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'A place of opportunities': Graduate student's early introduction to UTSW leads to mission to combat depression

Young woman in a lab coat using a pipette
Graduate student Lupita Rios is pursuing her Ph.D. in neuroscience at the UT Southwestern Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences. She's shown working as a lab technician in the Shabel Lab in summer 2019.

Graduate student Lupita Rios has two passions – neuroscience and planting. One might not seem like it has anything to do with the other, but through both avenues she strives to make people feel better. 

This past summer, the budding scientist launched a small business named Pita’s Planters. She said her fondness for planting grew as a way of practicing self-care during a personal struggle with anxiety. When she first started producing planters, she gave her creations away as gifts, and noticing the enjoyment they brought friends and family, she envisioned sharing that joy with even more people.

Woman holding a succulent surrounded by plants
Graduate student Lupita Rios visits a local plant farm. The neuroscientist has turned a hobby for planting into a small planting business she partly uses to raise awareness about mental health.

“My goal is to spread love through my handmade planters and plants, and to increase awareness about mental health,” she said.

Likewise, mental health – and depression in particular – is an area of research she’s diving into more extensively in her academic career.  

“This illness is affecting people of all ages around the world, yet we still do not have a clear understanding of the pathophysiology of depression,” Ms. Rios said. “I want to join the team of scientists working toward better understanding of depression, with the hope that one day our discoveries lead to more effective diagnoses and treatments.”

Although Ms. Rios is only in her first semester in the Neuroscience Ph.D. Program at the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, she’s already conducted research on depression as a lab tech in the Shabel Lab.

Even before joining the lab, she learned as a high school student what might be the most important lesson of experimentation – repetition. She admits repetition is in her blood. Ms. Rios has come back to UT Southwestern over and over, stepping onto campus for the first time as a talented teen. 

Among STARS

Seven years ago, just before entering her senior year at Bryan Adams High School in East Dallas, a vital opportunity placed Ms. Rios on the path to becoming a neuroscientist. In 2012, she participated in UT Southwestern’s STARS (Science Teacher Access to Resources at Southwestern) Summer Research Program for Students.

“Before starting the STARS Program, I felt like my trajectory was going to be to graduate, go to a community college, and just see what I could do from there,” Ms. Rios said.

Related Video: What’s your UTSW story?

 

But a suggestion from her high school physics teacher would redirect her future. Witnessing her passion for science, he encouraged her to apply for STARS, a program she hadn’t known existed. The state-sponsored initiative aims to close gaps in pre-college science education. It offers 20 free career development programs and resources for middle and high school teachers as well as educational workshops, camps, and summer research opportunities for students to expose them to careers in biomedicine.

Because Ms. Rios’ teacher had completed STARS programs himself, he knew she would be a perfect fit too. So Ms. Rios applied. Out of 550 applicants, she was one of the 39 selected to participate that summer.

The eight-week Summer Research Program gives students a $2,800 stipend as they receive hands-on experience working in the labs of UTSW researchers. Ms. Rios described her experience as an intern in the lab of Dr. Genevieve Konopka, Associate Professor of Neuroscience, as “life changing.”

Young woman in lab coat working in lab
Graduate student Lupita Rios in the Konopka Lab in 2012 when she participated in the STARS Summer Research Program.

“I felt like I was living a dream. I was able to talk to scientists. I was able to learn about the science that was going on here, and it really felt like a whole world opened up for me," Ms. Rios said.

“When I was in Dr. Konopka’s lab, I remember shadowing some of the graduate and postdoctoral students, and after they would finish an experiment they would repeat it about a thousand more times. As a new person to science, it definitely felt that way,” she said jokingly. “It was a very eye-opening experience to see how much work it takes to contribute new data to science – but that is the beauty of it.”

Ms. Rios came to understand that the years of hard work doing research are worth it in order to develop the treatments that fight disease. Near the end of her internship, Ms. Rios sat down with Dr. Konopka to discuss her future. Just as Ms. Rios’ physics teacher had done, the UTSW neuroscientist made an unexpected suggestion that would guide her future. She encouraged Ms. Rios to apply to Brown University and pursue its cognitive neuroscience program.

“I had a gut feeling she could be just as successful in that environment as someone who had been ‘groomed’ for many years to apply to Ivy League schools,” Dr. Konopka said.

Thanks to Dr. Konopka’s encouragement, Ms. Rios said she was ready to expand her academic vision.

And it paid off.

“I was almost brought to tears when I found out I got into Brown,” Ms. Rios said.

‘I could do this’

One hundred percent of STARS Summer Research Program participants go on to attend college. And one of the program’s priorities is to target high-performing high school students who will be first-generation college students.

That was the case for Ms. Rios.

“Since none of my family members had ever gone to college, I didn’t have someone to guide me through the college application process. I wasn’t aware of the many opportunities that were out there. But after joining the STARS Program, I realized that I was capable of achieving so much more than I had ever imagined,” she said.

Dr. Konopka agreed providing teens that opportunity is critical.

“When I was a high school student growing up in a rural community, I also had little exposure or knowledge of really good schools for STEM careers. Therefore, I have firsthand knowledge of how such opportunities can change one’s career path with just a small amount of encouragement to try something different,” she said.

Because the program engages students as early as middle school, many are influenced to come back to UTSW in later years.

Woman standing next to podium
Graduate student Lupita Rios speaks about her experience during a STARS session in 2018 and continues to serve as a volunteer for the program.

Ms. Rios said because of STARS she learned about another UTSW research opportunity she’d later participate in – SURF (Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship). The 10-week fellowship is for undergraduate students preparing for careers in biomedical research. While an undergraduate at Brown, Ms. Rios completed two fellowships through SURF – in 2015 and 2016 – during which she trained in the lab of Dr. David Self, Professor of Psychiatry. After graduating from Brown in 2017, she returned to UTSW.

“I just haven’t been able to get away from UT Southwestern, and I kind of didn’t want to,” Ms. Rios said.

She credits SURF for landing her a job with Dr. Steven Shabel, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Neuroscience, for whom she worked as a lab tech for two years until this past July.

“Lupita is growing into an independent scientist. She has learned how to think through projects and plan what to do next on her own. I expect her to continue to thrive as she transitions from a research assistant into a graduate student at UT Southwestern,” Dr. Shabel said.

Ms. Rios chose to pursue her Ph.D. to fulfill another goal.

“UT Southwestern is a place of opportunities,” she said. “If I ever thought about becoming a scientist it was like a distant dream, something that other people do, not me. But, when I arrived here and I met so many amazing mentors and people, I felt like it was attainable, like I could do this.” 

Setting an example

When she’s not in the lab, Ms. Rios is sharing her love of plants with the community. She sells her creations, which have positive messages on them, at local art shows and markets and uses the interactions with customers to engage with them on mental health issues.

Woman sitting at table behind sign
Graduate student Lupita Rios sells her planters at a local market.

“As someone who has struggled with anxiety, and studies depression, my immediate thought was to share what I love and what helped me cope so that it could hopefully help others in the same way,” she said.

Whether through her artistry making planters or work as a neuroscientist, Ms. Rios’ mission to influence others might just be a result of the impact her UTSW mentors had on her.

“If I can do that for someone else, if I can change their trajectory, if I can tell them, ‘You can do whatever you want to do, you can go on and become a neuroscientist, you can become a professor, you can open your own lab someday,’ I want to be that person for them,” Ms. Rios said.

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