vital to any truly substantive and temporally quick change—policy changes that would correct almost immediately the relative absence of Black professionals across our campus. Such change requires that we view anyone who holds my racial identity as equally capable and that we view the absence of Black professionals from the academy as a consequence of centuries-old and ongoing oppression and discrimination, and not as a function of any innate lack of ability.” Again, Duckworth insisted that the same efforts be made in relation to increasing the presence and influence of those who hold other non-centered cultural identities.
Duckworth points to examples of widespread systemic racism and discrimination in education such as the zip code dilemma wherein a student’s neighborhood determines their access to higher education and success in STEM fields. She also confronts her personal experiences as a Black female educator and leader, using language borrowed from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson.
“I find that as I have moved into these leadership roles, I may have moved up in professional class, but, for some, my position in the caste system has not changed,” Duckworth said. “I secure the position of associate dean of the College of Science. In this leadership position, I am given significant assignments and afforded unparalleled exposure and insight into the workings of a college that is of such size and of such importance to the educational and research mission of the University and the workforce development mission of our state. Yet, for some people who engage with me in this leadership position, the expectation is that I demand nothing of them or the situation—that I just be grateful for being present. Existing quietly or gratefully in a lower caste position, based solely on socially transmitted ideas of race and gender, will not serve as the measure of my contribution to the success of this College or this University. I am very committed to creating processes that will encourage those who hold centered identities and those in moments of power and influence to recognize the systematic exclusion of people with non-centered identities and act in support of their inclusion at all levels. We have to be committed to doing away with systemic racism.”
On moving forward
In spite of the challenges she has faced, having a voice in leadership provides Duckworth with the opportunity to promote and implement the policies, programs, and initiatives that are having a positive impact.
“It is with pride that I point to initiatives that are underway to recruit, retain and confer degrees upon students from our rural communities, first-generation college students, students who excel in the face of economic disadvantage, international students who are often called upon to be masters of multiple languages as well as their academic subjects, students who hold culturally centered identities and use those identities in support of inclusive excellence in their classrooms and in their extracurricular pursuits, students of diverse religions, female students who aspire to STEM careers, students who hold diverse racial identities and fight daily to remove the shackles of the caste system, students of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities, students who bring their diverse abilities to bear in solving the world’s engineering and technological challenges, and Indigenous students who have first claim to the our public, land-grant institution’s promise of educational opportunity and career enhancement.”
Duckworth views herself as someone who leads through respectful and collaborative engagement—a leadership style based on a sincere appreciation for the potential of each individual to contribute significantly to scientific discovery and societal betterment.
“If there is anything about me that I think people appreciate it is that they are seen by me,” Duckworth said. “I work really hard to ensure that we have a shared goal rather than imposing a project or a goal on anyone. And I’m very appreciative. Anybody who works with me will tell you I say ‘thank you’ a lot. I think that is very much linked to my cultural identity and this notion of appreciating what people do and wanting to be appreciated for what I do.”
As Duckworth looks to the future of the College and the University, she is hopeful, and she is motivated by the College’s mission to provide students with outstanding educational and research experiences and to do so in a manner that “recognizes that diversity of thought, background, and experience enrich and expand the scientific enterprise and affirms the inclusion of all populations to enhance overall success in academic programs and excellence in research productivity.”
“A unique experience in the College of Science, particularly in the Dean’s office, is that there’s one mission, and that is service of students,” Duckworth said. “By virtue of having that one mission, it’s a shared mission. We all know what we’re here for, and we work together towards that mission. Let this College take on the challenge of changing systemic racism across the campus and throughout our community. Let us take that on. I think we can do it.”
Dr. Mariann Weierich, James K. and Lois Merritt Mikawa Distinguished Associate Professor of Psychology
Mariann Weierich joined the College of Science in 2019 as the James K. and Lois Merritt Mikawa Distinguished Associate Professor of Psychology. Her impressive archive of research and passion for outreach has already made its mark at the University, but it is the moments in her life that left a mark on her that define her life story. A compilation of inspiring personal relationships, multifaceted research interests, and a uniquely altruistic ambition, Weierich’s story is one worth sharing.
