Podcast Transcript – Matthew Mendoza

These podcast features an interview with UNT alumni Matthew Mendoza, we asked a few questions related to his program and to talk a little bit about his postgraduation career path. We hope you’ll stay tuned.  

My name is Matthew Mendoza. I graduated from the University of North Texas in 2014 with a bachelor’s degree in biology and a minor in chemistry. My current job title is a doctoral candidate at UT Southwestern Medical Center, where I’m pursuing my PhD in neuroscience. But I also hold many other titles. For instance, I’m Howard Hughes, Medical Institute Gilliam fellow. In addition to that, I’ve also started a STEM nonprofit organization, more specifically a chapter for a group called Saneness, which stands for Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science, and also played a role in educational policy, more specifically for the UT system, where I’ve worked as a chair of the System Student Advisory Council.  

When you started at UNT , what were your plans for after graduation? Have these plans changed, if at all?  

So when I started at UNT , I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do. In fact, my plans have gone through a series of changes, and this is in part because of where I began when I first started school, I was a low income first generation student. In fact, my parents dropped me off and virtually told me good luck. I really had no foundation. I had no idea what college was going to be like and what it was going to be long term for me. I started in terms of biology because I always had an interest in medicine and science, but ultimately I didn’t think medicine was the right fit for me. So in terms of what was next, I was really fortunate to get involved in academic research at about 2011. And in particular, I like to give credit to the McNair Scholarship Program here at UNT , which gave me access to high quality research from an academic perspective that introduced me to a path that ultimately I had no clue that was even available for someone like myself. Eventually, over time, I realized that academic research was kind of an escape from chaos of life, especially being a first generation student. So I began to follow that that line of pursuit, if you will. So basically, from 2011 up until this point, I’ve continued to follow the path of academic research. And in 2014, I graduated here at the University of North Texas and started immediately at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center there. I’ve been there since 2014, so it’s been about six years and I’m nearly done. So I’m going to graduate my Ph.D. in neuroscience and hopefully three or four months and my plans are changing again. In fact, I originally thought academic research was the right place for me, but I realized that it’s limited in scope. So I ultimately would like I have a broader reach and impact on society. So I’m actually changing my plans one more time and hoping to make a transition into biopharmaceutical industry where I can make advances in drug development and therapeutic advancements as well.  

What advice do you have for current students as they decide their next steps after graduation?  

What advice do I have for current students?  

I actually feel like I have a ton of advice, actually, in part because I feel a lot of students nowadays follow the path that their parents or society puts out for them. And I think that’s a totally incorrect move, especially starting off. So my biggest piece of advice for all students is to find what their values are. So clearly identify your values and align your career goals with those values. It sounds somewhat cliche, and it actually has taken me close to two or three years to clearly articulate what those are. Since I’ve done that, it’s been much easier for me to make transitions in my life and align my career goals with what I ultimately would like to do, which is help people and use my degree to do so. I will also admit that values change over time, life circumstances, circumstances also change over time, so you must be willing to adapt accordingly. So with life comes career moves and never stop learning. How did you find your current role, neuroscience as a field is very interdisciplinary, meaning that I have to pool knowledge from multiple different fields in science and outside of science. For instance, I pool knowledge from physics, chemistry and genetics often, but I also have to pool knowledge from communication, philosophy and marketing to be able to talk and communicate effectively. The science that I’m doing. My role here at UNT  and multiple organizations, in addition to my program, gave me a broad enough experience to interact with individuals such as myself and my peers. But all but more importantly, it also gave me the broad knowledge base that I needed to be able to constantly pull from these fields to be successful at any moment. So outside of really just the classroom, the organizations that I participated in helped polish me to be a better public speaker, helped polish me to become a better writer in a scientific journal, scientific journalist and many aspects a scientific investigator. In addition to a better leader. I served in North Texas and 40, I was a scholar on campus in addition to my fraternity, taught me the kind of necessary social skills to really be a social chameleon in any aspect that I’ve ever been.  

What was the toughest question you’ve been asked during an interview?  

I think by far the toughest question is why do you want a PhD? I think a lot of people, again, are listening to society and their parents and they’re just following along with what’s being told to them. So why is it that I want it? And what is it going to help me do? At the end of the day? The second toughest question is why should they choose me as a student who faces imposter syndrome on a regular basis if I should or shouldn’t be there? That question actually made me delve into myself. And why is it that I had a unique experience and what is it that I had to offer for those respective institutions that interviewed me? So those two questions were definitely the most difficult that I had to do.  

