Margo Lakin, Trinity Communications
Majoring in Neuroscience with minors in Chemistry and Visual & Media Studies and on the pre-med track, Stephany Perez-Sanchez knew she wanted to pursue a career in medicine, all thanks to a high-school psychology course.
“My favorite unit in that class was neuroanatomy,” the junior explains. “I was so fascinated by the brain and how this structure controls all our functions.”
She brought her cerebral fascination to Duke and began her research in earnest during the summer of 2022 in the Huang Fellows Program. Focusing on the exploration of science in the context of society, she worked on neurodevelopment in the Silver Lab.
“This was a great opportunity to learn techniques and really delve into a project,” she says.
Currently, she works alongside her mentor, Brooke D’Arcy, designing a method for distinct subcellular RNA degradation. Perez-Sanchez hopes to learn more about the importance of localized gene translation in neurodevelopment and potentially aid in future neuronal cell discoveries.
Perez-Sanchez has completed two independent studies in the lab and co-authored a paper on non-muscle myosins — proteins involved in muscle contraction and other types of motor processes. And if that wasn’t enough, she recently became involved in the Minga Right Hemisphere Communication lab, which is focused on understanding the communication impairments of individuals who have experienced a stroke in the right hemisphere of the brain.
“I hope to explore the nuances of language in these individuals to help develop a database that would aid in diagnosis,” she shares.
Along with a fascination for neuroscience, Perez-Sanchez also brought an interest in photography with her to Duke. As a first-year student, taking the course Color Photography gave her the room to refocus and develop ideas of what science and the arts can look like.
With a class structure that allowed her to create a portfolio, and inspired by the social issues William Bamberger brought to the class with his own work, she decided to focus on the Latino/a/x community in Durham.
With camera in hand, she would visit the Durham Green Flea Market and talk with vendors and customers. Nervous at first, Perez-Sanchez established a trust and learned that for the community, the flea market wasn’t just a place to go shopping — it was also a place to connect with others.
“Before Duke, photography was just a hobby,” she shares. “I never imagined that I’d be using these skills in courses and realizing a potential intersection between what I considered a hobby and my future career.”
A course in video and audio editing soon followed, as did a final video essay project focused on the portrayals of Latino/a/x people in the media.
“Through AAHVS courses, I have been able to explore the Latino/a/x identity and produce content that showcases the struggles and beauties behind it,” she says. “This identity has always been a large part of who I am, and it has also been a great inspiration for what I hope to pursue after college — medicine.”
Continuing to be drawn to this educational reach she’s found with visual media, Perez-Sanchez has worked with the Duke Comprehensive Epilepsy Center (DCEC) on audio editing for an educational podcast for patients with epilepsy. This Fall, she’s taking the course Medicine and the Vision of Documentary Photography, where she hopes to continue finding an intersection between media and science.
We sat down with the busy junior to learn what the arts have brought to her STEM studies, why she continues to include the arts in her coursework and what her post-graduation plans look like.
Why is it important for you to include visual media in your studies at Duke when you’re clearly STEM-focused?
I’ve seen that through visual media studies, newfound treatments, technologies and general information can be shared with the public via different platforms. It’s an accessible way to educate individuals and to have open resources available.
With a generation that consistently consumes media, I believe that visual media will allow me to create content promoting education in science fields which are not typically spoken about in colloquial language. I’ve noticed a surge of people within STEM fields who have become more involved in podcasts, social media and other visual avenues to educate individuals.
Additionally, I’ve found a great joy in the projects that I’ve done. Even though they are not all in relation to science, they have focused on my cultural identity. Though I love my courses in neuroscience and pre-med, I have also found it equally as valuable to explore the arts and interact with students and professors who I wouldn’t have otherwise.
Do you find that your arts courses have benefitted your neuroscience and chemistry studies?
Yes. I’ve always been a visual learner, but as I delve deeper into this intersection of neuroscience, chemistry and visual arts, I’ve implemented different techniques for understanding concepts within my STEM courses.
Where I would usually read over my notes, I began to think creatively and relate concepts to images, sounds and projects. My arts studies have allowed me to open my mind to different forms of learning, and as I work to produce educational content, I also consume this content through the form of podcasts and social media.
I was also surprised to discover how much content related to neuroscience was being created by leaders in the field. By understanding the impact of visual media, I’ve been able to add this shared knowledge to what I’ve learned inside the classroom.
Have your STEM studies reciprocated and helped in your visual media courses?
One of the main aspects that I’ve taken from my STEM courses is the work ethic required to succeed. While I have more freedom in visual media studies, there are still techniques that need to be learned. It’s important to understand the minute details that are needed to create a cohesive work, whether that’s a video, a photograph or another type of production.
For example, where I’ve spent hours trying to understand the mechanisms in the brain, I have also spent a similar amount of time understanding color composition and leveling audio.
If I study for a set time every day, I find I’m able to understand the content at a deeper level — and this is also true with visual media. The more time I edit audio or photoshop a picture, the more confident I become in my abilities to create the work that I’m striving for. STEM courses have taught me the consistency that I bring to my arts courses.
What are your career plans after you graduate?
Throughout high school, I translated for Spanish-speaking patients in my community and soon recognized the language barriers present in the medical field — along with a barrier with understanding the difference in cultures.
I want to be a part of the growing number of female Hispanic physicians who provide care to those who may have encountered such barriers. After graduation, I intend on taking a gap year to either continue research or pursue a clinical opportunity, and I plan on applying to medical school during that year to work toward a career as a physician!