On an interdisciplinary approach to studying stress
Weierich studies the human body and brain’s reactions to stress. Her research spans a wide range of disciplines, including clinical psychology, cognitive science, and neuroscience. She believes this coordination across fields is critical to achieving meaningful results.
“Clinical Psychology as a field traditionally has relied on self-report; on someone telling you what they think is happening when they start to feel stressed,” Weierich said. “We’re good at describing our stress, but we’re really bad at understanding what in our bodies led us to feel that way to begin with.”
By using a range of test mechanisms, including behavioral measures, human observation, neuro-imaging and stress hormone assays, Weierich is able to get a more complete picture of humans’ reactions to stress. She hopes her research will help psychologists identify those at risk of developing more extreme stress conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, and eventually prevent them from ever having those symptoms to begin with.
“Stressors are going to happen,” Weierich said. “We are all going to experience stressful events in the world, but we can learn to control, to some degree, the way our body physiologically reacts to those stressors when we experience them.”
On research by way of resilience
Weierich’s path to this unique cross-disciplinary field of research started at a restaurant in South Bend, Indiana. She was paying her way through her undergraduate psychology education at the University of Notre Dame and she ran out of tuition money. She took a break from school to work two jobs with the goal of saving up enough money to complete her degree. While working as a server, two of her female coworkers made a strong impression on her.
“Each of these women independently experienced really horrific life circumstances, some relatively recent.” Weierich said. “What struck me was how they seemed to have come through these horrible experiences with their sense of humor intact, and their ability to care for other people intact. In fact, they went out of their way to help people. I was struck by, first of all, how great these women were, but also by this incredible level of resilience.”
Weierich eventually returned to Notre Dame to complete her undergraduate degree before moving on to Yale University where, inspired by the two women from the restaurant (both still friends of hers today), she began her graduate work studying resilience. As she got deeper into understanding the human responses to stress, including posttraumatic growth but also posttraumatic stress and the negative reactions to trauma, she became more interested in the “why” behind the problematic response.
“Once I started learning how the symptoms people have in response to nearly identical events can be different, I found that more compelling and have been studying that ever since,” Weierich said.
On taking on the challenge of underrepresentation in psychology
As is apparent in her research, Weierich’s education and career are not limited to one silo. She earned her Ph.D. in clinical psychology but also trained in cognitive psychology while in graduate school. As a postdoc, she worked in affective neuroscience at the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at Massachusetts General Hospital.
“I hope the field continues to move in this direction of integrating more so that we’re not reinventing the wheel using different methods when instead we could coordinate methods and answer questions faster,” Weierich said.
Not surprisingly, this collaborative approach to psychology is present in Weierich’s outreach efforts as well. Throughout her career, she has been dedicated to improving diversity and the representation of People of Color within all areas of the field.
Weierich was drawn to the University by the open Mikawa Professorship and its clear mission of enhancing ethnic and racial diversity in clinical psychology. The late James Mikawa and his wife, the late Lois Merritt Mikawa, were both invested in the growth of the University and the Department of Psychology long before endowing the position. In his 27-year tenure, James Mikawa served as professor and chair of the Department as well as director of both the Psychological Services Center and the Clinical Psychology Training Program. Lois Merritt Mikawa graduated with her Ph.D. in education from the University in 1987 and her commitment to youth was apparent in her 23 years spent working for the Washoe County School district. Both James and Lois Mikawa recognized a systemic problem in the world of clinical psychology.
“The field, as Jim [Mikawa] knew years ago when he was here, has a two-layer problem of underrepresentation of ethnic and racial minorities; underrepresentation both in clinical practice and in clinical research,” Weierich said. “Every clinical training program in the country has this challenge and understands this challenge. What I found so compelling when I came to interview here, and what I still find compelling as the person sitting in this position today, is that most places will assert they understand this is a problem. What they don’t do is put resources behind progress toward a solution.”
"Underrepresentation of People of Color in the profession can lead to People of Color who could use the help of a psychologist deciding not to pursue therapy due to a concern the therapist might not understand them."
The negative consequence of underrepresentation in clinical psychology, as Weierich describes, is not contained to one area within the field. Not only are patients in therapy impacted by the lack of diversity, but research outcomes are much less accurate.
