Editor’s Note: We’re trying something new this year. We are interviewing various UMD Alumni about how their experiences at UMD have impacted their professional lives. They will also be giving their advice for being successful out there in the real world.
Today we’re also highlighting the impact that having a disability can have on your professional life, as part of our ongoing collaboration with Disability Resources.
Name: Bri Ettestad
Majors: Cell & Molecular Biology BS; Biochemistry BA
Graduation Date: December 2015
Please describe your disability and history of it.
I suffer from both depression and anxiety/panic disorder. I had symptoms of both since childhood, but my diagnosis didn’t come until later–I was diagnosed with depression at 14 and anxiety/panic disorder shortly before I turned 17. In both cases, I, unfortunately, waited until things got bad before going to the doctor. I struggled to find an antidepressant that worked for me, but I was fortunate to find an anti-anxiety medication that also helps manage my depression without many side effects.
Organization, title, and a brief synopsis of what you do at your current place of employment.
I work for the Masonic Cancer Center at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities as a research scientist. Since I was hired at the end of April 2016, I have been involved in many projects related to immunology and cancer biology. I am currently researching a rare type of lymphoma caused by Epstein-Barr virus, as well as, studying the killing of cancer cells by natural killer cells. I am looking for a gene that causes cancer cells to become immune to NK cell killing and testing a variety of drugs that make NK cells more efficient against sarcomas.
Have you or do you plan to disclose your disability to your employers? What advice do you have for people in a similar situation?
I have not disclosed my disability to my employers, and I am not sure if I will do so. There is still a lot of stigma surrounding mental health conditions, and I feel like most employers are not willing to recognize them as a disability. I am extremely open about my conditions with my peers. I am passionate about educating others about mental health and doing everything I can to eliminate the stigma. That being said, I think it comes down to how comfortable one is when disclosing their disability. There is no method that works universally. If you are comfortable disclosing it, by all means do so! If you are not comfortable with it, there is no shame in keeping that information to yourself. There is no requirement to disclose your disability.
Do you use any workplace accommodations related to your disability?
No. I am actually unsure as to what kind of accommodations they could really offer me. My biggest issue is when I have bad mental health days (too exhausted to get out of bed or be productive in any regard, panic attacks keeping me up all night, etc). If I am in a situation where I know my mental health will be detrimental to my productivity that day and it is possible for me to rearrange my schedule, I will take a sick day without disclosing the reason. Unfortunately, science doesn’t wait. Experiments are often on a time schedule and I have had to come in on multiple occasions when I was in no condition to work simply to make sure the experiment was completed.
What were the jobs, opportunities, and/or classes you had that led to your current role?
During my undergrad, I took many lab courses that set the stage for me working in a research setting. In addition to this, I started working as a TA for chemistry labs when I was a sophomore; I taught Introduction to Chemistry and General Chemistry I and II labs along with a discussion section for Gen Chem I. However, the most valuable thing I did was seeking out undergraduate research opportunities. For my last 3 semesters of school (and for a while after graduation), I worked in a research lab in the UMD Medical School where I studied Lyme disease. During the summer of 2015, I was accepted into a 10-week research program at Cornell where I studied neuroscience using Drosophila melanogaster (fruit flies). Prior to doing undergraduate research, I was planning on going to medical school. Once I got into the lab and experienced the highs and lows of research, I changed my career path and never looked back.
What were some of the lessons you learned while on-campus at UMD you’ve incorporated into your professional life?
Don’t be afraid to try new things. I went into college like many others who wanted to pursue a career in medicine. I was dead-set on my goal and didn’t want to deviate from it. If I hadn’t taken the step into undergraduate research, I likely would not be where I am now. The job I took here at the cancer center was full of techniques I had absolutely no experience in, and it was all very overwhelming. As a scientist, it is important to expand your knowledge of techniques so you have more options when it comes to planning experiments to answer the questions you are interested in. I had a similar experience at Cornell – I had never worked with Drosophila or done fluorescence and confocal microscopy, and I had to pick up these techniques very quickly in order to complete my project. I could’ve chosen a lab that relied on methods I was familiar with, but I am glad I didn’t. Much of my repertoire of experimental techniques came from being open to trying new things, even if it was stressful and a little bit scary.
What do you know now that you wish you’d known prior to entering your role/field?
Research can be slow, tedious, and frustrating. I learned this relatively early on, but it proves true time and time again. We run into road blocks all the time, whether it be because the experiment itself isn’t working, the cells aren’t growing right, we are unable to get the reagents we need, waiting for approval from safety committees, waiting on grant money, the cell cultures get infected, etc. The list is endless. Science is not about instant gratification in most situations. You have to be willing to stick with something no matter what. In the end, completing a project and discovering something brand new makes all the late nights, frustration, and obstacles worth it.
What career advice do you have for students wishing to enter your field? How about advice around living with a mental health condition and working full time?
This goes for anyone who is pursuing something science-related (including pre-med, pre-vet, pre-pharmacy, etc.): Do undergraduate research. Even if you are 99.99% sure you will not pursue research, it will at least be something to supplement your application to grad/med/vet/pharmacy school. It is a lot easier than you think to get involved in undergraduate research. Look for faculty on the university website, find out what they’re researching, and start sending emails! Introduce yourself and tell them you are interested in volunteering in their lab. Many faculty members are more than happy to take on an undergraduate if they have space. Read some of their papers, meet with the faculty, and learn what you can before deciding whether or not their lab is right for you. If you’re lucky, you may even manage to get on a published paper or two before you graduate.
As for living with a mental health condition and working full-time, take care of yourself. You will have bad days. The first few months of a new job are always stressful (even more so if you move to a new place for the job). Stick with it – it gets easier. When you have your bad days, there is absolutely no shame in taking a mental health day. No matter what, your health comes first. If things start getting really difficult, reach out for help and tell your employer what’s going on, even if it’s hard. Keeping them in the loop when something major happens is very important. If you came down with a serious physical illness, you would tell them what’s happening. Your mental health is no different.
Anything else you want to add about your time at UMD, or since, that greatly impacted where you are now?
It may already be apparent because I am writing this, but getting involved with Disability Resources at UMD was one of the best things I ever did during my undergrad. I thought I could manage my mental health on my own, but when it proved to be too much to handle, DR was there to give me the level playing field I needed to excel alongside my peers. I had the opportunity to speak on numerous mental health panels to help spread awareness and educate other students about mental health conditions, and I know these panels made a difference for several students who were suffering from the same conditions but didn’t know where to turn. Even though my career is as a scientist, I am still looking for ways to help spread knowledge about mental health and end the stigma surrounding these conditions.