The new year brings the excitement of possibilities. We don’t know what’s in store for us in 2020, and I think that makes this interview series that much more exciting. I seek to wonder how people are getting from Point A to Point B in their lives and that can change so much within a couple of months as people refine their goals, take risks, and follow their curiosities. What better way to ring in the new year than with the second guest on the Dreams In-Progress blog interview series: A-bel Gong!
Instagram Story Questions: We asked people to submit questions for A-bel to answer for Dreams In-Progress via an Instagram Story. We chose 3 viewer questions that are interspersed throughout the interview (in teal). Thank you to those who submitted questions!
Name: A-bel Gong
From: Santa Clara, CA
Institution: University of San Diego (USD), spring ‘20
Area of Study: Environmental & Ocean Sciences major,
Biology & Women/Gender Studies double-minors
Intended Career: PhD in Marine Sciences (Behavioral Ecology)
INTRODUCTION | GETTING TO KNOW A-BEL
Q: Tell me about yourself!
A: My name is A-bel, and I’m a senior at the University of San Diego–not to be confused with UC San Diego. USD is a small Catholic college. I studied sharks with my professor this past August, and I applied to 6 different grad schools for Marine Ecology–not to be confused with Marine Biology.
Q: What’s your area of study at USD?
A: So, my official major is Environmental & Ocean Sciences (EOSC) with a concentration in Marine Ecology. There are different pathways, and mine requires a minor in Biology, and I’m also minoring in Women & Gender Studies. So, it’s a little confusing, haha.
Q: What are some of your interests?
A: I work at the local theater in Santa Clara. I’ve been doing musical theater since I was in middle school and continued to be involved in that ever since. I play guitar and other instruments. I really like Pokémon, but I haven’t gotten the new game [Sword & Shield], but I’m going to go over to Target and buy it today, haha.
SA: Can confirm that A-bel bought Pokémon Shield on the day of the interview. A-bel’s starter Pokémon is Sobble 🙂
Q: Tell me about some of the on-campus orgs you’re involved with!
A: My 2 big things on campus are being the president of qSTEM which stands for Queer Students & Allies in STEM. We’re a group of LGBTQ+ and ally-identifying students and faculty who come together to create community and do fun things. I’m also the organizer of My Story which is a semesterly event on campus that was founded by a USD alumnus. It’s a storytelling event where we invite people from the USD community to come and talk for a night about the things they’ve gone through. Our motto is “Shut up and Listen” which is meant to invoke empathy and community-building through the art of storytelling. I’m technically the fourth person to take it over and kind of the first person since the founder to move things forward.
Here’s a link to one of my speeches.
Q: Take me back to when you were applying to college. What were you interested in studying?
A: Before even junior year of high school, I wanted to be an animator or someone who works in multimedia, but my family said there wasn’t really a market for Asian-Americans. You don’t really see yourself on-screen. My dreams were crushed, just kidding, aha. But, like, we didn’t have an Awkwafina when we were younger. We had, what, Sandra Oh from Grey’s Anatomy? I don’t remember how I latched onto Marine Biology. I think my mom had said, “You like the aquarium, right?” I remember that for my I-Search project in Ms. Courey’s AP Lang class [at Wilcox Hight School], I wrote about Marine Biology, and so, that’s when I started researching more about what it means to be a marine scientist. I get seasick easily, so I was like, “I’ll never find a job in Marine Biology world!!” So, I applied to schools with that major anyway, thinking, “Whatever, I’ll just get over it.”
I had this interview with retired chair of the Aquatic Biology department at the California Academy of Sciences for my I-Search and I wasn’t prepared. It was over the phone, it was supposed to be in-person, just little procrastination things. And he had said that he also gets seasick and I thought, “Oh, there’s hope for me!” He studied sharks, and I thought it was really cool that you could study a specific animal. So, that was kind of when I knew that it would be an awesome thing to study.