“Underrepresentation of People of Color in the profession can lead to People of Color who could use the help of a psychologist deciding not to pursue therapy due to a concern the therapist might not understand them,” Weierich said. “That of course is not true. Any therapist who is talented, well-trained, and well-meaning can understand just about any client. But it’s still a barrier and a deterrent for people who do not want to have to try to explain their experience to someone who hasn’t had that experience. For example, the horrific examples of racial injustice during 2020 most heavily impacted Black Americans. It is understandable that Black Americans who might have thought of pursuing professional support would be hesitant to work with a non-Black therapist, given the impossibility of that therapist fully understanding the impact of those specific events on Black Americans.
"On the research side of things, if we’re trying to uncover universal laws of behavior and psychiatric conditions, we need to make sure we’re sampling everyone. To do that, we need to make sure we’re asking the right questions, and to ask the right questions we need a range of people who’ve had a range of lived experiences. When there is an underrepresentation of professionals in the field, the right questions don’t get asked, we miss those phenomena, and we’re not as efficient at tailoring treatment for individual clients.”
The position comes with resources and funding which Weierich so far has used to cover application fees and travel expenses for UNR clinical doctoral program interviewees. When the public health situation allows, she plans to organize a number of presentations and Q&A sessions to help recruit students who might not otherwise consider clinical psychology or who might not learn early enough in their undergraduate careers what they should do to prepare for graduate school.
On launching Nevada ENDURE
While embarking on outreach related to the Mikawa mission at the University, Weierich set out to also address the issue of representation within the field of neuroscience. In January 2021, she was awarded a $2.4M National Institutes of Health grant to direct the Nevada ENDURE (Enhancing Neuroscience Diversity through Undergraduate Research Education Experiences) Program at the University, with the goal of preparing undergraduate students from diverse backgrounds to enter Ph.D. programs in the neurosciences. Weierich previously had directed an ENDURE program in her former position at Hunter College of the City University of New York, and she invited Professors Marian Berryhill and Dennis Mathew to join her in launching the program at the University.
"Even if we as a clinical program do better with representation, we’re still going to have fewer students from underrepresented backgrounds in each cohort. Real inclusion requires that we are enhancing representation across the different fields."
“Clinical doctoral programs are quite small, with about 6-8 students in each cohort,” Weierich said. “Even if we as a clinical program do better with representation, we’re still going to have fewer students from underrepresented backgrounds in each cohort. Real inclusion requires that we are enhancing representation across the different fields. That way even if an incoming student in clinical is the only student of color in their cohort, they can meet the students of color in the neuroscience and other programs. A larger aggregate cohort creates an environment and community that feels more welcoming.”
The Nevada ENDURE program provides two years of intensive research training experience to undergraduate students from diverse backgrounds including ethnic and racial minorities, first-generation college students, students with disabilities, and economically disadvantaged students who plan to pursue doctoral training in neuroscience. The program facilitates intellectual development and removes some of the barriers to the pursuit of graduate training. Weierich, Berryhill and Mathews are currently reviewing applications for the inaugural group of students who will begin program participation in summer 2021 in full-time neuroscience research training.
In spite of campus closures, remote work, and drastically altered lifestyles as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Weierich managed to win a major grant to launch a new program, publish research and carry out the Mikawa mission. Her dedication to the field of psychology is impressive. As she works tenaciously to improve underrepresentation in psychology, she, as a leader in the field herself, serves as a valuable role model to future students and professionals.
Tasha Vazquez, University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine third-year student and College of Science alumna
Tasha Vazquez, graduate of the College of Science and third-year medical student at the University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine, exudes the type of confidence and warmth characteristic of a seasoned physician—and this is not the only area of her life where her astute nature has aided her. As an undergraduate biology major, she not only discovered her passion for culinary medicine and adopted a whole-foods plant-based diet, but helped launch the Culinary Medicine Curriculum Committee currently implemented at UNR Med. As she looks toward her career in medicine inspired by her passion for holistic healthcare, she reflects positively on the moments, some incredibly challenging, that got her to where she is today.
On her path to science and medicine
Vazquez grew up one of seven children in a mixed family. At a young age, she often acted as caregiver to her siblings while her parents worked opposite schedules. Amidst the chaos of a bustling household, Vazquez imagined her future.
