A child of the Andes, Stephany Flores Ramos was born in the Sierra (highlands) region of Peru to a soldier and a girl that fell in love despite the prejudice of her father’s family towards her mother’s family of campesinos, farmers of indigenous Quechuan descent. The familial struggles, in addition to the economic stressors they imposed, made it impossible for Stephany and her parents to live in peace, motivating her parents to move the family to the United States when she was just seven.
At Amherst, Stephany was surrounded by similar minds that also pondered how the universe works. There, she discovered that we live in a microbial world while working in Professor Alexandra Purdy’s lab and decided to dedicate her life to microbial research. After graduating, Stephany became a research assistant in Doctors Katherine Lemon’s and Christopher Johnston’s lab where she studied microbial interactions in the human nose—work that earned her a publication in Science.
Currently, Stephany is searching for microbially-derived metabolites that could be used to treat metabolic disorders such as obesity and diabetes. She is also an active member of her program’s diversity committee, working alongside faculty to increase representation and retention of underrepresented minorities in her program and beyond.
We caught up with Stephany about what's next and what the Fellowship has meant to her:
Where are you with your graduate program now? What’s the next step for you?
I am currently a fourth year PhD in biomedical sciences at UC San Diego, where my research focuses on investigating the functional dynamic changes within the gut microbiome. As I approach my fifth and final year, I am determined to successfully conclude my thesis project and attain my doctoral degree. My ultimate aspiration is to transition into industry as a computational biologist or bioinformatician. In order to achieve this, I am eager to apply my expertise in data analysis and computational methods to address real-world challenges in biology.
Can you tell us more about your graduate studies--what questions are you pursuing?
In my thesis, I am undertaking a series of projects with a common focus on understanding the dynamic nature of the microbiome and its implications in metabolic disorders. One of these projects involves investigating the changes in serum metabolomics before and after the placement of a transjugular intrahepatic portosystemic shunt (TIPS). This research aims to shed light on the role of microbial metabolites in the development of hepatic encephalopathy, a severe disorder observed in people with advanced liver disease. Another project explores the fluctuations in microbial RNA expression, also known as metatranscriptomics, throughout a day in response to a high-fat diet or a dietary intervention known as time-restricted feeding.
By conducting these studies, we strive to identify novel diagnostic markers and potential targets for further experimentation. These projects collectively contribute to our understanding of the microbiome's dynamic behavior and its influence on metabolic disorders.
There are so many paths beyond college--why did you feel graduate school was the best next step for you personally and/or professionally?
I embarked on my journey to pursue a PhD in biomedical sciences driven by my profound passion for research and my desire to explore the untapped potential of the microbiome. Coming from a background of being undocumented, a first-generation student, and facing financial challenges, I never imagined myself being able to go to college, let alone graduate school. Nevertheless, when you have nothing to lose, taking a leap becomes somewhat easier. That's precisely what I did when I applied for college and subsequently graduate school.
I was fully aware that the path ahead would be arduous, but my unwavering spirit and indomitable determination propelled me forward. Pursuing this PhD has not only allowed me to delve deeper into the realm of scientific discovery but it has also been a transformative journey of self-discovery. It has helped me discern what truly matters to me in life and equipped me with the skills and knowledge necessary to pursue my next goal.
Through the challenges I have faced and the tenacity I have cultivated, I have grown both personally and academically. I am proud of the progress I have made and the person I have become, and I am eager to continue utilizing my acquired skills and expertise to make meaningful contributions to the scientific community and society as a whole.
Over the past two years, what personal or professional accomplishment are you most proud of?
The professional accomplishment I am most proud of is that I got to give a talk on my thesis project at a national conference! Personally, I am proud that I have learned how to manage my personal and professional life in a way that I can find fulfillment outside of my research.
How do you describe The Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans program to others?
I describe the Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans to other as a life-changing experience. The PD Soros Fellowship is truly welcoming like family and unlike any other fellowship I have heard of. Even though the financial support is only for two years, the people you meet are for life. I am truly honored to have been chosen to be a Paul & Daisy Soros Fellow and join this community.
Why did you apply to The Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans?
I decided to apply for the Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans because I liked their mission statement and I thought I qualified for it. As an undocumented student, there are a lot of fellowships I can't apply for but the Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowship seemed friendly towards us Dreamers. So I applied in the second year of my PhD program in biomedical sciences and am glad I did!
Do you have any favorite memories from the past two years as a Paul & Daisy Soros Fellow?
My favorite memories as a Paul & Daisy Soros Fellow are of the annual Fall Conferences. I had the honor of attending both conferences, one in Nashville and the second in New York City, and I loved both experiences! The locations were nice but it was meeting people who are like you but who also are not at the same time that made it all the more special.
What advice would you give to someone who is thinking of applying to The Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans?
The advice I would give to someone who is thinking of applying to the Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans is to just do it. Take your shot. I did and boy am I glad I did. I know for people who are not in one of the ivy schools that it might feel daunting to apply, but I didn't let that hold me back. We all have an interesting story in us, apply and tell yours.
Who has inspired you from the Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowship community?
I am inspired by many people in my Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowship community. Many have published in great journals, some have started companies, others have made it into Forbes 30 under 30. However, I think I am most inspired by Daisy Soros because without her and Paul, none of these amazing people would have had the chance to meet!
You’re now finishing up your second year of the Fellowship program. Has the Fellowship been what you expected?
I think now that I am up with my two years in the Fellowship I would say the Fellowship was not what I expected. It was even better! Because at the end of the day, yes the Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowship helped pay for my graduate school studies but I now have a network of people I didn't have before and am so thankful for it!
Has your sense of what it means to be a New American changed or shifted through the Fellowship experience and community?
I think this is an interesting question. I think in a lot of ways it has and it hasn't. In my fundamental core I don't think it has, I still think I am a New American. However, the Fellowship has opened my eyes to other peoples' New American experiences and how everyone's is so different. I love that! ∎