The reason I applied to USD is because my mom accidentally signed up for the tour for University of San Diego (USD) thinking that it was the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). And my mom said, “Whatever, we have this tour booked. We’ll just have to go.” And I went there and I was like, “This campus is so pretty!” They have a Marine Science department, so that was a plus, but I didn’t think I was going to go there. A big thing for me when I was applying to colleges was to make sure that I was safe to come out at school, so I knew that the UCs were pretty safe, because of California’s reputation of being liberal. But when it came to USD, it’s a Catholic school, so I Google’d “University of San Diego LGBTQ,” and I wasn’t sure what I was going to find. They actually have a page that has all of their information about LGBTQ-related clubs and stuff, which is a super helpful resource. I saw that they had a drag show and I was like, “Oh my god, this place is so cool.” That’s how I eventually ended up applying to USD.
MARINE ECOLOGY | PATHWAY + LGBTQ IN STEM
Q: How did you know Marine Ecology was something you wanted to pursue as a major?
A: So, I already knew that I wanted to study Marine Biology before I came to USD, but I didn’t know how to declare my major at first. Everyone comes in as undeclared in their first year and I was like, “I don’t know anyone in this major. I’m not even taking classes for it, and I didn’t know what to do.” Luckily, my Resident Assistant (RA) at that time Grace Cawley, who’s super cool and currently a grad student at USD, came up to me and said, “Oh, I heard you wanted to be a Marine Science major. Let me slip you this professor’s email.” So I emailed this professor, Dr. Prairie (who’s the best), and went to her office. I was sweating, because I’d never been in the department before. She was like, “Here’s everything you need to do,” and gave me a bunch of information on what to do and what classes to take.
We’re kind of like the fun department because we get to go outside and go on field trips, like going to tide pools. I don’t really go outside, so if anything, if my future job forces me go outside, that’s great. The intro. classes are really broad, because they’re for nonmajors, too. For Intro. to Geosciences, we took a weekend trip to the desert which was super awesome. There came a moment where I wasn’t sure which pathway I wanted to take within my major: Marine Ecology (geared toward grad school which requires a minor in Biology), Environmental Science that’s geology-based, and an Environmental Studies that’s more policy-based.
I think I was already declared as a Marine Ecology major and I dislike Biology, but I learned that Ecology and Biology are different: Biology is more about the mechanics of DNA and evolution, whereas Ecology is about the interactions and the relationships between organisms and their environments. It’s a lot about connections, and I really like that. So, as I got away from the Biology part of it and got more into the Ecology side, I felt more settled by junior year. We had to take this Research Applications class where we conduct a field experiment for 3 weeks: we collected things, analyzed the data, and wrote a paper. I realized that I really liked researching.
@Asperpony asks: How do you respond to people asking what you could do with an Ecology degree?
A: Normally, I don’t even tell people I’m majoring in Marine Ecology! I usually just say Marine Sciences, haha. If someone did ask me about ecology specifically though, I think I would say that a lot can happen–grad school, working in conservation, data analysis…the possibilities are endless.
Q: What kind of support systems were you a part of for marginalized identities in STEM + at USD?
A: At USD, we have Living Learning Communities with different themes, so when I signed up, I chose the Social Justice one. It gave me a sense of community, because I was surrounded by people of color and other minorities. All of us in that hall are still really close friends–we do a lot of social justice programming together. Having that tight-knit friend group really helped me, because I didn’t have to deal with anything too bad. Everyone in my department is also really cool and very supportive of everything I do.
In my junior year, I heard about someone starting qSTEM, and I went to the first meeting. The president of the club at that time said that he knew people in STEM who identified as LGBTQ+ but they weren’t connected to each other, so he wanted to find a way to create community. So, he started qSTEM. I didn’t ever expect to take it over when he graduated, and we became an official organization this past fall. The STEM professors are super supportive and it feels like an EOSC department meeting every time we have a qSTEM meeting, literally everyone in my department is there, and I’m just like, “Okay, we can have our department meeting later, haha.”
SA: It’s great that they carve out time to be with you all, wow!
AG: Yeah, I’ve been super fortunate to have that sense of community. I don’t think that’s something a lot of people get, especially at a Catholic school. That can be really difficult to navigate, especially when there are people with differing views that don’t quite agree with the university’s mission statement. Who can you trust or talk to about your personal feelings? Surprisingly, a lot of the people in the University Ministry (UM) are supportive. There was a UM person who came to our latest qSTEM meeting and came up to me later and said, “By the way, I’m here for you.” We have some really supportive people all over campus.