“At a very young age I remember thinking ‘what exuded confidence—the calm in the storm type of personality?’” Vazquez said. “For me that was always a doctor.”
This vison of herself as a physician stuck with her throughout her childhood and as she began to prepare for college, she faced an incredibly difficult decision. The home she had grown up in did not, at the time, offer the stability she needed to thrive. At 17, with the support of her parents, she made the choice to transition into an adoptive family.
“There was a huge identity shift and huge discomfort in what I thought of as betraying my family and moving on,” Vazquez said. “I was asking for help in ways I honestly didn’t want to and so were the people around me—my idols which were my parents. It was this very uncomfortable time in which my home just wasn’t a stable enough place for me to thrive in. The turning point for me was realizing I had to do things for myself, and I had to think about myself and my well-being to continue on and be successful. It all turned very positive and wonderful in the end, but that moment in my childhood was very difficult.”
"I absolutely needed to have a community behind me to support me and get me through what I was going through. That helped me learn how to ask for help. It’s something that I’m still learning how to do."
In this new environment with the weight of this decision still very present in her life, Vazquez had to learn to navigate her college education as a first-generation student.
“I knew I wanted to try really hard to do big things, I just didn’t know how to do them,” Vazquez said. “I really had an issue as a child not wanting to let anybody in or to share my personal story, but, at the same time, I absolutely needed to have a community behind me to support me and get me through what I was going through. That helped me learn how to ask for help. It’s something that I’m still learning how to do.”
On discovering her new baseline
Vazquez came out of this incredibly challenging experience resilient and driven. She received support and community as a TRiO Scholar and had lined up a clear path to medical school by enrolling in UNR Med’s Post-Baccalaureate early assurance admission program. Her dream of becoming a doctor was soon backed by an enthusiasm for the science she was learning.
“I was interested in the idea of medicine through disease, but I had come to love the idea of medicine through health—understanding the physiology and medicine of the human body in health,” Vazquez said.
She took an epigenetics class as an undergraduate and was fascinated by the idea that environment, behaviors and nutrition could change how a person’s genes work. She describes it as a “coding on top of our genetics” that can be passed down from one generation to another.
“That was one of the subjects that lead me toward rethinking my relationship with food and nutrition,” Vazquez said.
While learning more about the science of health, Vazquez was also running on the University’s track team. Her rigorous schedule challenged her idea of what constituted a healthy diet. Both physically and mentally pushing herself to her limit, she began to recognize the direct correlation between what she put in her body and how she felt. At the same time, her father was on his own health journey and found a way to support his daughter’s education and ambitions in a way that marked a second turning point in her life.
“I had run all throughout high school, and I thought I had a good idea of what health and nutrition was,” Vazquez said. “When I started training at UNR, all that rigorous training and not sleeping a lot because I was a college student made me realize I really had no idea what I was doing in terms of my nutrition. At that same time my dad had started juicing.”
Vazquez’s father added fruit and vegetable juices to his daily routine and soon after decided to implement a whole foods diet—one made up of single-ingredient foods free of added sugars, starches, flavorings and other manufactured ingredients. Inspired by his own resulting health transformation, he started bringing juices to campus for Vazquez.
“He was taking juices to me every day for several weeks, what turned into a few months,” Vazquez said. “Soon, I started to notice some pretty radical changes in my body.”
Vazquez had stopped craving sugar and caffeine, got better sleep, stayed healthy and fit while many of her teammates nursed injuries, and she hit what she describes as “a new baseline.”
"I wanted to know why I felt so dramatically different within such a short time frame. That’s when I came to this huge hot topic in science which is the gut microbiome."
“I started doing some research,” Vazquez said. “I wanted to know why I felt so dramatically different within such a short time frame. That’s when I came to this huge hot topic in science which is the gut microbiome. These are, in the order of billions, bugs on the inside of your digestive tract. One of the number one things they eat is cellulose which is what makes up the majority of plants. Nuts, seeds, legumes, fruits, vegetables—when you eat those you, in turn, feed your gut microbiome which play an enzymatic role in just about every system in your body.”
