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Home » Discover Rackham » Alumni Spotlight: Gisselle A. Vélez-Ruiz

Gisselle has been hanging around Rackham for a long time. Initially, she came to participate in the Summer Research Opportunity Program (SROP) when she was an undergraduate student at the University of Puerto Rico – Mayaguez. Through the program, she was drawn not only to attend graduate school but to do so here at the University of Michigan. “I knew I liked the University and the people, and I got into several schools, but I felt more comfortable here. I knew I’d be supported and be in a place that wasn’t competitive among students. The funding was really good, and having health insurance as a Rackham Merit Fellow was a big plus. I got great support from my graduate program and from Rackham.”

Gisselle joined the Cellular and Molecular Biology program after cycling through introductory rotations in the Program in Biological Sciences (PIBS). Her dissertation research focused on the structure and function of G-protein couple receptors. “GPCRs represent one the largest superfamilies in the human genome; they are implicated in a number of physiological disorders and diseases. GPCRs are an important target for pharmaceuticals and drug discovery efforts, currently 45-60% of all drugs in development target these receptors.”

After finishing her Ph.D. in 2010, she was a postdoctoral fellow in the Pharmacology department with a focus on neuroscience. During that time, Gisselle explored alternative career options, realizing what she liked the most was working with students, whether in or out of the lab. She says, “I trained to become a researcher, but mentoring outside of the lab was a really important part of what I had to offer, and my C.V. didn’t reflect that.” This led her back to Rackham. “I took a temporary position as an assistant to the SROP program after finishing my postdoc. I helped with the programming and execution of events, and as the Graduate Student Success (GSS) office needed more help, they kept extending my appointment. During that time, a full time position opened and I was fortunate to get the job.”

Her doctoral work is recent enough that the challenges of grad school are fresh in her mind, as are the resources that she found to help with them: “Some of my coursework – genetics – was hard to get on top of, but PIBS connected me with other graduate students who served as tutors. There was little relief for the issues stemming from weather, however. I struggled with the long, dark winters. It was then that I most missed the environment, food and culture of Puerto Rico.”

Gisselle can completely identify with students, having walked in their shoes. She notes, “Many students struggle with the concept of not wanting to pursue a tenure track position – not every grad student wants to be a professor or can find a position. The first step is to tell yourself that’s ok, you are not alone and there are resources in place to help you navigate alternative careers for Ph.Ds. I recommend students participate and engage more in professional development workshops – career panels, translating your C.V. to a resume, trying to make time to step away from the lab and explore things other than your research. Give yourself time to think outside the box. Seek the support of your mentor and department.”

Finding funding is always an important component as well. She received a significant amount of financial support from Rackham over her years as a student, from extensive funding as a Rackham Merit Fellow to conference grants to present her work in Italy, to emergency funding that helped her finish her thesis. She explains, “Having funds allowed me to focus on bench work and participate in other activities, including leadership positions in the Association of Multicultural Scientists and Rackham Student Government. Funding gave me more freedom to develop other skills by participating in different activities outside of the lab.

During my first years as a graduate student I only saw Rackham as a source of funding. Then as I made time to get out of lab and immersed myself in the campus community, I saw the resources available, and now as an alumnae and employee I have a completely different view. I understand and value the privilege of getting a Master’s and/or Ph.D. especially at U-M. I have been able to interact with staff and administrators at Rackham and various programs. I learned how much they care and want the students to succeed. There are invaluable resources here that more students need to take advantage of.”

Now, Gisselle plays a big part in developing future grad students. She works to develop strong partnerships with faculty, staff, and graduate students in programs across the University in order to inform and support activities and services for recruitment in those units. She also coordinates all aspects of the Summer Research Opportunity Program for undergraduates.

“SROP is really rewarding. Over 80% of the students who participate go to graduate school; many come to U-M. The program helps students get research training and most important it gives them an insight of what graduate school at U-M is like. Additionally, we give them tools and training to help them prepare for graduate school. Faculty mentoring helps with the research component and we help with student statements, GRE prep course, networking skills, and even waive the fee to apply to grad school here. The program has been in existence for 28 years, and we see past participants who are faculty elsewhere send their students to SROP. It’s incredibly rewarding.”

Gisselle sees such value in what Rackham offers to students: “Students cultivate personal and professional development here, and we touch them at different levels of their academic career. From undergraduates coming to participate in SROP to new students in the Summer Institute before their graduate studies begin to the myriad of programs while they are at U-M, we have options for them. Other than funding, the network of resources and the GSS office has a plethora of additional things that go beyond funding to support students, like programs for students with families,, veterans and first generation graduate students – things that other schools don’t offer.

Still, I wish our reach was bigger. I wish all students took advantage of what we offer and identified as part of Rackham. I hope that in the future we are able to work and interact with all of our students in a way that maximizes our capacity. That would be a good problem to have.”

Regardless of the reach, we can rest assured that Gisselle will give 110% to programs that support graduate students. When she’s out of the office, though, you may find her in the kitchen, researching new baking recipes. Here Rackham benefits as well, where products of her recent baking projects fill the kitchen counter. She spends much of her free time also reading young adult books and watching reruns of 90s TV shows, admitting, “I own every season of The Golden Girls.”