Katy Sandoval is a BU graduate currently in the second year of a PhD in Neuroscience at McMaster University. Her path hasn’t always been easy, but her experiences with loss, mental health struggles, and rejection have taught her perseverance, how not to take no for an answer, and that it’s good to ask for support if you need it.
Ni De Aquí Ni De Allá
‘Ni De Aquí Ni De Allá’ is how Katy summarizes growing up as a first-generation Canadian from El Salvador. Not from here, or there…a common sentiment among first-generation immigrants. Thankfully, once at Montreal’s Henri Bourassa high school she discovered others with similar backgrounds and embraced her heritage. “I didn’t have to hide that part of me” she remembers.
At fifteen, she lost her dad to brain cancer. This devastating loss would mark her for years to come. It also led to questions and Katy’s first interest in scientific research when her high school biology teacher provided her with studies on the brain and brain cancer.
Depression and Discovery
Katy’s depression appeared in her first semester of CEGEP. She was unable to continue with her studies. “I started playing music and working. They were actually the best years to explore different parts of myself.”
She performed and recorded her own music, even taking a course on show business management. “I’ve always been resourceful in that way – if I need something I go after it,” she says.
A trip to El Salvador, where her dad was buried, was critical in her healing process, and motivated her to return to her studies.
Her goal was Health Sciences at Dawson College, but she was told she’d need to go back to high school to have a chance at getting in. Not willing to take no for an answer, Katy re-did her high school science, math, physics and chemistry and the next year was accepted into the program.
‘Even if you are being told no, there is always a way to open the door.’
While at Dawson, Katy’s depression came back, and she struggled to make ends meet. At one point she even turned to food banks to get through. But this time around, she sought out support. “I didn’t stay quiet in my struggle,” she says, which became a pivotal part of her making it to graduation four years later.
Bishop’s made its first appearance in those early Dawson years in the form of a purple table in the center of the atrium. Katy was drawn in. In speaking with them she was also introduced to neuroscience for the first time. In a moment of clarity, she knew what she wanted to study.
She came to the campus for a tour. “The moment I stepped foot at BU, that was it. I could feel it. This is the experience I want to live.” Katy was initially refused into the program, but, true to form, she did not accept no for an answer, and came back a semester later armed with reference letters and was given a spot.
Find Your Shade of Purple
It took Katy time to find her place at BU. “I was trying to fit into the wrong circle. I started flourishing only when I accepted that not every person is my people,” she reflects.
In her second year, she pushed her goals. She heard about graduate schools for the first time. She found classes she loved, and professors who went out of their way to support her.
Katy launched her first independent research project, the BU Snooze Room, with her best friend. They solicited support from faculty, received funding, established a space, beds, volunteers, and set out to establish whether naps led to better grades and better health.
This project was critical in helping Katy figure out what she liked, and didn’t like, in research.
After reaching out (cold, of course) to master’s degree supervisors at the University of Calgary, Katy’s independent projects were critical as they highlighted her perseverance and determination. While there were concerns about her grades, Katy, with the support of the staff and profs at BU, maintained her average and was accepted to complete her MSc in Psychology.
During her thesis (and a global pandemic), she discovered BU’s Knowledge Mobilization certificate and jumped at the chance. While a lot of work, she felt the benefits were well worth it. “I wanted to get better at communicating my science…to share my knowledge, share my research,” she reflects. She now applies the concepts she learned to her work in her PhD lab.
When asked what she has learned on her journey, she says: “Express yourself. Speak up. Profs and staff are underestimated in how much they can help. If you don’t ask you will never receive help. And don’t let anyone tell you, you can’t do something if you know deep down you can…find your shade of purple.”
Katy Sandoval is a Bishop’s Neuroscience (2018) and Knowledge Mobilization graduate (2020); she’s currently in her 2nd year of her PhD in Neuroscience at McMaster University and just published her first research article in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnbeh.2022.769322/full