Name: Zeidy Contreras
School/Grade level: Comstock Park High School, class of 2024
Comstock Park — When senior Zeidy Contreras told her high-school counselor, Anna Stornant, what she did over the summer, Stornant recalled being surprised.
“If you had told me when meeting Zeidy back in sixth grade that she would go on a six-week program, by herself, to do research, I would not have believed you,” Stornant said, adding that Zeidy has come a long way in the six years she has attended Comstock Park.
‘You have to always keep going, because if you begin with a negative version, if you sit down and let it take control, you will never get up. But if you learn to believe and get out of it, you will do something.’— Zeidy Contreras, Comstock Park High School senior
In those years Zeidy has broken a leg, battled anxiety, and her mother was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, all of which has made school challenging. Things have settled down for Zeidy, and her mother’s health has improved.
It was her own curiosity about how the body is impacted by anxiety led her to the field of neuroscience, which in turn led her to the Aspirnaut Program. Offered by the University of Michigan Life Sciences Institute, the six-week program provides hands-on laboratory experiences to high-school students who live in areas that may not readily provide those opportunities. The program covers room and board and provides a stipend to students who are accepted.
How old were you when you discovered neuroscience was something you wanted to pursue as a career? “I got to a point in high school where, after dealing with my anxiety for so long and dealing with different things, it’s what I started paying attention to more. I was a kid, and I remember the physical symptoms of anxiety, but I always wondered why they happened. I also know a lot about mental health hospitals and stuff like treatment.
“There’s not that many options, and there’s not a whole lot of safe options for kids, for people in general, especially those who are from low-income communities, to get access to resources that will help them. So I really wanted to study the brain and the system and see what options are to help people.”
Tell us about the Aspirnaut Program: Zeidy was up late one night, searching online for hands-on research opportunities when she discovered the Aspirnaut Program.
“Specifically what I did was work on the genetics of fruit flies. Humans have a lot of similarities to fruit flies, and that’s why they are used in studies. We were looking at neurogenesis. … I was testing for a specific gene. I did an antibody test to see if this specific gene showed up in the type that they’re studying, because if we can replicate it, we can help with diseases such as cancer.”
Is there a teacher or teachers who have had a big impact? “My fourth-grade teacher, Scott West, from Hope Academy of West Michigan. He was always pushing us to get farther and farther and farther. I think that’s a big reason why, right now, I know how to push myself and he was a very big influence in succeeding.”
Do you plan to pursue this professionally? “I like research, and just like being in the lab, because that’s my favorite part; you learn something new every day, especially as you do the experiments and do the work. I think I’ll focus on that and then depending on where it takes me, how much time I have, I can also do photography.”
Where do you envision yourself 10 years from now? “There are master’s and doctoral programs where you do lab rotations and other tasks as you work toward those degrees. It is in both the research aspect and the medical aspect when dealing with patients. So I’ll probably be in a program similar to that. If not, then pursuing graduate school studies and just continuing to work on things.
“An ideal career would be a doctorate or something along those lines, but I don’t really want to specify because it may change. I may get to undergrad and be like, I want to go down this route or that route or do even more than this. I don’t want to put myself in a bubble.”
What are your other hobbies or interests? “Right now I am into my camera and photography projects, and someday I hope to have a balance in both photography and neuroscience. I also enjoy reading and skateboarding.”
What is the biggest lesson you have learned from your involvement in the Aspirnaut Program and the neuroscience field? “The big thing is, your brain is so powerful. Knowing that you have every tool to get to where you want to go and it’s all” — she points to her head — “up here.”
“Another lesson I learned is how to use resources. It was a big change to be on my own. I was able to talk with my lab mentor and see if I needed to take a day off, I would take it and work on research (in) the dorms. Just being able to communicate and use my resources and be able to learn things and ask questions.”
What would you tell other students who have an opportunity to do something like this? “You’re never too far behind. … You just have to trust in yourself and trust the process. I never thought this would happen, and now I kind of want to see what else I come up with.
“You have to always keep going, because if you begin with a negative version, if you sit down and let it take control, you will never get up. But if you learn to believe and get out of it, you will do something.”
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