Note from SA: Check the Resources section at the end for organizations & websites that support LGBTQ- & marginalized-identities in STEM!
RESEARCHING SHARKS | SUMMER 2019
Q: You researched sharks over the summer! What was that experience like?
A: I have wanted to study with Dr. Andy Nosal since I met him (how embarrassing, haha), because he studied sharks. I don’t really know when I latched onto sharks; maybe it was when I had that interview with the guy from Cal Academy of Sciences because he studies great white shark behavior. I had asked Dr. Nosal two years in advance if I could study with him, and he was like, “Great, glad you asked.” After I had asked, apparently a bunch of other people asked him, too, so he had a long wait-list. But first, Dr. Nosal was like “You should apply to other paid opportunities that are through the National Science Foundation. It’ll really look good on your CV.”
So, I applied to these Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU’s) through the National Science Foundation. I applied to 5, but didn’t get into any of them, unfortunately. That’s when I really felt rejection–that was like the first time I’d ever been rejected from anything, aha. That ended up being a really good experience, because through writing all those application essays, I was able to craft my grad application based on part of that and develop it into something even stronger. I applied to the NSF Graduate Fellowship Program (NSF GRFP). I think anyone in the STEM field, I think even Social Sciences can apply to it. It’s a really prestigious grant that funds you as an academic for three years. So, you can go anywhere you want with it and work on your own individual project. You’re not tied to anyone else’s grant money.
I ended up researching with Dr. Nosal in August and for the beginning of the summer I got to work at my local theater again, which was really nice. During our time in the field, we did a lot of things with drones, which are a relatively new technology in the field science world. Dr. Nosal was saying that when he first studied sharks, he was using a GoPro attached to a huge balloon. Dr. Nosal, another undergraduate researcher, and I spent a lot of our time on the beach conducting drone surveys and taking pictures of sharks. We got some video footage, too. What I’m working on right now is analyzing the video footage and analyzing the movements of those sharks.
We also helped him with his own project related to shark mating patterns. Typically, a female shark will mate with multiple males, so he’s interested in the multiple paternity of shark litters. And also, looking at whether soupfin sharks aggregate in a similar way of a hypothesis that female leopard sharks aggregate in a cove for incubating their eggs because the water is warmer there. He brought an ultrasound machine, so we were helping him catch these sharks, holding them down while he took ultrasounds of them. It was kind of cool! Dr. Nosal was like a shark gynecologist, haha. I got seasick a lot on the boat, but I took some dramamine, and I eventually figured out what works best for me to calm my motion sickness. It was super fun, though. I got a lot of experience.
One of the hard things about field work is that you need to be strong and physically fit–and I’m not. Having a bigger build and being fit is advantageous for field work. So, I can see why it’s such a male-dominated field, and why a lot of women are degraded in my field. I’m really good at data analysis, but I can’t lift a 100 pound block, for example. Part of me wonders whether I should work out more to be more competitive with these men who are naturally stronger than me. But I was also like, “Why do I need to change myself?” That’s something I’ve struggled with in my mind.
Analyzing the data footage has been pretty hard, because we can’t find the right software that will track sharks. The one that worked best was for tracking fruit flies, but I had to do some manual corrections, so it had its limitations. The last week of fall semester, though, Dr. Nosal told me that he sent the data to his friend in Germany who has a special software and tracked all the sharks for us. So, now I’m working on analyzing the many rows of data, so that’s what I’ll be doing in January. That’ll end up being my senior capstone project!
GRAD SCHOOL | APPLICATION PROCESS
Q: Take me back to the moment where you realized that you wanted to go to grad school.