How has the career center helped you?  

So the Career Center helped me in so many ways. In fact, I actually worked at the Career Center from 2012 to 2014, I was considered a career adviser. So basically my job was to teach people how to develop resumes, teach them interview skills and actually mock interview students that are coming in on a regular basis. In addition to all of those things, I had to give regular presentations in front of hundreds of people, sometimes thousands of people, in part because I was the only one willing to come in on a Saturday. So when I got here, I had never really had public speaking opportunity, a public speaking experience, and I was thrust into that experience. I had no choice. And now I have to give public talks and many different capacities, whether it’s science, whether it’s educational policy, whether it’s STEM nonprofit or even just teaching. And it’s been remarkable that the experience that I’ve gotten from the career center to actually get in front of people and do a lot of talking, I think it’s ultimately made me a more well-rounded public speaker, more comfortable public speaker, especially compared to some of my peers where we’re at in our current training. In addition to just that experience by itself, it taught me the classic application material preparation process, which is actually much longer, especially having a PhD. It takes close to almost a full year to find a job. So networking, doing the right things you need in terms of resume prep, cover letter prep, but also finding ways to articulate and market your transferable skills. That’s an art form. And it took many years to develop that. In fact, I still teach people to this day. My wife constantly asked me, can you help me with my resume that.  

Tell us about yourself, how I got to you, and he is quite a story. In fact, my family is a low income, first generation family. I grew up in a household where we live in a Section eight income. We lived really in the heart of the projects. And unfortunately, my father fell to drug addiction and my mother paid the consequences for that. So we had a large family and trying to manage everyone was very difficult for all of us. I’m actually the only one that’s made it out. So the story behind all of that is basically one day our electricity got shut off. They decided that, well, we have no electricity at home. We might as well take him to college. It’s August. I guess you should be starting soon. So we drove up and unbeknownst to me, there’s this thing called tuition and you have to pay for college. So I literally showed the day 20, 18 August, I think it’s August. Twenty third short the day tuition is due. I actually had no money. I did not sign up for dorm room. I barely had used a computer before. I had no books and we had to scramble. In fact, I borrowed money from my aunt. Three thousand dollar loan. Thanks, Aunt Debbie, by the way, and she paid for my first tuition installment in my ability to find an apartment. For the first time, I found an apartment right off of campus. Yes, I was a freshman. I did not live in a dorm room. So I apologize for breaking the rules, but ultimately it suited me. Well, I spent the first six months at UNT  sleeping on a cot. I could not afford furniture. In fact, I had two leopard print chairs, one huge green chair and a cot in the bedroom. I paid about four hundred fifty dollars for an apartment. And in terms of passing my classes, I barely went to class the first year and I made two two F’s. I decided to join a fraternity because I really was interested in what the college experience could have been like. And while it was very fun, it deterred me from my studies for sure. However, those guys really influenced my life, in fact. And to the summer of twenty thousand eighty two thousand nine, something happened that really changed my life. My mother passed away. I was very close to my mother and that was extremely difficult being the first one to get away from my family. You always have this concept of survivors survivor’s guilt. You feel the guilt of anything you’re able to do, whether it’s go to a fast food place or whether it’s to better yourself and and focus on studying and knowing that back at home, people barely have food. Electricity is getting shut off. My sisters are having children at young ages, in part because the environment we lived in and I for some reason was lucky enough to get out of all of that.  

So from 2009, after my mother passed, I realized that I had an opportunity in front of me that I really couldn’t waste anymore and I was very fortunate for you and to give me a shot. I probably didn’t deserve it academically, but really, I came back. I was on academic probation and I started working harder. I started basically not accepting failure as an option and I unfortunately still failed classes. Organic chemistry is a very difficult class, but I eventually learned the system, the game of college. In addition to that, I learned to I wanted to become and until it’s given me so much, it’s given me and my wife. We just got married two months ago, three months ago. Now we have two dogs. I’m in the process of being able to to purchase a home. No one in my family has ever done that. No. My family’s ever been married before. No one in my family’s ever had a wedding before. In addition to all of this, I’m in the process of adopting one of my younger sisters right now. So not only could I be better myself, but I can pay it forward. Family life is still very difficult. I still deal with lots of stuff often, but the connections and the friends that I made here, in fact, I still contact many of the people to this day. The old McNair director, Dr. Diana Elrod. She’s a great friend of mine and in fact, I. I just reach out to see if she was available to me because these people are really the people’s what you remember the most information is great, but the people and the experiences will last a lifetime. So I’ve been very blessed.