Once in medical school, Vazquez presented at the 2019 Health Meets Food Culinary Medicine Conference on the gut microbiome and the role it plays in inflammatory disease, cancer, rheumatoid arthritis and obesity. And Vazquez practices what she preaches. The more she learned about the importance of gut flora, the more she refined her nutrition, adopting a whole-foods plant-based diet that she still follows today.
“It kept getting better and better. I feel absolutely amazing,” Vazquez said. “Whether you are vegan or not, paleo, or whatever diet you want to choose, the important thing is making sure you are eating nutrient-dense foods that are promoting your overall health. That with hydration, to me, is complete preventative care in one package.”
On co-founding the Culinary Medicine Curriculum Committee
In her final year as an undergraduate in the Post-Baccalaureate program, she connected with Ranna Nash, Coordinator for Student Development and Academic Enrichment at UNR Med, who recognized Vazquez’s passion for health and nutrition. UNR Med had yet to develop a curriculum around diet and nutrition, and, between Nash and Vazquez, an idea formed. Vazquez began to research relevant and current information in the field of medical nutrition and began to outline what a nutrition curriculum might look like. After months of reading and research, Vazquez and Nash approached UNR Med educators with the idea of implementing what they called the Medical Nutrition Initiative, later to become the Culinary Medicine Curriculum Committee (CMCC).
“There was already a lot of desire from administration at UNR Med, from attending physicians to R.D.s, different dieticians, and others that worked within the medical school community, as well as students,” Vazquez said. “It was the perfect storm for Ranna and me to spearhead the beginnings of the Culinary Medicine Curriculum Committee.”
The initiative was met with plenty of support, and soon Nash and Vazquez were joined by a pediatrician, a registered dietician and several other students in cofounding the CMCC. In her first year of medical school, Vazquez was helping to implement the now official curriculum at UNR Med, leading hands-on workshops.
“Most of the courses from the CMCC are cooking workshops,” Vazquez said. “They begin with a 15-20-minute presentation on whatever the nutritional topic is, and then proceed with hands-on cooking workshops in which the students themselves have to prepare the food and taste it. That way, when they are having conversations with their patients in the future, it’s coming from a very real place, it’s coming from an understanding of what’s realistic for patients to be able to do at home, what tastes good and what’s realistic for them to adopt into their lifestyles and diets.”
The CMCC hopes to expand the program, eventually offering similar courses designed for the general population. As Vazquez nears her fourth and final year of medical school before starting a residency program, the mission of the CMCC is being realized.
“The Culinary Medicine Curriculum Committee has one driving force that we try and stay very focused on which is to first and foremost educate our students,” Vazquez said. “These are the future physicians of our community or other areas of America. The desire of patients to have their own power in their health is already there. The discussion of diet was already happening. It would be doing a disservice to the future physicians of America to not educate them in a conversation that was already going to happen in their office or in inpatient care. We wanted to make sure that at the most basic, foundational level we were addressing those concerns so that we could better serve our patients.”
Once a physician, Vazquez’s career will serve as a testament to the success of the program she helped to create.
“I know for sure that I will implement into my practice a foundation of lifestyle wellness and nutrition as preventative and adjunctive care to medicine,” Vazquez said.
On the challenges of the past year and looking forward
Vazquez’s journey has been and continues to be one of perseverance, health and positivity. However, the collective trauma of this past year—COVID-19 and the precipitating inequalities and social unrest exposed by the global pandemic—has challenged her perspective. After the Black Lives Matter protest in June of 2020, Vazquez reflected on her role and the role of those around her in creating change.
“It was a time for me personally where I felt I had absolutely no answers,” Vazquez said. “I think in the end, people are going to realize the Black Lives Matter movement and the desire to end racism has nothing to do with any issue that African Americans and Black and Brown people have. It’s a social issue. I really feel that this social unrest has uncovered a lot of self-reflection and a lot of reform for everyone.”
Vazquez’s success is due in no small part to her personal dedication and passion for the field of medicine. She did not follow in the footsteps of a parent working as a doctor. She did not often see herself represented in the field of medicine as many of her classmates did. Although the path was not laid out clearly for her, Vazquez not only made it to medical school, but serves as one of UNR Med’s leaders in the field of culinary medicine. She hopes young students with hopes of making it to where she is and beyond face a different reality.