A: I think I’ve always known I wanted to go to grad school ever since I had the realization that research is something that I really like to do. So, I think it started with not knowing much about grad school but knowing that I wanted to get a Masters and then get a PhD. But over the summer, my friend and I were talking and she said, “Oh, you know you can just get a PhD.” And I was like, “Uh, I don’t feel qualified for that.” I talked to that Dr. Prairie again–the one who gave me a bunch of info my first year–and she slammed me with more information. Her and I are a lot alike in that she didn’t know what she wanted to do, and she also gets seasick. She said that when she was in college, she thought, “I’m a math major; I guess I’ll go to grad school and get a PhD,” and now she’s a tenured professor. It’s really nice to hear that from professors who didn’t necessarily know what they were doing when they were younger.
SA: Yess, that’s perfect for people to read in this interview series.
AG: Jennifer Prairie, if you’re reading this, I appreciate you! So, it kind of started off with that and talking to her about the difference between the Masters and PhD routes. The thing that’s really unique about USD is that since the department is so small, we’re able to do a lot of focused research in class and there are a lot of opportunities to do research independently with professors. So, we have a lot of advantages over bigger schools where students may not get that opportunity. Crafting my own research project was a smooth process because of that, and it makes me feel more prepared for grad school.
Q: Congrats on finishing your grad school apps! How was the process of applying? What helped you balance that with your academics & extracurriculars?
A: Since I was back early in August, it gave me a lot of time to work on applications. I joined this mentorship program called Cientifico Latino, it’s a PhD mentorship program for people in STEM, pretty much anyone can apply but encourage minorities to apply. It’s a really good resource; I’m going to be a mentor next year for sure. So, they pair you up with someone from your field or identify similarly to you, who knows what you’re looking for. I was paired up with a super awesome PhD student in Rhode Island, and we called every week. Even those little calls gave me encouragement to work on my grad applications or send out that email I’ve been meaning to send out for like a week.
The way STEM grad school applications work is that you have to reach out to potential advisors, you talk to them, and then you apply to grad school. You need to vibe with the professor, you need to make sure you have an advisor if you get accepted into that program. My first step was to reach out to these professors which is really stressful. You’re sending these cold emails to people you don’t know and you’re not sure if they’re going to respond. Surprisingly enough, a lot of the professors responded to me. Some of the professors may not be taking on advisees or might not have funding. That’s why NSF GRFP is such a good opportunity because you don’t have to worry as much and have a different source of income in addition to your PhD. I spent late August and September working on that application to make sure it was really good.
@_Mayamercedes asks: What was the hardest part about grad apps?
A: The hardest part for me was doing the emails. It’s an unconventional part of grad apps for research tracks, but sending out emails to potential advisers is key to networking and getting into grad school. I don’t know why I was so hesitant to send them out, but doing them with my friend Ilana was super helpful because we could hype each other up whenever we got anxious!
Q: What are some resources that helped you get through grad school apps while keeping up with academics?
A: My professors were such a good resource because they wanted to look at my applications and gave me feedback. They’re really good about reaching out. Also, my awesome career counselor Kelsey; she helped me through every single application I’ve written, basically. And my friends too, they were super helpful!
Because I had planned out my time carefully and had so many people watching my back and holding me accountable, that really helped me maintain a full load of classes and do my applications. This was probably one of my best semesters yet, because I was so organized. I used Google Calendar for the first time this semester and it was life-changing. I opened up my Google Calendar once in class and one of my friends was sitting behind me and said, “Omg, I look at your Google Calendar every day. I want one like yours because it’s so color-coded and nice.” It was really helpful, because I planned out the blocks that I had time to do work. I was able to use my time really nicely.
SA: To know what methods work for you during stressful moments can be so helpful.
AG: That worked really well up until the hate crime that happened at USD, which was a huge roadblock for me.
BEING A STUDENT LEADER | IN THE WAKE OF AN ON-CAMPUS HATE CRIME
[CW: Anti-LGBTQ+ Hate Crime mentioned]
Q: Are you open to talking about the hate crime on campus?
A: Sure, we can talk about it. There was a hate crime on campus against a member of the LGBTQ+ community in late October. A first year student’s door got vandalized–it was awful. I heard about it through word of mouth, because the university was being pretty hush about it. They were giving out really vague information. It was the week before I left for a conference, so I was already stressed. I had a bunch of things due and I was going to be missing class. It was really hard to navigate being a student leader but also being out in the community.
