Alena’s pursuit of high academic standards began in 1998 when she migrated with her family from Malaysia to the United States. Her parents sacrificed a comfortable lifestyle in Malaysia to provide an array of opportunities for Alena and her siblings. Many of the obstacles her family faced following the transition from Malaysia stemmed from financial distress. However, these struggles have served as motivation to persevere and pursue her passions for higher education.
” [I] watched my dad working really hard going from being a civil engineer to coming out [to the US] and delivering pizzas and scrubbing toilets and that’s what really inspired me, I think more than anything, until even today to just keep moving forward and always doing my best.”
During those difficult early years in the United States, her family struggled, and eventually, Alena found herself undocumented but undeterred. She excelled in high school in both academics and track and field. Her stellar athletic ability landed her scholarships to attend college. She started her higher education journey at Victor Valley Community College and eventually transferred and received a Bachelors of Arts in Psychology with an emphasis in Biological Psychology in 2010 from California State University, San Bernardino (CSUSB).
“I knew I loved science and just had a passion for it. I got into neuroscience by taking a biopsych class.”
During her time at CSUSB, she discovered research and realized she a knack for it. She began working in a psychopharmacology lab, jumping on as many projects as she could. She developed a profound interest in the study of pharmacokinetics and addiction.She continued to complete her Master’s degree in General Experimental Psychology at CSUSB as well. Her thesis focused on the role of dopamine D2 receptors concerning behavioral sensitization; more specifically, she investigated behavioral response (locomotor activity) when a combination of a D2 antagonist combined with an indirect agonist such as methamphetamine or cocaine.
“I wanted to continue to a Ph.D. program [after my bachelors] but because I was undocumented it would have been a struggle for me so I was in limbo.”
During her master’s career, Alena decided to experience what life was like in a lab that had Ph.D. students. Her lab at CSUSB was a smaller lab, and the University did not have Ph.D. level students. She began working at nearby Loma Linda University(LLU) researching traumatic brain injury (TBI). She assisted on projects investigating the potential mechanisms underlying repetitive mild TBI by using non-invasive imaging tools to assess potential neuroprotective strategies, including whether nicotinamide (vitamin B3) and hyperbaric oxygen therapy could be used as effective treatments for TBI.
“Working in two different lab environments was a blessing. I kind of got a taste of what [PHD life is like]”
Together, these diverse research projects have taught her that scientific inquiry into clinically relevant diseases is not only very interesting and satisfying but has furthered and strengthened her capabilities as a researcher. By the time she finished her Master’s degree, Alena had published eleven journal articles include Behavioral Pharmacology, Psychopharmacology, PLoS One, Neurobiology of Disease, Brain Research, and European Journal Pharmacology.
She married and gained legal status and seemed set to continue along the path she was on to go to a Ph.D. program, but at this point in her life, things were beginning to change.
“I definitely had my mind set on [getting my PhD] but somehow, I don’t know, I just felt the need to stop. And I have never actually done that but I finally took that time for myself to just stop for a second and ask myself what I really wanted.”
Despite how terrifying it was to realize that a Ph.D. was no longer what she wanted, especially with all of the hard work and long hours she had put in for the last five years, she was confident that she did not want to continue her graduate school career. The most challenging thing about choosing to forge her path in STEM was the judgment of her capabilities by others and even she the at time doubted herself and whether she was making the right choice. Her foray into the job market and attempting to find a job was crushing at first. She was rejected for countless jobs mostly for being too qualified. However, she did not give up and eventually found a job as an intraoperative neuromonitoring tech.
” It was definitely disheartening. I figured that with my solid resume I should be able to get a job but apparently, that was an issue. It was this idea of being too qualified and it was a struggle.”
She is now a fully certified neurophysiologist. She primarily focuses on complex orthopedic spine surgery cases as well as vascular (carotid endarterectomy) cases. She uses various modalities such as somatosensory evoked potentials, electroencephalography, and electromyography in order to ensure patient’s safety during surgery.
“Revealing to others that I was no longer going to grad school, it was almost like wearing a scarlett letter.”
To hear her tell her story, listen to our podcast episode featuring her discussing her Journey in STEM.
To learn more about a career as an an Intraoperative Neurophysiologist, check out the article we wrote about it.