With this semester well under way, we sat down with our president Sebastian Ojeda to learn more about his experiences and his vision for VGSA. Enjoy!
Briefly tell me about your background, where you grew up and your undergraduate study.
My name is Lauro Sebastian Ojeda but I go by Sebastian (my middle name)! I am from Quito, Ecuador, and immigrated to the United States when I was 2 years old. I grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan where I attended the University of Michigan (UofM) and studied Chemical Engineering for both my undergraduate and master’s degree studies through the Sequential Undergraduate-Graduate Studies (SUGS) 4+1 year program.
When did you first realize you wanted to pursue a career in biomedical engineering?
I have always been interested in global healthcare and the development of accessible therapeutics/diagnostics. As an undergraduate student, I worked in Dr. Eniola’s Cell Adhesion & Drug Delivery lab where I first gained experience doing biomedical engineering research. Afterward, I became involved with different biomedical related extracurricular teams such as M-HEAL Project MESA with whom I got to travel with to Nicaragua to test portable gynecological examination tables in remote communities. I later started my own student organization, Team Aquador, where we worked to design and implement sustainable water treatment and collections systems in Ecuadorian communities that lacked daily sources of potable water. My work with Team Aquador really helped me realize that I wanted to have a career in the field of healthcare and find ways to develop accessible treatments for diseases prevalent in developing communities.
What sort of research are you doing right now?
I am working in Dr. Cristina Zavaleta’s Molecular Imaging & Nano Diagnostics (MIND) lab! The Zavaleta lab has previously conducted thorough in-vivo biodistribution studies of nanoparticle constructs and has developed novel nano-based molecular contrast agents to delineate tumor margins. My goal was to combine these two areas with my chemical engineering background to create a project to elucidate the effects that phenomena present in tumor microenvironments have on nanoparticle delivery. My research is focused on understanding the Reticuloendothelial System (RES) within tumor environments to better develop nanoparticle treatments and improve their tumor-targeting efficacy. I aim to design a nanoparticle that combines therapeutic and diagnostic capabilities into one (theragnostic) and can be easily fabricated in order to be more accessibly distributed and available.
Why do you think involvement in the Viterbi Graduate Student Association is important?
I think that it gives students an opportunity to be leaders within their departments and advocate for academic and social changes on behalf of their peers. It is a great platform that can be used to interactively unify your given department, collaborate and interact with students across disciplines, and create a discussion on serious issues that affect our student population.
Have you been involved in VGSA, or other student associations before this, and what were you doing in that role? How did you find these experiences?
I have been involved in several student organizations that either worked to promote social justice, were involved in helping out underserved communities, or were focused on the mentorship and empowerment of students from historically underrepresented backgrounds in STEM. During my first year as an undergraduate student at the University of Michigan, I was in the Michigan Community Scholars Program (MCSP) living community where I took courses and participated in discussions regarding social justice and service. I also had the opportunity to volunteer in the community of Brightmoor Detroit to help clean out abandoned houses in low-income neighborhoods, which gave me some of my first active experiences of community engagement. Later in my undergraduate studies, I was selected to be part of the UofM College of Engineering Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion Student Advisory Board. I worked to address issues concerning campus climate and helped organize town halls with faculty and student leaders to give minoritized students visibility and a platform to share their experiences. Last year, I joined VGSA as the Biomedical Engineering Senator! I actually volunteered for the position because BME did not have a graduate student-run for the departmental senator position the first semester I was a Ph.D. student, and I did not know what VGSA was. I had older peers within the Graduate Students of Biomedical Engineering (GSBME) who encouraged me to join VGSA and were very supportive of my efforts to be more involved on campus and our department. During my first semester as the BME Senator, I spent most of my time learning about the organization and figuring out how to coordinate events. I learned how to better advertise my events and create more traction by collaborating with bigger departments to improve the even turnout. Even though many of my events were canceled second semester due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I was still able to hold events that I thought were very informative (Financial Literacy Workshop) and also helped students socialize and bond (Game & Movie Night at Michelson Center with the Mork Family Department) with students they may not have met in their graduate studies curriculum. I wanted to continue my involvement with VGSA and I ran for the position of President on a platform to help VGSA gain greater visibility on campus, in particular within minoritized student groups that have been underrepresented in VGSA. I am very happy to have been elected as the President, and with the support of a very determined Executive Board & support from the Viterbi administration, we have been working hard during our first month of taking over to address the goals we set forward. I have also been involved with the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE) since my freshman year at the University of Michigan, and was recently elected to be the Region 2 Regional Graduate Representative (RGR) this year! I aim to use my position on the regional SHPE team to help create greater networks of support between current graduate students and Hispanic students interested in continuing their education into graduate school. I hope to encourage more Hispanic students to consider graduate programs and better navigate the application process.
What are some of the biggest challenges for Graduate Students right now?
Right now we find ourselves in a unique and highly volatile time to be graduate students. A lot of the common challenges true for most years still exist, like working to create a more unified graduate student community, which has always been difficult because of how multidisciplinary and spread out graduate students in Viterbi programs are across both USC campuses. It is even more difficult to do so in the midst of a pandemic which has caused everyone to be concerned about how to safely return to campus for classes and research. I know this has been especially hard for many of my international student peers who have to face additional travel and visa restrictions with the constant fear of a new policy change that might jeopardize their ability to receive the education they worked so hard for. On top of all of this, recent heinous events in our country have again put a spotlight on the ever-present issues of racism and the systemic oppression of Black people in America. The growing challenges in 2020 sometimes feel overwhelming and never-ending; however, the way I have seen many of my graduate student peers (across all schools and disciplines) come together to turn sentiment into action has given me hope. I feel invigorated seeing so many of my peers at the forefront of protests, actively using their voices to condemn racism, and challenging old norms to demand positive changes in our communities. It has motivated me and the rest of the VGSA Executive Board to use our organization to make our Viterbi Graduate student community more inclusive, mindful, and empathetic of the struggles and challenges that our peers face. I am grateful for the constant support from the BME department, the VASE office, and my PI (who has endless patience with me and has taught me so much about being a more effective leader) which has allowed me the freedom and confidence to use my VGSA President position to stay involved in the issues that I am passionate about. Although there is much work to be done, and a new challenge looms every day, I believe that Graduate students have stepped up and are working overtime to create positive changes as pioneers of innovation and advocates for social reform.
What are some of the key things you and the VGSA hoping to achieve this coming year?
The 2020-21 VGSA Executive Board has a number of key issues that we aim to tackle this year. We have been working hard over our first two months of taking over VGSA to identify and address the ways we can improve our organization’s visibility and representation among underrepresented students in Viterbi. We created and distributed a survey to assess how VGSA is perceived by our peers and are now processing the feedback to develop concrete plans of action to address our shortcomings as an organization. We aim to also grow our social media following and use our platform to share resources on how to learn more about current social issues, and share opportunities for involvement and discussion. We want to work towards making VGSA Senators more accessible to the graduate students in each of their departments and find creative ways to keep people connected virtually. We believe that having a sense of community is important now more than ever, and we are working to incorporate mindfulness and mental wellbeing training for all of our VGSA members so that they can better assist their peers and provide resources for support. Lastly, we have been redefining the structure of our organization to have a more permanent presence of students from a variety of student organizations, especially those representing minoritized students on campus. I would love to see VGSA become a central hub for all Viterbi Graduate Organizations where students can easily collaborate between organizations and promote socially engaged engineering initiatives.