"People need to see themselves as they’re trying to aspire to do things. It’s amazing and it’s great that people of minority backgrounds are still able to do so much when they don’t see themselves, but it is imperative that we are present and part of a diverse culture and group of success.”
“I have pushed myself through my education. I exist, and it is obvious minorities who are successful in all of these avenues exist,” Vazquez said. “So, why is it that I find myself seeing people that I relate to, people that look like me, less and less the higher I go up that ladder? People need to see themselves as they’re trying to aspire to do things. It’s amazing and it’s great that people of minority backgrounds are still able to do so much when they don’t see themselves, but it is imperative that we are present and part of a diverse culture and group of success.”
Vazquez looks to programs that support first-generation and underrepresented students such as the TRiO and the Post-Baccalaureate program as being instrumental in improving diversity in the field of medicine. She is confident and hopeful in the future. As she prepares to enter the workforce with an M.D. and a passion for positively impacting her patients’ lives, Vazquez moves the field one step closer toward equality. Her advice for anyone facing obstacles related to identity: let go.
“Don’t let anybody put you in a box,” Vazquez said. “Do not restrain yourself to be the person others perceive you to be. I have struggled with that for most of my life. It is so freeing to let go of all of these boxes, even as we discuss race and racism, the constant boxes of your race and your culture and your gender. Just focus on yourself and free yourself to manifest whatever it is you want to be.”
Elisabeth "Lizzy" Hairston, College of Science sophomore and Mountain West Scholar-Athlete
Moving away from home, taking challenging new courses, and figuring out how to independently balance school and life is an adventure for any new college freshman. Add in the responsibilities that go along with being a student athlete and the unprecedented challenge of navigating a global pandemic halfway through her freshman year and you’ll have a more accurate depiction of student Elisabeth “Lizzy” Hairston’s experience. In spite of these challenges, Hairston has maintained a 3.82 GPA in the demanding major of biology with a minor in community health sciences, was an Academic All-Mountain West honoree, received the Mountain West Scholar-Athlete Award—one of the highest academic honors bestowed by the Conference, and continues to excel in both school and on the women’s Division I soccer team as a sophomore. With an impressive high school academic and athletic record, Hairston was recruited by Colorado College, University of Pennsylvania, Ryder University and Brown University. Fortunately, she landed on the University of Nevada, Reno and the College of Science is proud to call her one of our own.
Hairston’s interest in science stemmed from her passion for sports. As a dedicated athlete from a young age, she had an acute awareness of the value of science, medicine, and physical health.
“To be serious in soccer, like other sports, you have to pay attention to the science, making sure you’re healthy,” Hairston said. “I’ve seen my sisters have injuries, break bones during soccer and having to get surgery. I got really interested in sports medicine early on because sports have always been a big part of my life.”
While soccer provided her an introduction to science at a young age, Hairston is using her education to explore her interest in a range of fields. As a sophomore, she has a few ideas for her future career but has not settled on one just yet.
“I had always wanted to go to medical school,” Hairston said. “But I’m also interested in going into public health or working in the healthcare field in general. I’m still figuring it out.”
On sisters, soccer, and the invaluable support of family
Hairston grew up in Portland, Oregon with three older sisters—built-in role models, all of whom played college soccer and pursued challenging academic degrees and careers.
“I’ve been really inspired by my sisters my whole life,” Hairston said. “My best memories are playing in the backyard with them, playing soccer. I’ve seen them achieve things and also make mistakes. They played a really big role in shaping me into the person I am today and they’re all doing amazing things now which is really inspiring.”
"I’ve been really inspired by my sisters my whole life. They played a really big role in shaping me into the person I am today and they’re all doing amazing things now which is really inspiring.”
Hairston’s oldest sister, Alex, will soon graduate from medical school and enter a residency program. Her sister Juli is graduating from law school and her sister closest in age, Mady, graduated with her undergraduate degree in Public Health and is looking into graduate programs in the same field. While Hairston blazes her own unique path, having three successful and supportive older sisters helped motivate her to pursue the challenging course she is on. Besides having the support of her sisters, Hairston’s relationship with her parents and extended family have served as her support system throughout her life. Her grandparents and cousins all lived nearby her childhood home, and they often acted as willing chauffeurs to soccer practices or games if her parents were working.