Being a student leader in the LGBTQ+ community specifically meant that I had to provide resources to the members of my club, but at the same time, emotionally, I couldn’t process the information as fast as everyone else was moving. Immediately afterward, people were already planning action and even the survivor of the hate crime planned things. They’re an activist and well-known on social media for their activism. I was trying to keep up as a student leader, that all the members of my club were being looked out for. So, I was putting a lot of unnecessary pressure on myself. My Ethnic Studies professor was also the survivor’s advisor, so I was receiving a lot of information from my professor, too. A lot was happening.
I think in that moment I had too much on my plate and started to collapse. That’s when I also knew that I needed to ask for help on rely on other people to get things done for me. Like, the advisor of qSTEM was really helpful by saying, “Hey, take a step back. I can do this for you.” And she had talked to me on the phone for a little bit. Kelsey was super helpful, too, and let me cry in her office for a little bit. And then I left for Hawai’i, and maybe I needed this break. The conference was a diversity in STEM conference, so it was the inclusive space I needed at that moment. I came back and felt a lot better about being present and more refreshed. That was a really rough patch in the semester for me, and as a community, we’re still working through it and planning action.
ENVISIONING THE FUTURE | SPRING ’20 + POST-GRAD PLANS
Q: You have one semester left at USD. What kinds of things are you thinking about right now? What are you looking forward to? How are you envisioning post-grad life?
A: This semester, I’m tying up some loose ends with our My Story event. We’re also doing an LGBTQ+ My Story as a side event, which will be super fun. I’m having the president speak at that My Story, so I’m pretty excited for that. I’m also prepping for the next person to take it on after I graduate. For qSTEM, we’ll see, haha, it’ll work itself out. In terms of research, I’ll be finishing that up and presenting it as my senior capstone in the spring. This spring is the first semester I don’t have any labs, so I have a lot of free time. My friends and I are thinking about volunteering at the aquarium for fun.
Meanwhile, I’m just going to be waiting for grad apps. I think it’ll be more interviews after that. I’m going to Malaysia this summer to visit my family, which I haven’t done since the end of high school. Post-grad, provided I do get into grad school, it’ll be moving wherever I’m moving to. It seems like right now, the most likely scenario is that I’ll end up staying in San Diego for grad school. It’s still unclear; either San Diego or Santa Cruz seem the most likely. I’ll be working on Behavioral Ecology, which has been a big passion of mine. I’ll be taking a Science Communications class next semester, and I’m really excited for that; I think it really ties into my background with storytelling. Writing a research paper is like telling a story and we can communicate without using confusing jargon to be more accessible.
@Nicoleeich asks: What is your dream job?!
A: I would love to make underwater documentaries one day. Even if it’s just one! A part of me is still clinging to my creative side. I think that’s why I love doing my shark research so much; it lets me play around with video footage, and it feels like I’m editing a movie. Btw Nicole was the one who complimented my Google Calendar 😉
Q: One last question! What advice do you have for Millennials & Gen Z-ers who are experiencing pressure to figure out their lives asap?
A: Imposter syndrome is a really valid and real thing. I think it’s important to remember that we all come from different backgrounds and resources when we were growing up. Actually, Kelsey told me in our last meeting, “You know, you’re like the San Diego Tribune. And the person over there is like The New York Times. You all have different stories that you’re publishing and different pathways.” You can’t compare apples to oranges. It may seem like someone else is more successful than you. But there are things that are out of our control, and we have our own strengths. We’re all on our different paths of life, so appreciate the trail that you’re on.
RESOURCES A-BEL RECOMMENDS:
- National Science Foundation:
- Cientifico Latino: organization to uplift minorities in STEM; contains resources for undergrads, grads, and professionals in STEM
- 500 Queer Scientists: resource to boost queer representation in STEM
- Project Biodiversify: resource to make biology curricula more gender diverse
- Skype A Scientist: program that matches scientists with classrooms around the nation for virtual Q&As!
A-BEL’S TOP 5 FAVORITES:
FOLLOW A-BEL ON
“We’re all on our different paths of life,– A-BEL GONG, DREAMS IN-PROGRESS
so appreciate the trail that you’re on.”