"Family just means so much to me. I lived really close to my grandma and pretty close driving distance from my grandpa and all of my cousins,” Hairston said. “We were able to see them all the time. My dad grew up in Portland. It is a place that felt like home to a lot of people in our family. My parents made sure we could see our family and that they were all in our lives.”
On the challenges of the past year
Hairston started college as a freshman in the fall of 2019. It was an atypical year to start such an important phase of life. Just as she started to get her bearings as a science student and on the soccer team, all was suddenly halted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Hairston and her roommates quickly packed their belongings to leave the dorms. All her classes were moved online. The soccer team paused their season. And Hairston returned home to Portland. Whilst managing this very sudden change, Hairston found out her mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer.
“It kind of felt like things were piling up on top of each other,” Hairston said. “But looking back on it now, I was glad I was able to go home in the spring because I know my mom needed our family to be there. It was a blessing in disguise. I never thought certain things would affect my family or me, but this past year just made me realize we’re not necessarily immune to certain things. It’s been a really stressful time for me and my family this past year, but I’m glad we were all able to be together.”
While not the typical freshman experience, spending her second semester of college back home was time Hairston is glad to have had. Surrounded by her sisters and her parents, Hairston faced each of these obstacles head-on by turning to the things that bring her the most joy: soccer and her family.
“Soccer has always been an outlet for me,” Hairston said. It’s nice to get exercise and I always feel better after playing. It was difficult not being able to play with the team, but I still got to play on my own or with my sisters which has always been one of my coping mechanisms. Being with my family was pretty important to me, too. My parents made sure we all had our own space to do our work and good Wi-Fi with everyone on it.”
Hairston also found a creative new outlet to help get her through stressful situations.
“Painting is just super relaxing,” Hairston said. “It’s something to take my mind off of things. I’ve been doing it a lot over this past year.”
On a slow return to normal
Hairston returned to campus in the fall of 2020. The soccer team slowly resumed their delayed season with their first game played on March 5. As Hairston finishes up her second year as a science major and student-athlete, she has honed her time management skills and built a support system for herself here on campus. Many of her teammates are also STEM majors and they spend time on the road and between games and practices studying and working on homework together. The women on the team are provided with an advisor to help them manage their classes and plan for their majors as well as tutors to help with school work. Hairston appreciates the emphasis the team places on academics, but she also recognizes her own role in her success.
“They make sure we’re all putting school first,” Hairston said. “But you also, on your own, have to be very driven and know how to manage time well. Usually, I’ll know how long a particular assignment will take and I will cut out time to do it. Sometimes I feel like I don’t have any free time. It’s a sacrifice, but the reward is pretty important. I think it’s worth it.”
On sharing her story
Hairston’s success as a student in the College of Science and on the women’s soccer team in spite of the many challenges of the past year is impressive, but to those who know her, not surprising. She is a hard worker and a hard player with a bright future ahead of her. Still young, she has more than enough time to figure out where she will make an impact next. Just as she was inspired by the success of her sisters, Hairston’s story serves as an inspiration to many. As an athlete, a scientist, an artist, a student of color, and a very driven young woman, among many other things, Hairston's achievements—achievements deemed impressive on their own merit but made more so in their defiance of any systemic inequalities or barriers she may have faced—deserve recognition.
"I think it is important to recognize these achievements because there is a lot of hard work that goes on that you probably don’t see."
“As a minority, sometimes it’s hard to get your voice heard and be out there and be recognized,” Hairston said. “My dad would always tell me I would have to work at least twice as hard as other people in my class to be recognized and credited for the same achievements. I think that’s true for a lot of Black people, so I think it is important to recognize these achievements because there is a lot of hard work that goes on that you probably don’t see. It’s important to emphasize the success of Black leaders and students, especially at this school. I think these achievements deserve to be acknowledged.”
As Women’s History Month comes to a close and Black History Month has passed, Hairston reflects on the value of these honorary periods of time while acknowledging the focus should not end with the start of a new month.
“I think we can reflect and acknowledge the achievements of my ancestors every month, but it’s good to have a time to focus on it more,” Hairston said. “It helps me to stay determined to achieve what I want. I feel like, in some way, I owe it to others who came before me.”